Thursday, 20 October 2011
In Memoriam: Peter Preston
Peter Preston, who died on Tuesday, had been a senior figure in the William Morris Society for many years. He brought to the public side of that role a gravitas which made him a highly effective representative of the Society to the external world, but there was also a patience, close attention to detail and skilled diplomacy which made him a most able chair of the Society during some difficult times. Peter was always one of the most forward-looking of the ‘old guard’ on the Committee, and he was certainly open to the idea of the Society taking back the first-floor Coach House flat (which it currently rents out) for Morrisian purposes – which in my view is the next necessary big step forward for us.
Peter’s academic work across the decades falls into two categories: his writings on Morris, which many Society members will already know, and his work on D.H. Lawrence, which related more to his professional career at the University of Nottingham. I’m not sure that Peter himself ever fully brought these two areas into relation with each other, though if life had been kinder and granted him more years, he might have done. So perhaps we must regard his Morris and Lawrence interests, in Adorno’s great phrase, as the ‘torn halves of an integral freedom to which, however, they do not add up’. Certainly for us, wanting to honour Peter’s memory by extending his work, it is the difficult relationship between those two authors which will most concern us.
For at stake there, implicitly, is the great question of Morris and modernism – of whether Morris can in any useful way be seen as a modernist, whether and how his work influenced later modernists (from Yeats to the Bauhaus), of whether (beyond the question of conscious influence) Morris’s utopianism survives in modernist experimentalism in general; and – beyond even all of this – of how the Morris-modernism relation needs to be rethought in our own postmodern epoch.
I am deeply grateful for the personal support Peter Preston gave me in Morrisian matters over the years, and will endeavour to keep that flame burning in the decades to come (including his project to get Morris’s diaries into print). I recently reported back to him from the Ottawa conference and hope it gave him some comfort to know that Morris studies were in such good heart internationally. And I am grateful too for the stimulus to thought that his work at the Morris-Lawrence frontier gives us; for to keep Morris current, as Peter most wished, we shall have both to modernise and postmodernise him.