Monday 11 August 2008

The Savage Train

The Liverpool Walker Art Gallery's exhibition on 'Art in the Age of Steam' was an extraordinary gathering of visual art devoted to trains and railways from the 1830s onwards. Early railway landscapes show this terrifying force of modernity violating the traditional sanctities of nature (scaring horses in the fields, swathing peasants in steam). Later Impressionist images of the Gare Saint-Lazare glean fleeting moments of urban beauty from the new technology. Futurist paintings flamboyantly celebrate the dynamism and power of the locomotive in jagged, angular images that turn the entire canvas into an angry swirl of sharp edges and motion. Eerie Surrealist images distil the possibilities of anxiety or oneiric liberation that trains and their settings surreptitiously offer. And busy realist canvases from William Powell Frith's great image of Paddington Station onwards explore railway stations or train compartments as places of class confrontation and sexual opportunity.

Making one's way around this wonderful exhibition in its closing days, one couldn't help but think of William Morris's own attitudes to trains. For the most part resoundingly negative, to be sure, as the recurrent phrase in his letters - 'the savage train' - indicates well enough, and the railway is after all abolished entirely in News from Nowhere. But might there be other possibilities here too? After all, trains made the great socialist lecturing tours of the 1880s possible in the first place, and Morris did much literary composing upon them, by all accounts. Arthur Compton-Rickett wrote that Morris was 'keenly alive to the minutest points of railway organisation, which always interested him', and there even seems something of a match or analogy or even causal relationship between Morris's own jerky energies and the dynamism of the railway itself. At any rate, George Wardle noted that Morris would arrive at work 'as if he would go at 20 miles an hour and rather expected everything to keep up with him. This was, I think, the effect of the railway journey'.

Trains could be places of uncanny mystery for Morris too. May Morris tells of her father getting in to the wrong carriage on a train journey: 'the first thing he saw was his own name scratched on the glass with a diamond, "WM" ... it remains as half a story'. One could imagine De Chirico making a vividly unsettling Surrealist canvas out of this incident, with Morris bumping into evidences of an eerie urban Doppelganger haunting his every move.

Savage trains indeed, then; but beneath the kneejerk Morrisian indignation at a noisy and dirty modernist technology (which in his later years he also saw as a tool of capitalist colonisation, whether of the Lake District or of India), it might be just possible to elaborate a more nuanced account of William Morris on trains, one which would be more faithful to the whole rich spectrum of artistic responses on display at the Walker Gallery's exhilarating show.

Saturday 2 August 2008

Cycling around Kelmscott

In a little piece entitled 'Cycling in Nowhere' (Journal of the William Morris Society, 13.2, Summer 1999, 29-33), I lamented the absence of bicycles in News from Nowhere, despite the emergence of a culture of socialist cycling around Morris in the years preceding its composition. Commonweal itself, for instance, contained an appeal 'To Socialist Cyclists' on 30 July 1887 (p.245); and I speculated that if Ellen were indeed some sort of 1880s 'New Woman', then we might have expected her to cycle, rather than to row, up the Thames in pursuit of William Guest.

I should, however, have taken the time and trouble to pursue these issues into the next generation of the Morris family. What Morris did not give us in News from Nowhere his younger daughter May in a sense gives us in the years after his death. In her later years at Kelmscott, as she narrates them in her letters to John Quinn, May Morris emerges as an intrepid cyclist, braving the most inclement conditions on two wheels: ' riding home from the station in inky darkness, my lamp blown out, and no possibility of lighting again - wondering which was ditch and which was road - all this was the best part of the day'. On Easter Monday 1912 she was attending a festival of dancing at Cirencester, fifteen miles from Kelmscott Manor, and made a bold choice of two wheels over four:

'I got my guest, Miss Sloane, up somehow … by seven in the morning, and sent her off with friends who were driving, while I started on my cycle. It was a beautiful day, but with a fearful, icy, violent head wind blowing … But there is a sort of primitive pleasure, is there not?, in battling with elements, esp. if one is a bit out of sorts; I got there somehow - rather dishevelled, and left far behind by the carriage-folk, but enjoying the free air, and the wide lonely country …then the beautiful ride home - no wind, a solemn sky and glorious moon, and all down-hill'.

Cycling seems, indeed, to denote in her mind a peculiar loyalty to her father, as in the case of her visits to the White Horse at Uffington. First, the bare facts of the trip: 'it is some 12 miles south from here, and I cycled & got sunburnt & still have a red nose'; and then a sense of its emotional meaning, as she reflects that Morris himself had 'always paid it a yearly visit, & I have done so ever since - mostly alone on my cycle, in all sorts of weather'.

So our disappointment that Ellen does not cycle in News from Nowhere can be somewhat tempered by these vivid images of May Morris, a decade and a half after her father's death, bicycling staunchly across the very landscapes of his utopia, thereby keeping faith with an ethics of cycling that News from Nowhere itself could sadly not quite encompass. And if we want to strengthen this image of May Morris as cycling eco-warrior, we need do no more than turn to Elfrida Manning's comment on May in her diary entry for March 1925: 'She cannot bear driving in a car' (Society Journal, 4.2, summer 1980, p.19).