Monday 27 July 2009

Morris's Oxford List

The William Morris Society’s ‘Visit to Morris’s Oxford’ on Friday July 24th was an inspiring and convivial occasion, expertly led by Peter Wright. The highlight was perhaps the chance to get into University College hall, where Morris had famously declared himself a revolutionary socialist in his great ‘Art under Plutocracy’ lecture of November 1883. But it was also well worth seeing (among many other things) the Morris & Co windows in Christ Church cathedral, Jane Morris’s childhood home off Holywell Street, and the Pre-Raphaelite frescoes in the Library of the Oxford Union- not to mention enjoying the company of the other twenty-odd members of the Society who came on this day-trip.

But what would Morris himself have chosen to see, on a day’s tourist trip to Oxford? The answer to this question does in fact exist – or did once, at any rate – in the form of Morris’s ‘Oxford List’. For (if I may be permitted to quote myself) ‘In a brief set of “Recollections of William Morris”, published in Artist in 1897, the anonymous author gives a vivid account of a visit he and a friend made by bicycle to Morris in Kelmscott Manor, and continues: “returning from Kelmscott, we passed a long day in Oxford, having been previously furnished by Morris with a list of the things that we should see in day”’ (William Morris in Oxford, Illuminati Books, 2007, p.55). But, alas, our anonymous comrade gives no further detail here.

We might accordingly speculate on what some of that list’s tantalising contents may have been. It would doubtless have included the cloisters of New College, the ‘corner of old Oxford Morris loved the most’ according to Fiona MacCarthy (p.516), and where Philip Webb later wanted his ashes scattered (in the event, the College refused permission). The list would also surely have featured Merton College chapel, for as MacCarthy notes: ‘Morris and Burne-Jones had spent many silent afternoons in the chapel which they rated with the cloisters at New College as their chief local shrine’ (72).

Of Oxford’s newer buildings, Morris might possibly have recommended Bodley’s additions to Magdalen College, which he describes in his 1888 essay on ‘The Revival of Architecture’ as ‘excellent’. The old domestic architecture of Holywell Street would probably have featured too; and if our anonymous Recollector had been a graduate of Oxford and thus had access to the Bodleian, Morris might have recommended him to take the time to look up the Douce Apocalypse, which J.W. Mackail describes as Morris’s ‘ideal book’ (I, 40) and which Morris had at one point hoped to issue in facsimile from the Kelmscott Press.

Perhaps, too, we might need to imagine a Morrisian ‘anti-List’, of buildings or artefacts one should positively avoid on a day trip to Oxford – top of which would surely be the new statues on St Mary’s Church that Morris had polemicised so passionately against in the early 1890s.

Sunday 19 July 2009

Cornershop, Music and Morris

In a recent interview Tjinder Singh and Ben Ayres of the British indie agit-rock band Cornershop (formed in Leicester in 1991) invoke William Morris in their reflections on the current state of the music industry:

“We met through a love of William Morris and this [the struggle of independent musicians against the industry] is very William Morris. He was trying to work with his own crafts within new technology – industrialism and machines – and we’re still there, trying to balance artistic-ness and technology. William Morris was the turn of the last century, we’re the turn of the next century. And we firmly believe it” (The Guardian Guide, 11.07.09, p.14).

And the official Cornershop website confirms this late nineteenth-century affiliation:

“the William Morris theory has always been our raja raag, and it was strangely William Morris and his splendid public beard that brought Tjinder and Ben together as friends in the first instance”.

We are so used to the notion that Morris himself was thoroughly unmusical (though this view has occasionally been challenged) that it comes as quite a surprise to see contemporary young radical musicians citing his influence in this way. Perhaps, then, some systematic further research in this field would prove fruitful. Meantime, Cornershop’s new album, Judy Sucks a Lemon for Breakfast, is out on the 27th July, or check out their recent anti-war single, ‘The Roll Off Characteristics (Of History in the Making)’ – a title which Morris himself would surely have approved.

Monday 6 July 2009

The Kelmscott Chaucer

Those of us who turned up at the John Rylands Library in Manchester on Saturday 4th July for the talk by John Hodgson, Keeper of Manuscripts, on ‘”A Pocket Cathedral”: William Morris and the Kelmscott Chaucer’ were rewarded with an entertaining and learned discussion of the Kelmscott Press project in general as well as of its most single famous artefact. The John Rylands possesses a complete run of Kelmscott Press books, and John Hodgson was therefore able to illustrate his talk with copies of The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, King Florus and the Fair Jehane, and two versions of the Kelmscott Chaucer itself laid out on a table before us and available for close personal inspection.

I was most struck by the vellum version of the Chaucer, which I hadn’t seen before – both the creamy richness of the pages and the gleaming blackness of the ink upon them (since ink is not actually absorbed by vellum but sits upon its surface). The visual magnificence of the volume and its sheer physical bulk (for one would have to be in serious weight-training indeed to haul this tome around one’s study) are extraordinary; and it is indeed more an aesthetic monument than any kind of practical book.

Morris scholars have written recently about the effects on readers and reading of only being able to access Kelmscott Press books in specialist libraries such as the John Rylands; but in fact the Kelmscott Chaucer has recently turned up most unexpectedly in popular culture too. At the very beginning of Audrey Niffenegger’s bestselling novel The Time Traveller’s Wife (2004), Clare Abshire, the ‘wife’ of the title, goes into the Special Collections room of Newberry Library: ‘I’m writing a paper for an art history class. My research topic is the Kelmscott Press Chaucer. I look up the book itself and fill out a call slip for it’.

Why should the Kelmscott Chaucer be the appropriate research topic for this Time Traveller’s wife? Perhaps, pedestrianly, because the novel’s author is Professor at the Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts. Or perhaps, more speculatively, because the Kelmscott Chaucer is itself a time-travelling artefact. Reaching back to the Gothicism of the Middle Ages in its literary content and style of production, it also comes to us from some fabulously far distant socialist future (now, in our postmodern and post-marxist present, more distant than ever, of course) when such gorgeous artefacts will be the social norm, the ‘invisible colour of everyday life’, in an unhurried culture where the skill, time, materials and creativity to craft such works will be universal.

In the Kelmscott Chaucer, then, the deep past and the far future, a lost happy Hobbitland and a longed-for utopian future, come paradoxically together – which, I would suggest, makes this unique volume or literary time machine the very apt object of study for a Time Traveller’s Wife.