Monday, 22 March 2010

Morris, Photography, Utopia

Ashley Givens’s enjoyable talk on ‘William Morris and the Photography of Frederick Hollyer’ at Kelmscott House on Saturday drew resourcefully on the V&A’s archives to show us many images by this photographer we hadn’t seen before. But she also ventured interestingly into the photographic work of Frederick H. Evans, including that fine platinum print ‘From a Window at Kelmscott Manor’ (1896), a detail from which forms the cover illustration to the Oxford World Classics recent edition of News from Nowhere.

I’ve often wondered what made OUP choose this image as the front cover of the book: what is it about the semiotics of this image which fits it for that role, for our first glimpse into utopia? News from Nowhere ends at Kelmscott Manor, of course, so there is a general geographical aptness there; but then, any other of Evans’s Kelmscott images might equally have been chosen, so there must surely be more to it than that.

Does Evans’s open window motif, as used here, allude to that moment in the text when Ellen, berating her grandfather for his regressive fixation on books and the past, suddenly throws ‘open the casement wider’ to show him the rich sensuous world of Nature beyond (ch.XXII)? Or does it, less encouragingly, imply that we, the readers of Morris’s book, are trapped in a room ourselves, only able to look longingly out at utopia from an enclosure (our own dystopian present) which we cannot in the end escape – just like William Guest himself in that respect?

Your own sense of the appropriacy (or otherwise) of Evans’s image to Morris’s book may well differ from mine – if so, do please comment. But that haunting 1896 platinum print certainly seems to me to be an inspired choice by editor David Leopold. There are always new windows to be thrown open in William Morris studies!


Anonymous said...

I love this picture, and it’s a delight when others not only like it but also appreciate its meaning. I certainly chose it for the cover of my edition of ‘News From Nowhere’ for some of the reasons that you astutely suggest. In particular, I thought that it was a geographically appropriate image which evoked a sense of looking out (onto an attractive and interesting landscape), but of doing so from inside (from a standpoint that suggests we are not part of it). It’s timing is also poignant. The photograph (‘Through a Window in the Tapestry Room’) was taken in 1896 (the year that Morris died).

Some of the publishers’ original suggestions seemed wholly inappropriate. I remember being especially horrified by Monet’s Houses of Parliament series (from 1899-1901). ‘You want a blurry view of the dung store?’

There is a new book edited by Anne M. Lyden on ‘The Photographs of Frederick H. Evans’, timed to accompany exhibition at The J. Paul Getty Museum. It contains some eight plates from Kelmscott Manor (the above plus: two of the attic, tapestry room interior, two of the garden, one of Morris’ bedroom, and one from the Thames). It also contains lots more photos with Morris connections (Great Coxwell barn, George Bernard Shaw, Reims cathedral, and so on). I think you would find it very interesting.

David Leopold (23 March 2010)

Tony Pinkney said...

Many thanks for the prompt and helpful comment, David; will certainly pursue the Anne Leyden volume. All teachers of 'News from Nowhere' should definitely be using David's World Classics edition, by the way; it's by far the best choice available!

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