Thursday, 14 October 2010

History in 100 Objects

The BBC series on ‘The History of the World in 100 Objects’ has been deservedly popular over the last few months, and Radio 4 this morning celebrated the 100th object, which completed the series: a solar-powered lamp. Could we, I wonder, envisage a History of William Morris in 100 Objects, and which would be the one object that might most evoke his presence and activities for us?

Some of the earlier biographers of Morris, including J.W. Mackail himself, have argued that Morris’s real relationships were indeed with objects rather than with people, that he was somehow strangely detached from the human and only fully himself when engaged with the tools, materials and products of his various craft enthusiasms across the years. As Mackail himself bluntly puts it, ‘He was interested in things much more than in people’ (vol II, p.93). So the notion of doing a Biography of Morris in 100 Objects should certainly, on this showing, be plausible enough.

As for a single object that might most represent our hero, well, we will all have our personal favourites and preferences here. My own special Morrisian object would be the battered brown satchel in the collection at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow. In this Morris carried his socialist newspapers and leaflets (and his pipes) when he went campaigning and lecturing around the country, so – humble artefact though it is in itself – it vividly evokes for me the extraordinary political commitment and personal energy that Morris put into the British socialist movement in its formative early years. But I’m sure that you, dear reader, will have your own view here!


David Leopold said...

I can't, at least yet, think of a favourite, but if we're looking for a hundred (which ought to be easy and interesting) I'd suggest:

1. The painted decoration on the inside of the front door of the Red House.

2. The dye book of Merton Abbey (now in the Huntingdon Library I think).

And if we are allowed items which haven't survived (or maybe didn't even exist):

3. The pile of discarded and useless nail scissors evoked in the essay on 'Makeshift'.

Tony Pinkney said...

Thanks for your suggestions, David - I especially like the idea of objects that may never have existed! Perhaps some enterprising publisher should now bring out a 'Dictionary of Morris's 100 Best Objects', arranged in alphabetical order and with handsome illustrations for each item.

linda said...

You've chosen my favourite -- the book-satchel. The tea-cup in the WMAG could come second -- could we give joint first place to William Morris's overcoat, which hangs behind the door at Kelmscott Manor, looking as if Morris has just taken it off. Bag - cup - coat -- there's a pleasing simplicity there. I wonder if Morris sued the coat when speaking on street corners.

Tony Pinkney said...

Interesting additional ideas, Linda, thank you. I note that Walter Crane once referred to 'the wonderful satchel, without which he [Morris] was seldom seen in his later days' (see WM Society Newsletter, New Year 2011, p.17)

Tony Pinkney said...

Some anticipations of the Morris socialist satchel in his earlier writings, as with 'The rugged wallet from his back,/Patched of strong leather, brown and black' which the Scholar carries in 'The Writing on the Image' in 'The Earthly Paradise'.