Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Craft, Industry and a River of Fire

William Morris and Leek

It has been said that William Morris (1834-96) harboured a deep knowledge of places and their history. Like memories places clung to him and yet he was always restless, always moving. From Epping Forest to Iceland Morris absorbed the local character and wove it into his life and work. In this sense places mirror his development from poet, craftsman and designer to cultural critic and social reformer. And one of the key locations in this process would prove to be the Staffordshire Moorland town of Leek.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century Leek had been an unremarkable town with a population of around 4,000. By the middle to late Victorian years, however, this had increased threefold and its prosperity, based on the rapid expansion of the silk industry, rivalled that of nearby Macclesfield and Congleton. This new wealth was reflected in the splendid churches and public buildings that sprang up boasting of philanthropy and civic pride. Leek was a boom town and it wanted the world to know.

Prominent amongst the local industrialists responsible for this transformation in fortune was Thomas Wardle. It was Wardle's father who had established the family dye works in the town but it was Thomas, working tirelessly with Indian tussur, who  made the breakthrough in technique that put the Hencroft Works on the silk map. At the same time Wardle found the time to dabble in geology and natural history. He was a churchman and composer of canticles. As was frequently the case with entrepreneurs of the age he had many facets to his character - Like Morris he was a man of his time.

The two men came into contact through Wardle’s brother-in-law who was a manager of Morris & Co, a sort of one stop design solution for the Victorian middle-classes, whose founder members included the painters Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Morris and Co, or 'the firm' as it became known, produced everything from stained glass to wallpaper and its aims and methods – the promotion of the so-called ‘lesser arts’ and an emphasis on truth to materials - would become the model for the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late nineteenth century.

Morris, seeking to expand the firm’s output, persuaded Wardle to embark on a collaborative venture with the aim of developing methods of textile dyeing that could be employed in the production of his fabrics. It says a lot about Wardle that he agreed to the proposal at all given he was warned by Morris from the outset that the project was something he must undertake for pleasure as opposed to commercial gain. “I don’t suppose the dyeing of our wools will ever be a profitable business to anyone” he cautioned. “I think it only fair to put this before you”. To his credit Wardle, perhaps recalling his own experiments with tussur, agreed to proceed.

Morris’s first impressions of Leek were favourable. “The country is certainly very pretty” he wrote to his wife Janey shortly after his arrival. “It is a land of hillocks and little green valleys, all curiously shaped.” But Morris hadn’t travelled to the Moorlands to admire the landscape and was soon elbow deep in the Hencroft dyeing vats. It was hard work, he  discovered, and there were no shortcuts to achieving the results he desired. What Morris strove for, and impressed upon Wardle, was a return organic methods which he believed produced colours that were closer to nature than anything that could be achieved with modern techniques. "The chemical process," he insisted, "has terribly injured the art of dyeing."

Between 1875 and 1878 Morris stayed in Leek on at least five occasions, always with Wardle and his wife Elizabeth, and there is a copious amount of correspondence documenting the obstacles the two men encountered during the course of their experiments. Not least amongst these problems was the attitude of the Hencroft workers. "One thing I must remind you of," he wrote to Wardle, "is that their obstinate refusal to make an ordinary match of their own patterns almost entirely nullifies whatever advantage may be derived from my artistic knowledge and taste, on which the whole of my business depends; however, the subject of these monsters of idiocy is a dismal one and I will say no more than to beg you to impress on them the necessity of following their instructions to the letter whatever may be the results."

The results Morris eventually achieved in Leek provided the basis for one of the most productive periods of his career and include designs for dozens of fabrics, carpets and chintzes that are considered quintessential amongst the firm's catalogue. Of equal importance, as his remarks  reveal, was a growing frustration with the contradiction between the hands-on craft based methods he favoured and the realities of industrial production. It was a contradiction that would concern him for the rest of his life.

It is a common misconception that Morris was opposed to machinery. This is not strictly true. Providing machines could produce goods to the standard he required he had no objection to their use. What worried Morris, and what he was now encountering at first hand in Leek, was what might be described in Marxist terms as the alienation of the industrial worker from the finished product – Like Ruskin he was beginning to see the division of labour as the enemy of good design.

Furthermore in  Leek and across the industrial north Morris saw the flip side of Victorian progress - the regimentation of labour that crushed the spirit, the cramped and squalid living conditions endured by the working classes, the laying to waste of vast areas of the English landscape -and he despised it. "How can you educate men who lead the life of machines?" he asked perhaps regretting his earlier 'monsters of idiocy' remarks. "You cannot educate, you cannot civilise men, unless you give them a share in art."

For Morris this task couldn't be equated to a return to  the values of the Middle Ages as it had to Pugin. He may have  railed against the ruination of its churches in the name of restoration but Morris had no desire to rebuild Catholic England. Instead it was to revolutionary socialism that he looked to bring about the birth of a new art and a society in which all would be free to share in it. Morris would dedicate the rest of his life towards this aim and in lectures such as  Useful Work versus Useless Toil and A Factory as it Might Be  he proposed ways of living that, in recent times, have seen him claimed as a proto-green but it was in Leek that he took the first steps towards what he described as this crossing of a river of fire.

If Leek changed Morris then he in turn left his mark on the town. It was Elizabeth Wardle, encouraged by Morris, who founded the Leek School of Embroidery in 1879. Involving 30-40 local women, both amateur and professional, they produced alter frontals, banners, vestments, kneelers and cushions much of which can still be seen today. In 1896, the year of Morris's death, they converted a former Quaker meeting house  for the purpose of furthering his ideas. Fittingly on the speaker's desk a silk book cover is embroidered with the words The William Morris Labour Church.

Harrison, Charles et al. Art in Theory 1815-1900. Blackwell.2001
MacCarthy, Fiona. William Morris: A Life for Our Time. Faber & Faber. 1994
Naylor, Gillian. William Morris by himself. Macdonald & Co. 1988
Poole, Ray. A History of Leek. Churnet Valley Books. 2002

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