March is the birth month of William Morris. Born 24th March 1834 in the 180+ years since his birth and the 121 years since his death he has become a perfect example of the commodified artist – known and loved by all and sundry. Can there really be any more to say? Any side unexplored? Well, two new editions by Deveron Press suggest so.
The first official biographer of William Morris was Mackail. Writing the ‘official’ version soon after his death, this has become the standard – but it is, as all ‘official’ accounts, somewhat partial and does not give full credence to Morris the Socialist. Morris’s Socialist convictions were often found embarrassing to his contemporaries and seen as a ‘phase’ or fancy. Without an insight into this part of his later life however, the a rounded picture of the man who has become a myth, cannot be given.
James Leatham can actually claim to have published the first biographical account of Morris since his William Morris, Master of Many Crafts came out before Mackail’s in 1897. It is a slight tome, a personal take on a real man, no myth making, no ‘official’ story and it is all the better for that.
Leatham, does not benefit from the fulsome Wikipedia entry allotted to Morris though he has plenty to add to this description.
Why don’t we find Leatham on Wikipedia? It is always worth remembering that ubiquitous as it seems, Wikipedia is constructed – by people of course – who are able to work out the editing protocols. It’s knowledge Jim, but not as we used to know it. It is broader, looser and a bit more egalitarian than encyclopedias of old, but it does not hold all the useful, interesting or important information in the world.
Nor does Google. Search engines are not there to support socialism after all. Profit is the bottom line. This is somewhat off our topic, but the heads up is that if you want to find out about James Leatham via Google you have to put in James Leatham Socialist to stand any kind of chance. Therefore, some knowledge is required before you can begin. By the same token, instead of just hitting Wikipedia, try William Morris Socialist in Google and it’ll take you to a load of places just typing William Morris won’t.
That’s a good analogy for the Deveron Press republications. They will show you a different side to William Morris (perhaps even a different William Morris) to the official biographers.
James Leatham’s tribute shows a young man looking at an older one. There is an element of hero worship, perhaps even of awe, but Leatham is too grounded to let this vision run away with him. And so in William Morris, Master of Many Crafts we learn a lot about Morris (and in the process a fair amount about the young Leatham)
In the book Leatham says of Morris his ‘memory must be a lifelong inspiration to all who have known him and felt the spirit of his influence.’
It’s easy to experience Morris fatigue, reading modern biographies and critical works about him. He seems less man and more myth, but Leatham, for all his personal take, brings us back to the heart and spirit of the man. Leatham covers Morris’s poetry, Prose, his Arts Craftsmanship (including print/publishing – a topic close to Leatham’s own heart) his Socialism and personal belief system. It is the immediate response of a friend who grieves a loss. It is this freshness, honesty and immediacy which still touches the reader today and offers a unique and different perspective to the Morris we all think we know and love.
Leatham wrote his Morris tribute in his early 30s. But Morris and his ideas would not let him go. Thus nearly quarter of a century later when the opportunity arose for him to publish another biography of Morris – this time by John Bruce Glasier – he took it.
Glasier is another overlooked figure in the early history of Socialism. Who today has heard of him? He does have a brief Wikipedia entry as ‘Scottish Politician.’ Even the Google trick of John Bruce Glasier Socialist doesn’t take you far. So the best way to find out about him is directly from his own writing.
William Morris and the early days of the Socialist Movement was essentially Glasier’s death bed project, written we might feel, to pay proper tribute not just to a friend but to a political comrade. Glasier’s portrait offers a picture of the older Morris as a committed Socialist. Thus contextualised it is possible to make sense of Morris in a way the ‘official’ biographies do not tend either to aim for or achieve.
Mackail’s biography is about ‘praising great men’ whereas Glasier and Leatham’s are about personal friendship and exploring and explaining Morris’s moral commitment – which was not divorced from, but may be seen at times in conflict with his artistic commitment. Both Leatham and Glasier try to resolve this conflict, exploring Morris from the perspective of their own experiences of him. As Glasier writes ‘Morris was a Socialist by reason of his whole intellectual and moral construction, and whatever circumstances eventually led him to realise and proclaim himself a Socialist – and there were doubtless many – his Socialism was none the less a necessary expression of his whole nature.’
It is a very interesting context in which to view Morris – for those happy to step beyond the wallpaper.
Glasier’s volume has an introduction by Morris’s daughter May (after whom Leatham named one of his own daughters) and features a series of letters written between Morris and Glasier. Both books are available in paperback from www.unco.scot.
Leatham Morris comes in at £3.99 (+ £2 p&p)
Glasier Morris is £7.99 (+ £2.80 p&p)
And there’s a special offer. Buy both books and Leatham’s own Socialism and Character and get free UK p&p. (A saving of £5.20) Just enter the coupon code MORRIS at checkout to get the special offer – available during March. The offer applies to UK purchases only.
Make March the time you get to know William Morris – or get to know him all over again, differently.
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