Learning from Nowhere? Locating William Morris’ Eco-Fiction in Design History

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The Arts and Crafts Movement has been embraced by the environmentalist movement as something of a pioneering endeavour. The reason for this, of course, is that these Victorian design reformers, and especially their most prominent figure, William Morris, were highly critical of industrialization and deeply infatuated with nature. A highly evocative example of this infatuation is Nicholas Gould’s feature on Morris, chosen as the cover story of the July 1974 issue of The Ecologist—the environmentalist movement’s premier periodical (Fig. 1). The cover design included both his portrait as well as one of his characteristic floral patterns. The article claimed that ‘his voice was one of the first to be raised against the environmental effects of industrialization’ and quoted forceful statements by Morris such as ‘We must turn this land from the grimy back-yard of a workshop into a garden’. The Ecologist clearly found Morris’ environmentalist concerns to be even more pressing in the 1970s than they had been in his own time: ‘The rape of the English countryside has advanced so far since Morris’ day that it comes as a surprise to find how often he echoes our own complaints’. Ultimately, though, Morris was to be lauded for practicing what he preached, wrote Gould, finding in his example the proof that it is possible to be a pragmatic idealist.[1]

Design historical readings of Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement, though, have tended to view these ideological concerns more as social critique and aesthetic inspiration rather than as some sort of proto-environmentalism.[2] These are tales of artists and craftsmen who moved from the city to the country to set up collective workshops where life and work would be one, and produce quality artistic goods inspired by pre-modern communal practices and the beauty of nature (Fig. 2). The emphasis in Arts and Crafts reform writing and practice on natural materials, organic dyestuffs and ‘slow’, small-scale manufacturing processes go some way in explaining its appeal to environmentalists today. But to fully appreciate this enchantment and grasp how nature matters in the design history of the Arts and Crafts Movement, we need to look beyond their exquisite designs and workshop romanticism to the realm of fiction literature.

Morris made his fame in literary circles with the epic narrative poem The Earthly Paradise, published in three volumes between 1868 and 1870. This ecologically evocative title could have worked just as well for the work that more than anything has earned him the reputation as a proto-environmentalist; the novel News from Nowhere, first published in 1890 (Fig. 3). Recognized as an early example of science fiction—or, rather, in our context, design fiction, or eco-fiction—the book chronicles the dream-like experiences of a man not unlike Morris himself who awakens one morning in his Hammersmith, London home to find the world both distinctly familiar and highly unfamiliar at the same time. He goes for a morning swim in the Thames and is startled by the remarkable transformations of his immediate environment: ‘The soap-works with their smoke-vomiting chimneys were all gone; the engineer’s works gone; the lead-works gone; and no sound of rivetting and hammering came down the west wind from Thorneycroft’s.’[3] Slowly he discovers that he has woken up to a 21st Century utopian society resulting from a Luddite and communist revolution in the 20th Century. His guide to this new ‘earthly paradise’ describes the changes precisely in terms of an environmental history of design:

England was once a country of clearings amongst the woods and wastes, with a few towns interspersed, which were fortresses for the feudal army, markets for the folk, gathering places for the craftsmen. It then became a country of huge and foul workshops and fouler gambling-dens, surrounded by an ill-kept, poverty-stricken farm, pillaged by the masters of the workshops. It is now a garden, where nothing is wasted and nothing is spoilt, with the necessary dwellings, sheds, and workshops scattered up and down the country, all trim and neat and pretty. For, indeed, we should be too ashamed of ourselves if we allowed the making of goods, even on a large scale, to carry with it the appearance, even, of desolation and misery.[4]

The genuinely post-industrial society described in this account is completely non-commercial; all manufacture is done con amore by craftsmen deeply satisfied by their work and the resulting products distributed freely according to need. But this is no ordinary socialist utopia: the water is pure; the air is clean; the soil is rich; the forests are bristling with life; the fields are lush; the gardens are bountiful. People consider themselves to be an integral part of nature. The importance of this acknowledgment is emphasised when Clara, the protagonist’s muse, ventures to explain why her distant Victorian predecessors had committed that heinous crime against the environment known as the industrial revolution:

‘Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—“nature”, as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another. It was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought “nature” was something outside them.’[5]

This is where ‘Morris the red’ meets ‘Morris the green’.[6] Crucially, though, Morris’ environmentalist visions move beyond the pastoral utopias of many of his fellow Victorians in their emphasis on socialist egalitarianism and harsh critique of commercialism and imperialism.[7] Florence Boos has argued that Morris in News from Nowhere not only anticipated the basic principles of the Garden City movement and pre-empted the contemporary concept of the ‘tree hugger’, but also elaborated an ideology with remarkable similarities to key late twentieth century developments such as socialist environmentalism and deep ecology philosophy as developed by Arne Næss.[8]

This recent ‘greening of William Morris’ has also been criticised as a retrospective ideological extrapolation of contemporary concerns onto the past.[9] As Sara Wills has argued, ‘we need to be aware … of the ways in which his thought was a product of his age and primarily concerned with problems of the life processes of humanity.’[10] She goes on to elaborate how ‘Morris’s fully developed political priorities were not with nature per se, but with “decent surroundings” and nature as an object and subject of human work. His avowedly socialist writings of the 1880s elicit a concern for nature as part of a broader agenda for social change, but it is the concept of “livelihood” that emerges as a key concern.’[11] In other words, Wills sees in Morris an anthropocentric rather than an anthropocenic conception of nature. In assessing his contemporary relevance there are good reasons to be cautious, of course, because Morris did not have access to the ontological and epistemological underpinnings of our current understanding of ecology and sustainability—but this does not render his ideas incompatible with or irrelevant to more recent historical developments.

An example that might both qualify the casting of Morris as a proto-environmentalist and historicize his ideas and practice, is the recent discovery by scientists that one of his key products—the Trellis wallpaper—contained arsenic. Trellis, manufactured from 1864, was Morris’ first foray into the mass market (which he, paradoxically, so despised), and features a characteristic motif of branches, leaves, flowers and birds—apparently inspired by the rose-trellis in his own garden (Fig. 4). The dominant colour is green, and it is precisely the green pigments that have been found to contain the toxic substance. This carries a poignant irony today, given the colour’s current connotations as the visual shorthand for all things sustainable and ecological—but at the time, green symbolised poison and sickness as much as anything else. To add insult to injury, Morris’ design practice was bankrolled by his shares in his father’s mining company, Devon Great Consols (DGC), who also happened to be the largest producer of arsenic in the world. That wallpapers containing arsenic pigments in damp conditions could release toxic fumes causing deadly lung diseases was known at the time, and DGC workers were heavily affected by arsenic-related illnesses and resulting fatalities. Despite this knowledge, Morris himself blatantly dismissed the possible environmental damage caused by his products, responding to an enquiry from a concerned customer by bluntly claiming that ‘As to the arsenic scare, a greater folly is hardly possible to imagine: the doctors were being bitten by witch fever.’[12] Just how important it is to study design history ‘as if nature mattered’ becomes glaringly apparent when the above is compared to a more conventional reading of Trellis as portraying ‘an ethic of natural stewardship’[13]–a description that now rings rather hollow.

This case is a good reminder of Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s warning that ‘nostalgia is a trap for historians’ because it may impede our ability to fully appreciate the situations and experiences of the historical actors we study.[14] Clearly, nostalgic and/or celebratory accounts of ‘Morris the green’ must be offset against critical assessments of how his ideas and practices were products of his own time rather than illustrious prophecies. Nevertheless, even Sara Wills finds that there is something to be learned from his ecological thought: ‘it is in his combination of concerns, in the linked ideas of nature and human labour, that Morris’ thinking is most useful today.’ In a cautious acknowledgement of his relevance for the values of today she argues that ‘By transcending the capitalist emphasis upon production for profit, and subduing the Marxian emphasis upon the subjugation of nature, Morris developed a culture of nature which allowed space for both culture and nature.’[15] The century that followed the publication of News from Nowhere saw both the rise and fall of communism as well as the unabated devastations caused by capitalism. The question, then, is where—if anywhere—we can establish today that ‘third space’ envisioned by Morris. If we are to succeed in designing a more sustainable world of tomorrow, Morris’ ‘nowhere’ needs to be rescued from the romantic paralysis of nostalgia. Flipping Cowen’s warning, I would suggest that historical scholarship is an efficient antidote to nostalgia, which is defined as a personal sentiment.[16]  History—ideally, at least—takes stock also of the details and the dirt wished away by nostalgia, and thus produces a valuable knowledge base for present and future decision-making. By way of concluding, I will propose that although we should we weary of the seductive powers of nostalgia, there is a lot to be learnt from Nowhere—and from elsewhere in history. In the words of David Orr: ‘we have a heritage of ecological design intelligence available to us if we are willing to draw on it. The starting point for ecological design is not some mythical past, but the heritage of design intelligence evident in many places, times and cultures prior to our own.’[17]

*A longer version of this text was delivered as a paper at the conference For What It’s Worth: Nostalgia, Sustainability and the Values of the Present, Justus Liebig University, Giessen, 28-30 April 2016.

1. Nicholas Gould, ’William Morris’, The Ecologist, vol. 6, no. 4, 1974, pp. 210-212.

2. See e.g. Elizabeth Cumming and Wendy Kaplan, The Arts and Crafts Movement, Thames & Hudson, London & New York, 1991; Linda Parry (ed.), William Morris, Philip Wilson Publishers & The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1996.

3. William Morris, News from Nowhere: or An Epoch of Rest, being some chapters from a Utopian Romance, Routledge, London, [1890] 1970, pp. 5-6.

4. Ibid., p. 61.

5. Ibid., p. 154.

6. Florence S. Boos, ’An Aesthetic Ecocommunist: Morris the Red and Morris the Green’, in William Morris: Centenary Essays, eds. Peter Faulkner and Peter Preston, University of Exeter Press, Exeter, 1999, pp. 21-46.

7. Patric O’Sullivan, ’The Ending of the Journey: William Morris, News from Nowhere and Ecology’, in William Morris and News from Nowhere: A Vision for Our Time, eds. Stephen Coleman and Patric O’Sullivan, Green Books, Hartland, 1990, pp. 169-181. See also Patric O’Sullivan, ’”Morris the red, Morris the green” – a partial review’, in Journal of William Morris Studies, vol. 19, no. 3, 2011, pp. 22-38 (part of a special issue on the topic of ’Morris the Green’).

8. Boos, op. cit., pp. 32; 40.

9. Sara Wills, ’Woods Beyond Worlds? The Greening of William Morris’, Australasian Victorian Studies, vol. 7, 2001, pp. 137-149.

10. Sara Wills, ‘Nature, Socialism, Livelihood: The Greening Of William Morris?’, Melbourne Historical Journal, vol. 31, no. 1, 2003, p. 92.

11. Ibid., pp. 75-76.

12. Quoted in Andy Meharg, ’The Arsenic Green’, Nature, vol. 423, 2003, p. 688. See also the accompanying news item: Philip Ball, ’William Morris made poisonous wallpaper’, Nature, News section, published online 12 June 2003. doi:10.1038/news030609-11. Accessed 5 November 2015. http://www.nature.com/news/2003/030612/full/news030609-11.html

13. Jed Mayer, ’William Morris and the Greening of Science’, Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies, vol. 17, no. 2, 2008, p. 67.

14. Ruth Schwartz Cowan, ‘A Historian of Science and Technology Confronts Gender and Design’, in The Banham Lectures: Essays on Designing the Future, Jerermy Aynsley & Harriet Atkinson (eds.), Berg, Oxford, 2009, p. 225.

15. Wills, op. cit., pp. 91-92.

16. Karin Johannisson, Nostalgia: En känslas historia, Bonnier, Stockholm, 2001, pp. 10–11.

17. David W. Orr, The Nature of Design: Ecology, Culture, and Human Intention (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 5.

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