Anarchy & Beauty

I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. ~William Morris, The Well At The World’s End: Volume I


William Morris

On view now through 11 January, 2015, at the National Portrait Gallery in London is the exhibition ‘Anarchy & Beauty’ which explores the life and ideas of the great Victorian artist, writer and visionary thinker William Morris. Through portraits, personal items and fascinating objects on public display for the first time, this major exhibition illustrates Morris’s concept of ‘art for the people’ and highlights the achievements of those that he inspired. Curated by acclaimed author and biographer Fiona MacCarthy, the display features original furniture and textiles designed and owned by Morris as well as the work of his contemporaries including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones. Showcased alongside remarkable books, jewelry, ceramics and clothing by craftspeople such as Eric Gill, Bernard Leach and Terence Conran, demonstrating how Morris’s legacy continued into the twentieth century, influencing radical politics, the Garden City movement and the Festival of Britain in 1951.


William Morris, Jasmine, Nature inspired woven textile design, 1872.


William Morris was the greatest artist-craftsman of his period, well-known for his wallpapers and textiles. He was an extraordinarily creative designer of pattern. Morris ran a successful decorating and manufacturing business as well as a high-profile London shop in Oxford Street. But this was only one of his activities. In his time, he was even better known as a poet, equal to Tennyson and Browning. He was a passionate social reformer, an early environmentalist, and an important political theorist. His Utopian novel News from Nowhere had a profound national and international influence. Uniting all these activities was Morris’s belief in the power of beauty to transform human lives. In propounding this belief through his lecturing and writing, his energy was formidable in demonstrating and campaigning for the socialist cause.


Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and His Legacy, 1860–1960, Cloth, 184 pgs, by Fiona MacCarthy, Published by Yale University Press in Association with the National Portrait Gallery, London, November 2014, As an artist, craftsman, designer, poet, polymath, and visionary thinker, well-known for advocating that objects of beauty be accessible to all, Morris had a tremendous impact on the British Socialist movement, the Arts and Crafts movement, the Garden City movement, as well as on successive generations of artists and thinkers in Britain and beyond. In this fascinating book, Fiona MacCarthy examines Morris’s vision of a society in which art could flourish, and how this idea resonated over the ensuing century.

Anarchy and Beauty takes the reader through Morris’s fascinating career, from the establishment of his decorative arts shop, to his radical sexual politics and libertarianism, and the publication in 1890 of his novel News from Nowhere, which envisions a utopian socialist society. MacCarthy then looks at the numerous artists and movements that bear the influence of Morris’s ideas: Arts and Crafts and the Garden City, which took hold in both Europe and the United States; artists’ communities that sprung up during the interwar years; and the 1951 Festival of Britain, whose mission was to bring the highest standards of design within the reach of everyone.


William Morris: A Life For Our Time, by Fiona MacCarthy, Paperback, 780 pgs, 1995, In MacCarthy’s scholarly tome on Morris, insightful details are bought to light from the life of one the giants of design, a man significant not just for the legacy of his design work but also for his writing, influence on literature, and his political activism. Here, MacCarthy does seem to possess a deep respect and admiration for her subject as this is a biography that moves beyond the sensationalism of tabloid history and attempts to illuminate all the complexities of one of the great men of his age.

The narrative follows the chronology of his life giving insight into his work and his complex and enigmatic personality. MacCarthy exposes his early interests and influences, his admiration for the natural world and organic forms, his political activism and his centrality to British socialism, his tendency towards obsessive pursuit of an interest or idea and the evolution of Morris the poet, artist, designer and environmentalist. Supplemented with liberal illustrations throughout bringing depth and intimacy to the narrative. An epic read for the Morris aficionado.