Book Review from the March 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Essential William Morris by Iain Zaczek, Dempsey Parr, London & Bath, 1999.
This is a very large, coffee-table book, beautifully illustrated with 150 of Morris's drawings, illustrations tiles, wallpaper designs, pained panels, tapestries and much else. All the illustrations are carefully described by the author.
There is also an introductory biography of Morris's life by Claire O'Mahony, in which she traces the origins of his family, his early childhood at Woodford Hall in Epping Forest, his schooling at Marlborough College and, later, Exeter College, Oxford, where is discovered "the idyllic medieval city, the circle of idealistic undergraduates and the writings of the Tractarians, Ruskin and Carlyle". Later, after leaving Oxford, Morris sought out the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
O'Mahony states that "the medievalism of Morris's youth provided a consistent thread to his political morality of later years, which was so firmly rooted in the Socialism theorised by Karl Marx". She mentions that, in 1871 and 1873, Morris visited Iceland where "he experienced a reawakening of his social conscience when he witnessed the simple dignity of classless life amidst the unrelenting hardships experienced in Reykjavik". She very briefly mentions Morris's membership of, first, the Liberal League; his dissatisfaction with Liberalism, his joining the Social Democratic Federation of Henry Mayers Hyndman in 1883, and his founding with 10 others of the Socialist League, as "one of the strongest advocates for a socialist revolution in 1880s' Britain". His friendships with "the Russian émigré anarchist Prince Kropotkin and Friedrich Engels", are noted.
O'Mahony says that "Morris's socialism is most lucid in his writings on art and society". Morris was one of the few privileged members of the capitalist class in Victorian England who fully embraced, and developed, socialist ideas. And despite the coffee-table style of this book, this is stressed in the introduction. Whether readers have coffee tables or not, The Essential William Morris is worth reading, and keeping for the superb illustrations.
Peter E. Newell