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William Morris: Socialist and Craftsman

ISSUE:  Summer 1925

The Kelmscott Press and William Morris.
By H. Hailiday Sparling. New York: The Macmillan Company. $6.50.

After coming into personal contact, over a long period of years, with many people who knew William Morris intimately, I have discovered the fairly general opinion that Morris is a greatly under-rated man. Especially is it felt by those who knew him best that Morris has been conventionalized, civilized, prettified, for that mythical “general public” which is supposed to regard Socialism with aversion and horror, and to regard a man who works undefatigably for art without thought of reward as a congenital dolt. McKaiFs “Life,” for all its bulk and its moderate appreciation, takes really little account of the volcanic Socialist and impetuous man that was Morris. Somewhat of this deficiency in the Morris literature has been remedied by the volume “William Morris: Poet, Artist, Socialist,” a selection from his writings together with a sketch of the man, edited by Francis Watts Lee (Humboldt Publishing Co., New York); and by the sane, tho brief interpretation, “William Morris: Socialist-Craftsman,” by Holbrook Jackson (A. C. Fifield, London—No. 3 of the Social Reformers Series). It was left for a pure-hearted disciple, the lamented Sparling, to compose a tribute to the great Maker or Poet which in fervor, simplicity, strength, and balance is full worthy of the subject and his ideas.

Among the last people I saw on a recent visit to England were Sparling and S. C. Cockerell, the former but recently convalescing from a long illness. At the end of Sparling’s book is an appendix, reprinted from the last book printed at the Kelmscott Press in 1898, containing: A Note by William Morris on his aims in founding the Kelmscott Press; a short description of the press, and an annotated list of the books printed thereat, both by Cockrell, now director of the Fitzwilliam Museum. When I found Mr. and Mrs. Sparling at McClelland Square, I discovered that a formal call was out of the question—a long afternoon of delightful conversation and reminiscence was before me. Many mementoes associated with Morris were brought out for inspection; and Sparling’s stories were touched with a delicate irony and a satiric commentary which added greatly to the listener’s pleasure. When the book under review reached me here, I was momentarily surprised to note that it came from Mrs. Sparling; and shocked to read the Epilogue, by another Socialist I had met in London, Robert Steele, announcing that “almost in the act of putting the last touches to this work, the author was taken from us suddenly and painlessly.” Steele calls attention to the modesty and self-effacing qualities of Sparling; and regarding one phase of the work says: “The records of conversation with William Morris are not, it is true, founded on notes taken at the time, and their authenticity depends on the deep impression made on the hearer, but apart from the question of strict verbal accuracy i am, from my own knowledge, assured that, as in the case of another disciple of Morris in similar circumstances, there is ‘nothing in these pages that is not true in circumstance and substance, if not in every instance in precise delineation and phrase, of what actually occurred.’” At the end of the Epilogue stands this memorial inscription to Sparling: He Sought to Do Good Work within the Limits of His Own Craft.

Nowadays the world is full of dilettanti—dabblers in many an art and craft—clever in each, master in none. There are to-day no masters of several, of many crafts—no Michelangelos or Da Vincis, no Bacons or Descartes. William Morris was of the royal line—a Poet, a Maker— in the truest sense. Bernard Shaw has told me that he has often noticed Morris, while paying close attention to a public speech, ceaselessly occupying his hands in drawing intricate designs- -leaves, vines, initials, what not—on the back of the first envelope or sheet of paper that came to hand. No more thorough or diligent student of the technic of art —of craftsmanship itself—perhaps ever lived. His search for the means of making a Perfect Book involved a study, not only of content, but of lettering, paper, ink, illustration and decoration, type, sale, protection, printing, commerce, competition, and a thousand subsidiary details that seemed to spring up like imps in his pathway. Nor were his ideas always fruitful; for again and again he experimented, with this material, with that project, until he found just what he desired, within the limits of human perfectibility. Only a certain sort of ink would answer; the most exquisite paper made from clean, new linen would not answer, being far too brittle; type he especially designed after months of labor had to be rejected, as not conforming to certain standards of printing which he had formulated as ideal; only a certain number of copies of each book could be issued, after a careful study of the relation between prices, the market, the non-commercial ideals of the Kelmscott Press, and many other factors. Recently I was in the home of a famous Englishman who possessed a copy of every book published at the Kelmscott Press, with one exception; and he said that he had never ceased regretting giving away the copy of his Kelmscott Chaucer, the most perfect and beautifully printed book of modern times. “Morris was master of many arts,” says Sparling, “practising them all at the same time and together; and those whose knowledge and understanding are confined within the limits of any one art, or any one craft, are not only incapable of comprehending the master-Craftsman who ‘set his triumphant hand to everything from the sampler up to the epic,’ but in proportion to the narrowing of their interests and experience, are puzzled and worried by his output in the one field of activity with which they are acquainted. His poetry is not as that of others, nor his prose, nor his designs, nor anything else that is his, because he recognized and felt the underlying unity of all creative work, and could utilize the skill and experience gained in the pursuit of any one art in the pursuit of any other.”


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