Dr Richard Morris and medieval inspiration

richard_at_kenilworth_castleThe wonderful and inspirational Dr Richard Morris, who ran the Monastery and Cathedral course I took in my second year at Warwick University, sadly died last year. I didn’t know until writing the Nature of Gothic blog. In fact I was just telling my favourite anecdote about him last night! He was only 71. By far my favourite lecturer at Warwick (although they were all outstanding!) he inspired in me this love of medieval architecture, the Romanesque, the Herefordshire School of sculpture and – most importantly – inculcated a fascination in early medieval British and Irish sculpture and architecture. He manfully tutored me outside his comfort zone when I did my dissertation on Irish High Crosses – but it’s this course, and the third year ‘Perp’ course (sorry, I actually can’t remember what the course was called – but we were studying the Perpendicular period in the late 14th – 15th centuries! Oops!), in which I really remember him. We had field trips every Friday, and I have ‘fond’ memories of standing in freezing cold parish churches in Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire and the Welsh border country, so cold that my legs went numb up to my knees. Cathedrals were a treat. They have those round Victorian heaters. I know them well. We knew from the beginning he was a live wire. In lectures in those dim and distant days of the early 90s there was no Powerpoint, just slides. Slides frequently jam. When they did, Richard would race up the steps of the lecture theatre, disappear into the projector room at the top and swear loudly until he had fixed the problem… On field trips, though, he came into his own. Drives were always white-knuckle rides in the minibus down unsuitable and bumpy lanes at breakneck speed. There was often mud and rain and crumbling stone staircases to climb. There was always enthusiasm. The anecdote I was relating last night was this – one time we hadn’t gone far for our fieldtrip, just to Kenilworth and Warwick. It must have been in the third year, when the Perp and Englishman’s Home (is his castle…) courses were out looking at castles. He was illustrating the point that different types of sandstone have different qualities. Kenilworth Castle’s stone, for example, is very hard, very durable. Warwick … not so much. To demonstrate this, he jumped up the wall of the castle and grabbed at the stone – which crumbled away down the wall. We were mortified! But, it certainly made the point. Another local field trip led us experimentally through the cellars of the houses that run down from Basil Spence’s cathedral in Coventry to the bus stop at the bottom where the small fragments of west front the Romanesque abbey church of Coventry stand. We were searching for fragments of medieval masonry. I don’t think we found any – but we felt part of the research. His lectures and his field were always fun, and it’s not surprise I went on to study Medieval Studies for my MA. RIP Richard, you were the best teacher.

For more obituaries of Dr Morris, click here.

The Nature of Gothic – travelling with William Morris

40Last year my husband, Anthony, and I went on holiday to France. Our aim – or at least mine – was to follow in the footsteps of William Morris and his friends Edward Burne Jones (EBJ) and William Fulford and their dash around the great gothic churches of Northern France in 1855. They were there for three weeks, we for two. They saw more than 14 churches from Abbeville to Avranches, and we saw 8 of their 14+ from Abbeville to Louviers, falling down before Rouen and scuttling to the coast for beachside R&R on our last few days. Over that time I took notes in each church, and Anthony wrote poems. Woven in among the blogs on this site will be a series that chart that journey and Morris’s parallel one 160 years before.

Why were they so keen to go? Morris was only 21, and full of all the uncertainties of that age.  He and EBJ and several of their other college friends had already thought to lock away the modern world by starting a religious community – a monastery. But it was on this trip that Morris and EBJ decided that they would put aside the church and dedicate their lives instead to a more fickle mistress, art. Neither man ever wavered from that new path. It must have been a powerful holiday.

Why did I want to do this? I had long wanted to see the northern gothic cathedrals. I studied art history at university, and one of the courses I did was ‘Monastery and Cathedral’, which looked at the Romanesque and early Gothic churches of France and Britain. I loved that course. I suppose I was attuned to many of the same tastes as Morris and his friends, and probably came to that in part through my early love of the Pre-Raphaelites, discovered aged 13 when seeing a ‘hippy picture’ at my father’s house … he was shocked I didn’t know that the artist was Burne Jones, and bought me the Thames and Hudson The Pre-Raphaelites book. I read it so much it fell apart. So began my own lifelong passion for art and architecture. As part of the degree, we had a short trip to Paris, in which I saw two of the churches on Morris’s route, Notre Dame in Paris and Chartres. But no others. So I longed to see the other greats – but I also wanted to get under Morris’s skin a bit more, and give myself a purpose, all these years later, for seeing the churches.

Why Gothic? Britain – and France – were deep in the throes of a gothic revival. New gothic buildings – including our Houses of Parliament – were springing up everywhere, and Morris and EBJ were in love with the middle ages. They had studied medieval manuscripts, read medieval romances, steeped themselves in King Arthur – and, critically, they had read the works of John Ruskin. Ruskin, an art critic, had recently published a book called The Stones of Venice, about Venetian art and architecture. In this mammoth tome one chapter would come to be deemed by Morris as ‘one of the very few necessary and inevitable utterances of the century’ when he published it many years later. From this chapter, ‘The Nature of Gothic’, Morris would take what might be said to be the central tenant of his life – that work should be meaningful and pleasurable. But at this young age, instead, Morris was drunk on the architecture itself. Gothic architecture – and especially that of the 13th century – was the apogee of art for him at that time. Three weeks in the presence of that art, and among the ancient towns and cities and the gentle rolling countryside of France, so like his own southern Britain, but less tainted, it seemed, by the march of progress.

Gothic’s not my personal favourite of the medieval architectural styles. I’ve long been a fan of the Romanesque, that monumental style that owes its genesis to the architecture of Rome, but has a solid, raw power all of its own, and even of the scrips and scraps that remain of the Saxon architecture that preceded it here in England. But in the 19th century, Gothic was the favoured style, representing home-grown mastery, a simpler, better time, its soaring stone pillars and ribs took you into a time of romance and chivalry, its organic carvings and brilliant glass took you into a pre-industrial, religious time – a time that was starting to seem a distant dream in Britain’s rapidly industrialising cities, filling up as they were with factories, slums, smog, pollution and people, people, people. Gothic was a gasp of fresh air, ad for Morris – taking his lead from Ruskin – it was the simple Gothic of the 13th century that caught his imagination, that point when the new style, with its pointed arches, complex vaulting, huge deep-dyed windows and realistic statuary was at its most austere. At its most pure?

For Morris, looking back on his life, this holiday often seemed to him to mark a moment of clarity. In his lecture 1880s lecture The Aims of Art, he says, ‘Less than forty years ago – about thirty – I first saw the city of Rouen, then still in its outward aspect a piece of the Middle Ages: no words can tell you how its mingled beauty, history, and romance took hold on me; I can only say that, looking back on my past life, I find it was the greatest pleasure I have ever had.’[i] His greatest pleasure, looking at a building? Greater than the camaraderie of friends, the first flush of his marriage, greater than being a father, than all the work he had done? Perhaps. How to capture that rush of ecstasy he must have felt standing there? ‘Ecstatic’ is the word he uses most to describe his feelings on that holiday. The nature of gothic would haunt Morris throughout his life, playing over and over in his art, his writing, his politics, his very way of seeing the world.

But next words of the lecture bring us back down to earth and to the present: ‘and now it is a pleasure which no one can ever have again: it is lost to the world for ever.’ Morris was speaking about the march of progress of 30 years. How much more had 160 years wrought? For me, on that journey around France, a France twice wracked with war, was a very different place to that described then by Morris. The ecstasies of a 21 year old were not for me on this trip – indeed, I had a shock on the trip that reduced me to tears in one church, so great were the changes wrought in a place that had engendered the same pulsing uplift of ecstasy some 22 years before when I was 20 – instead, a more thoughtful approach had to be taken. I hope in these occasional blog posts I can try to bring together the buildings themselves, and the faceless men who built them, Morris and his friends with their aching feet, Anthony and I trundling about in our comfortable car (and our less comfortable campsites) and the modern world that we and those churches now inhabit.

[i] Taken from the excellent Marxists.org website, which has a pretty comprehensive set of Morris’s lectures: https://www.marxists.org/archive/morris/works/1888/signs/chapters/chapter5.htm


Entrance to the South Transept, Rouen Cathedral by John Ruskin. Photograph from a watercolor. Source: Works, facing XXXV, 371. Photograph (2010) Scanned image and text by George P. Landow. http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/ruskin/wc/40.html


JohnBall%20pic‘Forsooth, brothers, fellowship is heaven, and lack of fellowship is hell: fellowship is life, and lack of fellowship is death …

[H]e that waketh in hell and feeleth his heart fail him, shall have memory of the merry days of earth, and how that when his heart failed him there, he cried on his fellow, were it his wife or his son or his brother or his gossip or his brother sworn in arms, and how that his fellow heard him and came and they mourned together under the sun, till again they laughed together and were but half sorry between them.

This shall he think on in hell, and cry on his fellow to help him, and shall find that therein is no help because there is no fellowship, but every man for himself.

Therefore, I tell you that the proud, despiteous rich man, though he knoweth it not, is in hell already, because he hath no fellow; and he that hath so hardy a heart that in sorrow he thinketh of fellowship, his sorrow is soon but a story of sorrow—a little change in the life that knows not ill.’[i]

These are the words Morris puts into the mouth of John Ball, central character in Morris’s novella A Dream of John Ball, written between 1886 and 1887, when Morris was at the height of his Socialist fervour. Ball was, of course, a real person, the revolutionary priest central to the struggles of the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, and famous for another speech delivered at Blackheath on the way to London[ii], as illustrated by Edward Burne Jones above for the first book edition of A Dream in 1888[iii].

Meanwhile, my country tears itself apart. Not content with imposing an impossible question on the nations of the United (!) Kingdom, the government flings itself into a happy round of backstabbing to punish itself and the opposition wheels a pre-meditated coup into place (some say!). Moreover, and more importantly in the long term, there is appalling treatment of people perceived to be non-British by people who feel legitimised in their racism. No fellowship here in the United Kingdom? No fellowship with our fellow nations? No fellowship with our fellow humans – let alone that with our wildlife and environment?

Only three weeks ago an MP died because of the lack of fellowship that now seems rife in our country. Are we in hell already?

Morris would have been horrified and deeply disappointed – put probably not surprised.

For him, fellowship was at the heart of everything he did, everything he wrote and said. From his youthful friendships at Oxford – many of which would last his entire life – where he and his friends dreamed of setting up a monastery together, to the artistic fellowship painting the Oxford Union, and decorating his Red House and his dreams of a commune of his artist friends living there, to the hopeful gathering of artists to create Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company, to the international fellowship represented through the sharing of stories in his poem The Earthly Paradise, to the formation of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, to his embracing the Socialist cause and his hopes for a future, after the revolution, in which all men and women would be fellows to each other, as seen in the communal living in his utopian novel News from Nowhere.

But he was no stranger to the breaking of fellowships. His little circle of Oxford friends held fast, but his other ventures were more fraught with dissent. Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company ended acrimoniously with an internal dispute about company shares. Morris dissolved the company and started again – but the only friend from the previous incarnation to go with him into the new company was Edward Burne Jones, the artist, who had been one of his university friends. Furthermore, his friend Rossetti famously started an affair with his wife.

Politically, too, he was disillusioned at an early stage. Morris held himself aloof from politics at first – and when he waded in the fray in the 1870s (Eastern Question – foreign policy and the treatment of the other again…) he was hopeful then felt betrayed by Gladstone when he appeared to go back on his promises (nothing new etc. etc.) He lost all sense of enfranchisement. He never again trusted in parliamentary process. But even his Socialist life was charged with division. Only two years after joining the Socialist cause in 1883, he was part of a breakaway group from the Democratic Federation. He and others who opposed the leadership of Henry Hyndman split and formed the Socialist League in 1885. In 1890 Morris split from them and plowed his own furrow with the Hammersmith Socialist Society. All of these divisions were for complex reasons, of course, but they, and the failure of the revolution to start, left Morris disillusioned.

I, and many of my friends, feel disillusioned too. We see in the referendum result the breakup of something that was meaningful to us, that, in my case, is something that we have been part of all my life, and on top of that we see an unrecognisable country, and are fearful for the future both economically and ideologically. When Morris was disillusioned he did turn slightly away from politics and went back to his art, his first love. And he wrote of all his hopes and dreams in News from Nowhere – which, arguably, has inspired more people than any of his other writings!

But he never stopped his fellowships. There was always a Socialist society in Hammersmith, and there were, once more, gatherings for art and music and more. On the day after the referendum result a good friend of mine gathered a group of friends together for a unity gathering, to share our thoughts and feelings about what had happened. That night was the best I’ve felt since the result – because of fellowship, despite opposing views, we were ‘but half sorry’ between us.

As Morris said, ‘he that hath so hardy a heart that in sorrow he thinketh of fellowship, his sorrow is soon but a story of sorrow.’ So, even if our parliamentary representatives can’t achieve fellowship, nonetheless we can still strive … and maybe that story of sorrow will become another story altogether.


Frontispiece illustration to the Reeves & Turner edition of A Dream of John Ball, 1888 by Edward Burne Jones. Photogravure. Taken from: http://morrisedition.lib.uiowa.edu/dream.html


[i] Morris, William A Dream of John Ball and A King’s Lesson (Longmans, Green & Co., 1913), pp. 36–38

[ii] John Ball is often credited with inventing the phrase ‘When Adam delved and Eve span’, but it was already in common parlance by 1381.

[iii] First edition by Reeves & Turner, 1888.



What would William Morris say to the Brexit debacle? It’s an interesting thought experiment to imagine what the Victorians – whether radical, conservative or liberal – would have thought of the EU and Britain’s divisive vote to leave. When Morris died in 1896, the First World War was still 18 years away, the Russian revolution 21, the first, limited, votes for women in the UK 22. The founding of today’s Labour Party was still 4 years away. So many of the things we take for granted were far in the future. His, like it or not, was a world in which Queen Victoria (the Empress Brown or Widow Guelph as Morris preferred to call her) ruled a vast empire that provided (some people in) Britain with great wealth, where Ireland had no self-rule, where all European states jockeyed with each other for power, where the Balkans – and part of Greece – were still ruled by the Ottoman Empire.

A very different world, so we can’t second guess whether Morris would have been a Remainer or a Lexiter. He enjoyed visiting other countries (sort of…) and appreciated the culture of Northern Europe in particular, he was part of the International Socialist community, and as part of the artistic elite of the time he would have known many immigrants and exiles as well as visiting foreigners. On the other hand, as a radical socialist, at times veering into anarchism, the current set up of the EU wouldn’t have impressed him, and perhaps he would have wanted revolution across Europe to create the utopian vision of which he dreamed. Who knows?

One thing I do feel sure of, though, is that he would have been horrified at the lack of political and economic understanding among the people of the UK. He would look at the benefits we have – universal primary and secondary education, unlimited information at our fingertips, libraries, accessible higher education, equality for all men and women in the eyes of the law etc. etc. – and he would be appalled about how little we know about the institutions that shape and rule our countries. And he would be out there, shouting to us via the tv, via twitter, via social media, any way he thought he could reach people, to educate ourselves and our children so that this never happens again.

How can I say this with such certainty? The banner you see above gives the clue: it’s by Walter Crane and is the banner of The Socialist League (of which Morris was a member), whose tagline was ‘Educate, Agitate, Organise’. And for the League ‘Educate’ was the most important. Morris took up the Educate baton and ran with it. Up and down the length and breadth of Britain he travelled, lecturing, lecturing, lecturing. He wrote regular columns for Commonweal, the League’s newspaper, which he funded (shades of Murdoch?  Shh…), and the League published his lectures as pamphlets, and, later those same lectures were published in book form.

He wasn’t, by all accounts, a great orator. He didn’t enjoy doing it, and the long hours and constant travel on uncomfortable public transport may have been a contributor to his ill health and, ultimately, early death aged just 62. But he felt he had to. Why? Because people needed to know how the world worked. His lectures are biased, of course. They promote his vision of the socialist cause to which he had attached himself. But, they are based on his observation of life in London and from his copious reading to try to batter the economic and social arguments of the early socialists into his head. They were the truth as he saw it.

He didn’t just reach out to the working man, either. Most of his lectures are aimed at the people who he hoped would start the revolution he desired, and who would bring about the utopia he outlines in his novel News From Nowhere – the working classes. One of his first socialist lectures, in 1883, however, was at his old Alma Mater, Oxford University, at the Russell Club, a group of undergraduates whose politics tended to the liberal or radical. In this lecture ‘Art and Democracy’ he declared himself ‘one of the people called Socialists’ and then proceeded to take apart capitalism and then, to the utter shock of those who had invited him, he invited the young men sitting before him to join him in converting to the cause. It was – and still is – an inflammatory speech:

‘One man with an idea in his head is in danger of being considered a madman; two men with the same idea in common may be foolish, but can hardly be mad; ten men sharing an idea begin to act, a hundred draw attention as fanatics, a thousand and society begins to tremble, a hundred thousand and there is war abroad, and the cause has victories tangible and real; and why only a hundred thousand? You and I who agree together, it is we who have to answer that question.’[i]

Terrifying stuff for the establishment. Prophetic too of the kind of extremism that would become commonplace in the early 20th century, and which, sadly, is very much with us now. At this point, Morris was an extremist. He later stepped away from the idea of bloody revolution. At this point, he was desperate to do something. The incident, as Morris must have known it would be, was reported widely. He stoically endured the ‘brickbats’[ii] of the papers against him, and continued lecturing.

Today, perhaps, this isn’t the approach we would take. Morris understood that many people had received very little education of any kind. When I went to school in the 1970s and 80s we were not prepared for our lives as part of our community, our nation state or our international community. I’ve had to learn along the way, and I’m very much an amateur in my knowledge. Like Morris, I’m trying to batter these things into my head in middle age, when the brain is less nimble. Today, citizenship is taught in schools, and that’s good. Today’s young people, most of whom voted Remain, have had that as part of their education[iii]. My generation, and the one before it didn’t. Perhaps that tells you something. Perhaps not. However, there’s more to simply learning about the institutions of governments. To begin to understand, we need to be taught at that young age how to exercise critical thinking. We must be allowed to question and debate, to discern how rhetoric and propaganda are used by politicians, the media – and by someone we might meet in the pub – so that we have the skills in place to be able to see through the spin, the stories and make our own, informed decisions. Whatever those decisions might be.

Morris would go for that, I think.


Banner of The Socialist League by Walter Crane, c. 1884


[i] ‘Art under Plutocracy, retrieved from the Marxist Internet Archive https://www.marxists.org/archive/morris/works/1883/pluto.htm, 4/7/2016. Note that this is a later title for the lecture delivered at Oxford as ‘Art and Democracy’.

[ii] Letter by Morris to Georgie Burne Jones, quoted in Fiona MacCarthy’s William Morris: A Life for Our Time (Faber and Faber : 1994), p. 479.

[iii] Citizenship was introduced to the UK’s National Curriculum in 2002.