Episode 3 of The Devil in Whitechapel takes Lord and Lady Brass into the famed salon of William Morris, and an encounter with not only George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde, but an introduction to W. B. Yeats. All men, and many more, were good friends of Morris, who was one of the most significant figures in the history of 19th Century England.
In our modern age of specialization, we celebrate polymaths with wide-eyed wonder. Contemporary examples like actor/director/doctor/thinker Jonathan Miller, or actor/comedian/novelist/documentarian/debater Stephen Frye, make our heads spin with the multiplicity of their achievements. But the talents, interest, genius and achievements of designer/philosopher/translator/poet/novelist/speaker/social activist William Morris puts them to shame.
Born in 1834 into a wealthy manufacturing family, Morris became enthralled with Medieval art, architecture and culture, and went on to train as an architect, though sharing the artistic interests and insights with his contemporaries in the pre-Raphaelite movement. He founded his own design and architecture firm and began a lifelong study and creation of patterns and designs, most famously of wallpaper.
“The Firm,” as his business was known, found fans on both sides of the Atlantic, and its designs, produced in papers, stained glass, textiles and other forms, are still sold to this day.
At the same time, his skills and fame as a poet were growing, particularly after his translations of the Icelandic Eddas and Sagas, and his epic poem “The Earthly Paradise” cemented his reputation. His writing branched out further, into fantasy novels like “The Wood Beyond the World,” “The Well at the World’s End” and “The House of the Wolflings”–which were major influences on the writings of both C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books as well as Tolkien’s Chronicles of Middle Earth.
His 1890 novel, the utopian “News from Nowhere ,” demonstrated his other great sphere of influence, as a social activist and thinker. Over the course of his life he moved from liberal radicalism to socialism, writing essays, giving speeches, and serving on the governing committees of a number of groups for social reform. His fabric shops included profit-sharing systems for most employees, and he employed children from Euston’s Industrial Home for Destitute Boys, many of whom went on to apprenticeships with him.
Morris traverses the stage of Victorian history and culture, intersecting with practically every major artist, writer, historian, radical and thinker for almost half a century. And he does so leaving the astonishing impression of being eccentric, occasionally erratic, but a genuinely warm, kind and jovial man, whose creative energy was only matched by his generosity. He was also disarmingly modest about his achievements, and once said, “if a chap can’t compose an epic poem while he’s weaving tapestry, he better shut up; he’ll never do any good at all.”
When he he died in 1896, his doctor attributed the cause to “simply being William Morris and having done more work than most men.” His friend George Bernard Shaw eulogized him by saying “I feel nothing but elation when I think of Morris…You can lose a man like that by your own death, but not by his.”