The Life of William Morris/Chapter 4
RED LION SQUARE : THE OXFORD UNION : THE DE-
FENCE OF GUENEVERE
The formal abandonment of architecture as a profession which took place under Rossetti's influence at the end of 1856 was not felt either by Morris himself or by his friends to be a light matter. Rossetti, now as always perfectly unscrupulous in his means towards an end which he believed to be of primary importance, probably did not look beyond the immediate interests of his own art. For him, at that time, English society was divided into two classes. The duty of the one class was to paint pictures, and it included all those who were competent to do so. The duty of the other class was to buy the pictures so painted. This amazingly simple scheme of life he enforced with all the power of his bewitching personality. To an immense power of humour and sarcasm, and a dazzling eloquence, he added gifts even more potent: an intelligence of sympathy towards the ideas or work of other artists, which Sir Edward Burne-Jones in recent years described as unequalled in his experience; a boundless generosity in helping on younger men who would be guided by him; and behind all these qualities, a certain hard intellectual force against which very few of those who came under its influence were able to make a stand. When Morris was introduced to Rossetti he was already known among his friends, and must have already known himself, to be a poet. Yet in Rossetti's judgment, even poetry, of which he was himself so eminent a master, was to be subordinated to painting whenever that was possible. In 1854 he had written to Allingham, "I believe my poetry and painting prevented each other from doing much good for a long while, and now I think I could do better in either, but can't write, for then I shan't paint." It was a theory of his, expounded with copiousness and vehement conviction, that English poetry was fast reaching the termination of its long and splendid career, and that Keats represented its final achievement. English painting, on the other hand, he regarded as in its dawn. To the enthusiasm of the Pre-Raphaelites all possibilities seemed to lie before them in their newly-revived art; and Rossetti made it his business to preach and proselytize for this new art as the one thing then and there needful. Writing to William Bell Scott in February, 1857, he says, "Two young men, projectors of the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, have recently come to town from Oxford and are now very intimate friends of mine. Their names are Morris and Jones. They have turned artists instead of taking up any other career to which the University generally leads, and both are men of real genius. Jones's designs are models of finish and imaginative detail, unequalled by anything unless, perhaps, Albert Dürer's finest works; and Morris, though without practice as yet, has no less power, I fancy. He has written some really wonderful poetry, too." But the poetry was to his mind in the second place. "If any man has any poetry in him," he said to Burne-Jones again and again that summer, "he should paint, for it has all been said and written, and they have scarcely begun to paint it." The feeling which Morris had shared with his contemporaries at Oxford, that Tennyson represented the end of all things in poetry, no doubt received a powerful stimulus or revival from this doctrine of Rossetti's; and perhaps the curious view which he always continued to hold of writing poetry as a recreation, an enjoyment to be taken in the intervals of some manual work, was in some measure due to the persistence of this influence.
To his mother, at all events, who had so short a time before been reluctantly reconciled to his becoming an architect, the change of profession came as a severe shock: the more so, that with characteristic vehemence, he did not prepare her mind for it, but announced it with a nervous suddenness while he and Burne-Jones were on a visit to Walthamstow. She never quite forgave Burne-Jones for what she naturally thought was mainly his doing. On Morris himself the resolution had an unsettling, and for a time, almost a disastrous effect. For the two years or so during which he worked hard at painting, he was moody and irritable; he brooded much by himself, and lost for the time a good deal of his old sweetness and affectionateness of manner, Rossetti's conquest of a mind so strong and so self-sufficing was, while it lasted, complete in proportion to the strength which was subdued. He became not only a pupil, but a servant. Once, when Burne-Jones complained that the designs he made in Rossetti's manner seemed better than his own original work, Morris answered with some vehemence, "I have got beyond that: I want to imitate Gabriel as much as I can." The new gospel was carried down to those of the set who still remained at Oxford, and they were all put to drawing or modelling as if their life depended on it.
When Morris ceased to be all day at Street's office, the lodgings in Upper Gordon Street became inadequate for both him and Burne-Jones to work in. They were also rather expensive. Burne-Jones was poor; and Morris, while he was under Rossetti's guidance, had to buy pictures as well as paint them. "Yesterday," runs an entry in Madox Brown's diary for the 24th of August, 1856, "Rossetti brought his ardent admirer Morris of Oxford, who bought my little Hayfield for ^40." Just then the rooms at 17, Red Lion Square, which Rossetti and Deverell had occupied in the early days of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, happened to be vacant; and at Rossetti's suggestion, they removed there. It was a first floor set of three rooms: the large room in front looked north, and its window had been heightened up to the ceiling to adapt it for use as a studio; behind it was a bedroom, and behind that another small bedroom or powdering closet. Till the spring of 1859 this was their London residence and working place, and it is round Red Lion Square that much of the mythology of Morris's earlier life clusters. From the incidents which occurred or were invented there, a sort of Book of the Hundred Merry Tales gradually was formed, of which Morris was the central figure. A great many of these stories are connected with the maid of the house, who became famous under the name of Red Lion Mary. She was very plain, but a person of great character and unfailing good humour, with some literary taste and a considerable knowledge of poetry. She cooked and mended for the new lodgers, read their books and letters, was anxious to be allowed to act as a model, and neglected all her other duties to stand behind them and watch them painting.
The rooms in Red Lion Square were unfurnished: and from this trifling circumstance came the beginnings of Morris's work as a decorator and manufacturer. The arts of cabinet-making and upholstery had at this time reached the lowest point to which they have ever sunk. Ugliness and vulgarity reigned in them unchecked. While he lived in furnished rooms it was easy to accept things as they were; but now, when furniture had actually to be bought, it became at once clear that nothing could be had that was beautiful, or indeed, that was not actively hideous. Nor was it possible even to get so simple a thing as a table or chair, still less any more elaborate piece of furniture, made at the furnishing shops from a better design. It was this state of things which drove Morris and Webb to take up the designing and making of objects of common use on their own account, and which led, a few years later, to the formation of the firm of Morris & Company. For the moment, however, all that was possible was that Morris should make rough drawings of the things he most wanted, and then get a carpenter in the neighbourhood to construct them from those drawings in plain deal. Thus the rooms in Red Lion Square were gradually provided with "intensely mediæval furniture," as Rossetti described it, "tables and chairs like incubi and succubi." First came a large round table "as firm, and as heavy, as a rock": then some large chairs, equally firm, and not lightly to be moved, "such as Barbarossa might have sat in." Afterwards a large settle was designed, with a long seat below, and above, three cupboards with great swing doors, "There were many scenes with the carpenter," Sir Edward Burne-Jones says: "especially I remember the night when the settle came home. We were out when it reached the house, but when we came in, all the passages and the staircase were choked with vast blocks of timber, and there was a scene. I think the measurements had perhaps been given a little wrongly, and that it was bigger altogether than he had ever meant, but set up it was finally, and our studio was one-third less in size. Rossetti came. This was always a terrifying moment to the very last. He laughed, but approved." Not only so, but he at once made designs for oil paintings to be executed on the panels of the cupboard doors and the sides of the settle. The design for the central panel, Love between the Sun and Mqon, was only executed later; but the painting of the two others was completed during this winter: and these panels, afterwards removed from the cupboard, are now known as the Meeting of Dante and Beatrice in Florence, and their Meeting in Paradise. On the backs of two of the large heavy chairs he also painted subjects from Morris's own poems; these panels, one representing Guendolen in the witch-tower and the Prince below kissing her long golden hair, and the other the arming of a knight, from the Christmas Mystery of "Sir Galahad," are also extant. The theory that furniture should mainly exist to provide spaces for pictorial decoration was carried in these chairs to an extreme limit. But the next piece of furniture required for the rooms was a wardrobe; and this, covered by Burne-Jones in the spring of 1857 with paintings from "The Prioress's Tale" in Chaucer, remained to the last the principal ornament of Morris's drawing-room in London, and is familiar to all his later as well as his older friends,
Morris himself worked hard at drawing and painting all that spring. His wonderful faculty of pattern designing had already come to him, and with it a unique sense for justness in colour, fed on admiring study of the best early mediæval work, especially in illumination. "In all illumination and work of that kind," Rossetti writes just before Christmas, 1856, "he is quite unrivalled by anything modern that I know."
In the drawing and modelling of animate forms he never could become proficient. The human figure was too much for him, and even with birds or animals in his designs he felt difficulty. So it remained afterwards. The animals in his wall-papers were, as a rule, drawn by Webb, and the figures in his tapestries by Burne-Jones; and many years later, when designing the borders for the Kelmscott Chaucer, he expressed his regret at not being able to fill them with Chaucer's favourite birds. Such figures as he designed, of which there are a number both in illuminations and in stained glass, are obviously faulty in drawing.
In June, Rossetti, writing to W. Bell Scott, mentions Morris as then busy painting his first picture. Its subject, taken from the "Morte d'Arthur," was the recognition of Tristram by the dog in King Mark's palace. This, like the few other pictures he completed, was in oil. The only recorded instance of his painting a picture in water-colour was three or four months later, when he was on a visit to Dixon at Manchester to see the famous Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857. While staying there he painted a water-colour of "The Soldan's Daughter in the Palace of Glass."
The Soldan's daughter was seated in a heavy wooden armchair, probably studied from one of those at Red Lion Square, and the palace was in all shades of bluish glass. To the pictures in the Manchester Exhibition he seemed to pay little attention, but studied the collection of carved ivories minutely. The visit ended with a very characteristic scene. "When he was to go," Canon Dixon says, "we both, I think, misread the Railway Guide, and drove to the station when there was no train; and there was nothing for it but to wait till next day. I was made aware of this by a fearful cry in my ears, and saw Morris 'translated': it lasted all the way home; it then vanished in a moment; he was as calm as if it had never been, and began painting in water-colours." It was during this visit to Manchester that he wrote the "Praise of My Lady," with the lovely Latin burden, which is one of the jewels of the volume of Poems of 1858.
Mrs. Alfred Baldwin possesses another work of the same period, which Morris gave her when a girl in London during that winter. It is a page of illuminated manuscript on vellum. The text, which is in prose, is founded on a fairy tale from Grimm. The writing, which is in the Gothic character, is rather cramped and uncertain. But the design and colouring of the border, and the treatment of a picture in a large initial letter, show a complete grasp of the principles and methods of the art. It is probable that no illumination had been done since the fifteenth century which was so full of the mediæval spirit.
A holiday during this Red Lion Square time was nearly always spent at the Zoological Gardens. For the greater birds Morris had always a special affection. He would imitate an eagle with considerable skill and humour, climbing on to a chair and, after a sullen pause, coming down with a soft heavy flop; and for some time an owl was one of the tenants of Red Lion Squaie, in spite of a standing feud between it and Rossetti. The evenings were pretty often spent at the theatre, seeing Robson at the Olympic, or Kean's Shakespearean pageants at the Princess's. Among all this series of spectacular plays, "Richard the Second" (March to July, 1857) was Morris's special favourite. For the beautiful fluency and copiousness of the language in this play he had an immense admiration; and in Kean's production there was a dance with mediæval music which gave him great delight. It was his first, or almost his first, introduction to early non-ecclesiastical music. When all the rest of the day's work or amusement was over, there were gatherings at Rossetti's rooms in Chatham Place, beginning about midnight and often lasting far into the morning.
How long Rossetti's daily influence might have kept him labouring at what he could not do, when there was work all round that he could do, on the whole, better than any man living, it is needless to inquire. But the first piece of work which took him away from life in a painter's studio, and began his career as a decorator, was of Rossetti's own initiation.
In the early part of the Long Vacation of 1857, Rossetti went down to Oxford to see his friend Benjamin Woodward, the architect. Morris, always delighted to take a day at Oxford, went with him. The long battle between the Palladian and Gothic styles for the new University Museum had been at last decided by the Oxford authorities in favour of the latter. Woodward's plans, in a style of mixed Rhenish and Venetian Gothic, had been accepted, and the museum was now in progress. Besides his principal work at the museum, he was engaged in building a debating hall for the Union Society. That hall, now the principal library, was just roofed in. In form, the hall was a long building with apsidal ends. A narrow gallery fitted with bookshelves ran completely round it, and above the shelves was a broad belt of wall divided into ten bays, pierced by twenty six-foil circular windows, and surmounted by an open timber roof. Rossetti was at once fired with the idea of painting the space thus given. In his notions of the application of painting to architectural surfaces, Woodward, an ardent admirer and a skilled imitator of the Venetian builders, cordially concurred; and it was at once settled that the ten bays and the whole of the ceiling should be covered with painting in tempera. The Building Committee of the Union, who had a general discretion as regards the work to be done during the Long Vacation, were induced to authorize the work without waiting to refer the matter to a general meeting of the Society. It was arranged that the paintings should forthwith be designed and carried out under Rossetti's superintendence. He himself, and other artists whom he should invite to join him, were to be the executants. The Union was to defray the expense of scaffolding and materials, and the travelling and lodging expenses of the artists, who, beyond this, were to give their services for nothing. No sooner was this settled, than Rossetti went straight back to London and issued his orders: Burne-Jones and Morris were to lay aside all other work and start on the new scheme at once. He had it all planned in his mind. The ten paintings on the walls were to be a series of scenes from the "Morte d'Arthur," and the roof above them was to be covered with a floriated design. For the pictures, ten men had to be found, each of whom should execute one bay, and the work, in the first enthusiasm, was estimated as a matter of six weeks or so. Arthur Hughes, Spencer Stanhope, Val Prinsep, and Hungerford Pollen, were drawn into the scheme and agreed to take a picture each; Madox Brown was also asked to execute one, but declined. Rossetti undertook to do two, or if possible three, himself, and Morris and Burne-Jones were each to do one under his eye and with his guidance: eight or nine of the ten bays were thus accounted for, and the remainder of the space was for the moment left to chance.
The story of these paintings, of which the mouldering and undecipherable remains still glimmer like faded ghosts on the walls of the Union Library, is one of work hastily undertaken, executed under impossible conditions, and finally abandoned after time and labour had been spent on it quite disproportionate to the original design. A scheme of mural decoration which was practically new in England, and which involved the most careful preparation and the most complete forethought, was rushed into with a light heart; all difficulties were ignored, and many of the most obvious precautions neglected. None of the painters engaged in it had then any practical knowledge of the art of mural painting, nor do they seem to have thought that any kind of colour could not be applied to any kind of surface. The tradition of the art of fresco painting was then so wholly lost that paintings in distemper on a naked wall were commonly spoken of as frescoes, and were expected to last as a fresco painting would. The walls w r ere newly built, and the mortar still damp. Each of the spaces to be painted over was pierced by two circular windows, and the effect on the design as well as on the lighting of the pictures may be imagined. No ground whatever was laid over the brickwork except a coat of whitewash: and on this the colour was to be laid with a small brush, like water-colour on paper.
Morris set to work with his usual energy. Before either of the others had made a design, he was in Oxford and had begun his painting. Presently Rossetti and Burne-Jones joined him there, and for the rest of the vacation they lived together in lodgings in the High Street, in a house now pulled down to make room for the new Schools. The other four painters came later, and the work, at first carried on with happy diligence through long hours day after day, became more intermittent as winter advanced, and trailed on into the following spring. Morris's was the first picture finished as it had been the first begun. The subject was one for which he felt a singular and almost a morbid attraction, that of the unsuccessful man and despised lover. The motive was the same which he had treated in prose a year before in the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine with many details which were directly taken from his own life. It was entitled "How Sir Palomydes loved La Belle Iseult with exceeding great love out of measure, and how she loved not him again but rather Sir Tristram." All of it that now traceably survives is the faded gleam of sunflowers with which part of the foreground was covered. On the profusion of these sunflowers Rossetti was a little sarcastic, and suggested that he should help another of the painters out of difficulties by filling up the foreground of that bay with scarlet-runners. But no sooner had Morris finished his picture than he set to work with fresh animation and with triumphant success on the decoration of the roof. The design for this was made in a single day, and surprised all the rest of the painters by its singular beauty and fitness. All the rest of the autumn he was working on the roof high over the heads of the others, carrying out the greater part of the decoration with his own hands. But Faulkner, now Fellow and Mathematical Tutor of University, came pretty regularly in the afternoons to help. "Charley comes out tremendously strong on the roof with all kinds of quaint beasts and birds," Burne-Jones wrote home in October. After term began, Price and others were impressed to assist as they came up. "I worked with him," Canon Dixon tells me, " on his picture of the famous sunflowers for several days, and was pleased to hear him say that it was improved." The day's work began at eight o'clock and went on as long as daylight lasted. "If we needed models," Sir Edward Burne-Jones writes, "we sat to each other, and Morris had a head always fit for Lancelot or Tristram. For the purposes of our drawing we often needed armour, and of a date and design so remote that no examples existed for our use. Therefore Morris, whose knowledge of all these things seemed to have been born in him, and who never at any time needed books of reference for anything, set to work to make designs for an ancient kind of helmet called a basinet, and for a great surcoat of ringed mail with a hood of mail and the skirt coming below the knees. These were made for him by a stout little smith who had a forge near the Castle. Morris's visits to the forge were daily, but what scenes happened there we shall never know; the encounters between these two workmen were always stubborn and angry as far as I could see. One afternoon when I was working high up at my picture, I heard a strange bellowing in the building, and turning round to find the cause, saw an unwonted sight. The basinet was being tried on, but the visor, for some reason, would not lift, and I saw Morris embedded in iron, dancing with rage and roaring inside. The mail coat came in due time, and was so satisfactory to its designer that the first day it came he chose to dine in it. It became him well; he looked very splendid. When it lay in coils on the ground, one could lift it with great difficulty, but once put on the body its weight was so evenly ordered that it was less uncomfortable than any top coat I ever wore. I have the basinet still, and the sword that was made by the same smith."
The decoration of the roof was finished early in November. But Morris did not leave Oxford, and for the next year or more lived chiefly there, in the rooms at 17, George Street, which the painters had taken when they had to turn out of their lodgings in High Street at the beginning of the autumn term. Burne-Jones, when he had finished his picture of "The Death of Merlin," returned to Red Lion Square, where he lived practically alone till spring, though his visits to Oxford and Morris's to London were almost weekly.
The decoration of the Union involves so many famous names, and is in itself of such interest as one of the earliest attempts of the sort made in modern times, that a brief digression may be pardonable to set down the rest of the story. From the first, there was a feeling among many members of the Union that the scheme had been rushed on them by Rossetti and Woodward. The latter, "the stillest creature that ever breathed out of an oyster shell," as Rossetti called him, had apparently been talked over by Rossetti into allowing the work to be begun without obtaining proper sanction. The question was raised at a debate on the 26th of October, 1857, when the Treasurer, Charles Bowen of Balliol (afterwards Lord Bowen) admitted that an irregularity had been committed, and the subject was allowed to drop. A week later, however, a motion was carried unanimously "thanking the gentlemen who had kindly and liberally undertaken to decorate the new building, and expressing appreciation of the valuable works of art in course of completion." The names mentioned specially were those of Rossetti and Hughes, "with some of their friends."
Later in term all the seven painters engaged on the work, together with Alexander Munro the sculptor, who was executing a relief in stone, from Rossetti's design, for the tympanum over the doorway, were elected honorary members, and a loan of ₤350 was sanctioned to meet the expense of the work. By the following spring six of the pictures had been completed: the seventh, Rossetti's own, "Sir Lancelot's Vision of the Sangrail," had been broken off when he was called to London by the dangerous illness of Miss Siddal, and was never resumed by him. Even in its unfinished condition it was by far the finest and most masterly of the series. "It belonged," says Sir Edward Burne-Jones, "to the best time and highest character of his work." In this design, Lancelot lay asleep against a well on the right hand of the picture: the Vision of the Grail carried by angels moved along opposite him; and in the centre, a phantom Guenevere stood with outstretched arms in front of an apple tree. The figures are perished quite beyond recognition: but a drawing made for that of the sleeping Lancelot is one of the earliest portraits of Burne-Jones. The other two pictures which Rossetti had designed had for subjects "Lancelot found in Guenevere's Chamber," and "The Three Knights of the Sangrail." A pen and ink sketch of the former, dated 1857, is in the possession of Mr. C.F. Murray. The small water-colour of the latter, painted several years afterwards and now in Mr. Heaton's collection, perhaps gives a better idea than anything else of the method used in the Union paintings, and also of the extraordinary brilliance of the colouring, nearly all in radiant greens and reds and blues. But the execution of these two pictures was never even begun; and after March, 1858, no more work was done either by Rossetti or by any other of the artists engaged. A committee then appointed, after certain communications with Rossetti, of which no record is preserved, took the matter into their own hands, and in June, 1859, Mr. William Riviere, the father of the well-known Academician, who had just left Cheltenham to become a teacher of painting in Oxford, was engaged to fill the three vacant bays, and a sum of £150 voted for his payment.
The impossible conditions under which the work was performed have already been mentioned. The brickwork on which the painting was executed was not damp-proof; the edges of the bricks caught all the floating dust; the colour partly sank in and partly flaked off; and to crown the whole, the hall was lit by naked gas-flames in large chandeliers, the smoke and heat of which went straight up on to the painting. William Bell Scott, who went to see them in June, 1858, when they had not been six months completed, speaks of them as being even then much defaced, in Morris's own picture little else appearing plainly but Tristram's head over a row of sunflowers. This state of things went on from bad to worse. In 1869, a committee of the Union was appointed "to enquire into, and report upon, the history, condition, and treatment of the paintings," which are still obstinately described as frescoes. Inconclusive negotiations went on with Rossetti for about two years on the question of completing his unfinished picture; as regards the rest of the work, though a suggestion to whitewash it all over was dropped, and another, to replace it by Morris's then celebrated pomegranate wallpaper, was not carried, the only point on which the opinion of the Society was unanimous was that no more money should be spent. Rossetti took very justifiable offence at a pamphlet—anonymous, but of well-known authorship—the effect of which had been to defeat a motion empowering expense to be incurred in cleaning and repairing the paintings; he refused point blank to have anything further to do with the affair: and the fresco committee was ultimately dissolved without anything being done. By the kindness of Mr. J.R. Thursfield, who was chairman of the fresco committee, I am enabled to give a letter which Morris wrote to him soon after the committee was appointed. It will be noticed that separate negotiations were going on with Rossetti about his picture, and that the letter therefore refers only to the other six of the original seven. The letter is undated, and written from Queen Square.
"I am sorry you are in trouble about the works at the Union, and hope I shan't increase it by my letter: I can speak distinctly about two of the pictures in question, Mr. Hughes', the one at the North end, and Mr. Burne-Jones' (Nimue and Merlin). Of these I think the design of Mr. Hughes to be quite among the best works of that painter, and a very beautiful and remarkable one: I think I have been told it is in a bad state; but I suppose something might be done to it. Mr. Burne-Jones' is a beautiful work, and admirably suits its space as to decoration; it would be quite absurd to cover it up. Mr. Pollen's, opposite Mr. Hughes', was never finished; two others, one by Mr. Prinsep, another by Mr. Stanhope, though not very complete in some ways, yet looked very well in their places I think. As for my own, I believe it Ms some merits as to colour, but I must confess I should feel much more comfortable if it had disappeared from the wall, as I'm conscious of its being extremely ludicrous in many ways. In confidence to you I should say that the whole affair was begun and carried out in too piecemeal and unorganized a manner to be a real success—nevertheless it would surely be a pity to destroy some of the pictures, which are really remarkable, and at the worst can do no harm there. I am sorry if this is 'cold comfort'; but I thought you would really like to know what I thought, and so here it is. I must thank you heartily however for the enthusiasm you have shown in the matter; and I wish I could be of more use to you.
The subject of Hughes's picture was "The Death of Arthur." The others were, "Sir Pelleas and the Lady Ettarde," by Prinsep: "How King Arthur received his sword Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake," by Pollen: and "Sir Gawaine and the three Damsels at the Fountain in the Forest of Arroy," by Stanhope.
The re-decoration of the roof, which was carried out by Morris in 1875, left the wall-paintings below untouched; and they still glimmer faintly in their places, blackened, faded, and peeled, the light here and there falling on some still recognizable feature, a long fold of drapery, a patch of ring armour, or the straight line of a knight's sword. The only record of their first fugitive and fairylike beauty is in an article by Mr. Coventry Patmore in the Saturday Review for the 26th of December, 1857, which speaks of the colour as "sweet, bright, and pure as a cloud in the sunrise," and "so brilliant as to make the walls look like the margin of an illuminated manuscript."
For Morris, the autumn and winter months of 1857–8 were, in spite of the discouragements caused by his slow progress in the technique of painting, full of hope and enthusiasm. Among his old Oxford friends, Price' and Faulkner especially, he regained something of the old light-heartedness which life in London and the imperious domination of Rossetti had begun to impair. A few extracts from Price's diary during the autumn term give a picture of the resumed, but altered, life in Oxford. Term had begun on the 16th of October.
"Oct. 17. Breakfasted with Top at Johnson's in George Street. Rossetti, Hughes, Prinsep, Ted, and Coventry Patmore there. To the Union to see the frescoes.
"Oct. 18. To Rossetti's—R. painting the Marriage of St. George. Prinsep there; six feet one, 15 stone, not fat, well-built, hair like finest wire, short, curly and seamless—age only 19. Stood for Top for two hours in a dalmatic.
"Oct. 24. Spent afternoon in daubing in black lines on the Union roof for Topsy. Whist in the evening as usual (at Rossetti's).
"Oct. 30. Evening at George Street. Rossetti, Ted, Topsy, Hughes, Swan, Faulkner, Bowen of Balliol, Bennet of Univ., Munro, Hill, Prinsep and Stanhope there. Topsy read his grind on Lancelot and Guenevere—very grand.
"Oct. 31. Stippled and blacklined at Union. Evening at George Street: Rossetti and I versus Top and Faulkner at whist. Madox Brown turned up. Rossetti said that Topsy had the greatest capacity for producing and annexing dirt of any man he ever met with.
"Nov. 1. To Hill's, where were Tospy, Ted, Swan, Hatch, Swinburne of Balliol (introduced I think by Hatch) and Faulkner."
Several of the names mentioned here are new. Swan, a friend of Rossetti's and a man of some amount of genius which verged on eccentricity, had taken a considerable part in executing the decorations on the Union roof, his name, together with those of Morris, Faulkner, and St. John Tyrwhitt of Christ Church, being inscribed on one of the rafters as the artificers. It is recorded that up in the dark angles of the roof they sometimes painted, instead of flowers, little figures of Morris with his legs straddling out like the portraits of Henry VIII.: for the slim young man of the previous year was now not only, in a charming phrase used of him at the time by Burne-Jones, "unnaturally and unnecessarily curly," but growing fat. Bowen, who as Treasurer of the Union had been primarily responsible for accepting the suggested decoration, gave it afterwards, as President, his untiring support. Hill is the well-known editor of Boswell's "Johnson," who, though a little junior to the "set," had been closely connected with it. Bennet had been Treasurer of the Union just before Bowen, and succeeded him in the Presidency in the following year. Swinburne had come up to Balliol in January, 1856; the acquaintance now formed with Morris at Oxford ripened into intimacy in London a few years later. He had already written a long poem on Iseult Blanchemains, and their common enthusiasm for Malory and the Arthurian legend drew them together. Swinburne was among the most fervid admirers of Morris's early poetry, on which he lavished all the habitual generosity of his praise.
The Bohemian life in London had by this time raised Morris's unconventionality, which had always been extreme, to a still more excessive height. To wear long hair, and a soft felt hat, and to smoke a pipe in season and out of season, was still, as in the earlier days of Clive Newcome, the mark of an artist. But Morris exceeded even the customary licence of Gandish's. "Morris went to Jones's on Sunday night," runs a note in Miss Price's diary, "while they were here; and his hair was so long and he looked so wild that the servant who opened the door would not let him in, thinking he was a burglar." He forswore dress clothes, and there is a ludicrous story of his ineffectual attempt to get into Hughes's evening trousers when he was going to dine at high table in Christ Church. To go into society was torture to him, and he never took pains to conceal it. One of the tribulations of these months was the task, equally hard in either case, of evading or accepting the invitations of Dr. Henry Acland, whose intimacy with Ruskin and appreciation of the Pre-Raphaelite school led him to offer constant hospitality to the young painters. Once, when they were to dine with Dr. Acland, Morris invented an illness and sent his apologies by Burne-Jones. Unfortunately, Burne-Jones arrived with this message when there still wanted a few minutes to dinner-time. Acland, who was all kindness, instantly, to Burne-Jones's infinite dismay, put on his hat and went round to see the sick man in his lodgings: he was found, apparently in the best of health and spirits, sitting at dinner with Faulkner and playing cribbage over the meal. He had to confess recovery, and be led off to dinner. Another story of the same period is equally characteristic. At dinner one evening in George Street, Prinsep said something, whether intentionally or not, which offended Morris. Every one expected an outburst of fury. But by a prodigious effort of self-control Morris swallowed his anger, and only bit his fork—one of the common four-pronged fiddle-pattern kind—which was crushed and twisted about almost beyond recognition. During these months, too, he was feeling his way in other arts and handicrafts: carving a block of freestone into a capital of foliage and birds, done with great spirit and life, Mr. Arthur Hughes says; drawing and colouring designs for stained-glass windows; and modelling from the life in clay. Price sat to him for a clay head which he was modelling; it was never finished, because whenever Morris grew impatient he flew at it and smashed it up. In carving the stone block he struck a splinter into his own eye; and his language to Dr. Acland, who was called in to look after the injury, was even for him unequalled in its force and copiousness. About the same time he was making his first experiments in reviving the decayed art of embroidery. He had a frame made from an old pattern, and worsteds specially dyed for him by an old French dyer. He worked at this till he had mastered the principles of laying and radiating the stitches so as to cover the ground closely and smoothly. A piece of work he began then with a bird and tree pattern embroidered on it is still in existence. In these months also were written a number of the finest of the poems published, early in 1858, in Morris's first volume, "The Defence of Guenevere and other Poems."
This volume is so well known that any detailed account or criticism of its contents would be superfluous. It is one of those books which, without ever reaching a wide circulation or a large popularity, have acted with great intensity on a small circle of minds, and, to those on whom they struck fully home, given a new colour to the art of poetry and the whole imaginative aspect of things. On its appearance, it met with no acclamations; it did not even gain the distinction of abuse: it simply went unnoticed. Only two or three contemporary notices of it have been traced. One other, which really showed some appreciation of its unusual qualities, somewhat missed its object by not appearing for eight years. A reviewer in the Athenæum treated it as a mere piece of Pre-Raphaelite eccentricity, "a curiosity which shows how far affectation may mislead an earnest man towards the fog-land of Art."
The volume seems to have had, on the whole, all the usual chances at its entrance into the world. Morris, it is true, was then a bad and an impatient corrector of proofs: the punctuation of the poems is deplorable, and there are a good many serious misprints. But such minute points hardly affect a book's fortunes, and in other respects the volume is pleasant-looking, and even handsome. Some two hundred and fifty copies were sold and given away, and the remainder of the edition stayed long on the publishers' shelves. So late as 187 1 there were still copies to be had. Even the reprint of 1875, made at the instance of Mr. F.S. Ellis, owed such popularity as it had mainly to its being by the author of "The Earthly Paradise."
But if the value of poetry is to be measured (to use the phrase of the logicians) in intension, few volumes have a more marked place in modern literature. Mr. Swinburne's just and tempered language as to the reception of "The Defence of Guenevere" hardly needs to be supplemented. "Here and there," he wrote of it when Morris had leaped into fame and even popularity with the appearance of "Jason," "it met with eager recognition and earnest applause; nowhere, if I err not, with just praise or blame worth heeding. It seems to have been now lauded and now decried as the result and expression of a school rather than a man, of a theory or tradition rather than a poet or student. Those who so judged were blind guides. Such things as were in this book are taught and learnt in no school but that of instinct. Upon no piece of work in the world was the impress of native character ever more distinctly stamped, more deeply branded. It needed no exceptional acuteness of ear or eye to see or hear that this poet held of none, stole from none, clung to none, as tenant, or as beggar, or as thief. Not yet a master, he was assuredly no longer a pupil."
It is of the four Arthurian poems which stand at the beginning of the volume that Mr. Swinburne more specially speaks; and these to many readers are no doubt the flower of the whole. One can well imagine with what hushed admiration, with what a shock and surprise of emotion, that little gathering at George Street, on the 30th of October, 1857, heard, for the first time, "King Arthur's Tomb." Here again Mr. Swinburne's words are the final ones: "There is scarcely connection here, and scarcely composition. There is hardly a trace of narrative power or mechanical arrangement. There is a perceptible want of tact and practice, which leaves the poem in parts indecorous and chaotic. But where among other and older poets of his time and country is one comparable for perception and experience of tragic truth, of subtle and noble, terrible and piteous things? where a touch of passion at once so broad and so sure?"
Mr. J.W. Hoole, the son of a neighbour of the Morrises in Essex, who was then an undergraduate at Queen's, contributes a curious remark that Morris made with regard to these Arthurian poems. "He took me across to his lodgings opposite Queen's College and read me 'The Defence of Guenevere,' before it was printed. On my enquiring—with not very good taste to an original poet—in whose style the poem was written, he answered ' More like Browning than any one else, I suppose.' ' This may at first seem a lightly-uttered fancy; but the more one thinks over it, the more is one struck with its truth. The author of "The Defence of Guenevere" approaches poetry from the same side, one may so put it, as the author of "Men and Women." What both alike aim at and attain is the realization, keen, swift, and minute, of some tragic event or situation, and the expression with absolute sincerity of that exact event or situation precisely as thus realized and no further, disregarding conventions of poetical treatment, and too eager to pause over finesse of workmanship. The affinity is perhaps closer, as it is more evident, in the other group of poems, constituting about half the volume, which are suggested more or less directly by Froissart, as the Arthurian poems are by Malory. They might aptly be headed Dramatic Lyrics and Dramatic Romances of the fourteenth century. The range is much less than Browning's; but the intensity of realization is even greater, and it is free from the slightest trace of parade or pedantry. For to Morris the Middle Ages, out of which he sometimes seemed to have strayed by some accident into the nineteenth century, were his habitual environment: he lived in them as really and as simply as if he had been translated back to them in actual vision. The Little Tower and the Haystack in the Floods are as clearly before his eyes as if the riding of the knights had gone by but a day before: the talk of Sir Peter Harpdon and his man seems transcribed from memory. It is this amazing power of realization, when he is dealing with his own period, that gives to the masterpiece of his later years, "The Dream of John Ball," so vivid a colour and truth; it is the want of it, when he is off that ground, that leaves him open to the accusation of being mannered or languid when he deals with a story which is either not mediæval or not treated in a frankly mediæval spirit.
Browning himself, it may not be without interest to know, was one of the earliest and the most enthusiastic admirers of this volume. "It has been my delight," he said of it many years afterwards, "ever since I read it." When the first volume of "The Earthly Paradise" was published, he wrote to Morris a letter of warm and finely-appreciative praise. "It is a double delight to me," he added, "to read such poetry, and know you of all the world wrote it,—you whose songs I used to sing while galloping by Fiesole in old days,—'Ho, is there any will ride with me?'"
Between the charm of the Malory poems and that of the Froissart poems the choice is one of personal feeling. But the part of the volume which one gathers to represent its spirit and form most intimately to many lovers of poetry, is neither of these. It consists of the poems of a wholly unbased and fantastic romance, in which any traceable poetical influence is that of Poe rather than of Browning. Their very names—such names as "The Blue Closet," or "The Sailing of the Sword," or "Two Red Roses across the Moon"—are taken straight out of dreamland. It is these poems on which the unjust praise and the blame not worth heeding which the volume drew on itself were primarily spent. They lend themselves alike to the purposes of the précieux and the parodist. Never perhaps has poetry come nearer to what some theorists have laid down as its goal, the emotional effect of music, than in some of these remarkable pieces—"The Wind," "A Spellbound," "Near Avalon." Even now, to those to whom they have been long familiar, their faint beauty comes back, ever and again, like a fugitive and haunting scent, or the vague trouble of a dream remembered in a dream.
It was part, and a very necessary part, of the Pre-Raphaelite creed to disregard both neglect and criticism: and Morris, of all persons in the world, was one who was only happy in his own content, and over whom the opinions of others slipped without leaving much impression. For professional literary criticism, beyond all, his feeling was something between amusement and contempt. "To think of a beggar making a living by selling his opinion about other people!" he characteristically said: "and fancy any one paying him for it!" he added, in a climax of scorn. Yet an author's first book, and more so if it be a book of poems, is a thing by itself: and it would seem that the little notice the volume met with united with other causes to make him for a time stop writing poetry. In the few months before its publication he had been producing very fast, and with a swift growth in range of manner and power of expression. The turbid quality which weakens, or even disfigures, so many of the earlier poems was daily running clearer. "King Arthur's Tomb," "The Eve of Crecy," "Praise of my Lady," all written in these months, sound a chord of imaginative beauty such as Tennyson himself, at the same age, had not surpassed. The mixed lyric and dramatic method invented by him for "Sir Peter Harpdon's End," with its odd and fascinating use of blank verse, had in it all kinds of possibilities. He had already planned, and begun to write, a cycle of poems in this form on subjects from the War of Troy. There are a few surviving fragments of "The Maying of Guenevere," the opening piece of an Arthurian cycle which would have ended with "King Arthur's Tomb," and in which, it has been thought, he would have found his most real inspiration. Tennyson's "Morte d' Arthur" still stood alone, an inimitable fragment; it was not till 1859 that the first of "The Idyls of the King" were published. After that, the treatment of the story in a different, even if a simpler and sincerer manner, was almost precluded by the imposing brilliance of the Tennysonian version, and its remarkable conquest of both critical approval and popular fame. But now this, and all other poetry, was laid aside; and when Morris laid a thing aside, he did so with the same energy with which he had taken it up. "It is to be regretted," says Canon Dixon, speaking as one who has remained faithful to the earlier aims and ideals of Morris's art, "that he did so. He could have produced more of the same sort then. When he afterwards took up poetry again, he could not do it. His 'Jason' was better than his 'Earthly Paradise,' but the first flavour was gone from them both."
"The Defence of Guenevere" was published in March. About the same time Burne-Jones, left much alone in Red Lion Square since the beginning of the year, had fallen rather dangerously ill, and was carried off by Mrs. Prinsep, the kind friend of all artists, to Little Holland House, to be taken care of and nursed back to health. He stayed there during a great part of the year. There was, therefore, no permanent companion for Morris in Red Lion Square; and though it remained his London lodging, much the greater part of the year was spent by him at Oxford, either in his rooms in the city or at Summertown with the Maclarens. There he went on painting hard, but with continued dissatisfaction. He even sold a picture for the considerable sum of £70 to Mr. Plint of Leeds. The negotiation was conducted by Rossetti, who loved making bargains for his friends as well as for himself. This picture, which has now, after many wanderings, returned to the possession of his family, is believed to be the only finished easel-painting by Morris certainly known to exist. It was exhibited in London at the New Gallery in January, 1898.
There was, however, a further and a stronger reason for his prolonged stay at Oxford. Towards the end of the Long Vacation of 1857, Rossetti and Burne-Jones, who had gone, after a day's work at the Union, to the little Oxford theatre, found sitting just behind them two girls, daughters of Mr. Robert Burden, of Holywell Street. The elder attracted their attention at once by her remarkable beauty, of a type not common in England, and specially admired by Rossetti. They made her acquaintance; and after some little negotiation she was persuaded to sit to him and his friends, and continued to do so while the work at the Union was going on. With Morris the attraction went deeper, and soon after his volume of poems appeared they became engaged. Only a few flitting notices can be gathered of his life, or thoughts, or occupations, during this summer and the following winter. Sometimes there are traces of him at his mother's new house at Leyton, sometimes in London at Red Lion Square, or at Little Holland House, drawing from a tree that overhung a pond in the garden—pond, tree, and garden now long vanished; sometimes painting in the Maclarens' orchard at Summertown, where the holes he dug in the grass by wriggling his chair about as he sat at his easel, and the force of his language when a gust of wind blew the canvas off wet side down, were long remembered; or reading aloud interminably to the group of friends assembled there from Froissart and Monstrelet and Malory's "Morte d'Arthur." In August he was once more in Northern France, and rowed down the Seine from Paris—then an unusual and adventurous thing to do—with Faulkner and Webb. An Oxford boat had been sent over from Bossom's to Paris, where it arrived with a large hole in its bottom. The mending of the boat, and the start from the Quai du Louvre amid the satire of the populace, as the three Englishmen embarked with three carpet bags and half-a-dozen bottles of wine for their luggage, were the beginnings of an almost epic voyage. During this trip the plan of building himself a house was discussed between him and Webb, and on their return there was much travelling about to look at possible sites for it. In the late autumn there are references to an illness, cheerfully attributed by his friends to his eating and drinking too much, or rather to his being quite careless (as he remained always) of what he ate and drank. In October he was in France again, "to buy old manuscripts and armour and ironwork and enamel." The instability which he found, or thought he found, in his own character became for a time acute. The overstrain of the crowded years through which he had been passing, with all their inward revolutions, all their pangs of growth and fevers of imagination, had left him, like some lover in one of his own poems, languid and subject to strange fluctuations of mood. In a curious and illuminating phrase used by one of his friends in writing about him some little time before, "he has lately taken a strong fancy for the human."
One thing at all events became more and more certain, that the external impulse under which he had become a painter had exhausted its force. A new kind of life opened out vaguely before him, in which that "small Palace of Art of my own," long ago recognized by him as one of his besetting dreams, was now peopled with the forms of wife and children, and contracted to the limits of some actual home, in which life and its central purposes need not be thwarted by any baseness or ugliness of immediate surroundings: an undertaking for a lifetime, and much more than a lifetime, as it turned out, but then certainly conceived as possible.
On Tuesday the 26th of April, 1859, William Morris and Jane Burden were married in the little ancient parish church of St. Michael's in Oxford; he was then just five and twenty. Dixon, who had by this time taken Orders and was curate of St. Mary's, Lambeth, came down to perform the ceremony; Faulkner was best man; and Burne-Jones and a few more of the old Oxford set were there. It was the last scene in the Oxford life of the Brotherhood.