The Life of William Morris/Chapter 5

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CHAPTER V

RED HOUSE : FORMATION OF THE FIRM : THE
FALL OF TROY

1859-1865

After a six weeks' tour to Paris, Belgium, and the Rhine, as far as Basle, Mr. and Mrs. Morris returned to London, to furnished rooms at 41, Great Ormond Street, where they lived while their own house was being built. The establishment at Red Lion Square was finally broken up, Burne-Jones going into lodgings of his own in Charlotte Street. Webb had just left Street's office to set up as an architect on his own account, and the building of the new house was placed in his hands. The house was to be a proving piece. In it the theories of its owner and its architect on domestic building and decoration were to be worked out in practice: and the scheme and details were the joint invention of the two. The notion of building a house after his own fancy was one which had already been in Morris's mind for a considerable time. He wanted it not merely as a place to live in, but as a fixed centre and background for his artistic work. He hated designing in the air, without relation to a definite material and a particular purpose. While his whole work as a decorative manufacturer may be not untruly said to have sprung directly out of the building and furnishing of this house, it would be almost equally true to say that the house, first in idea and then in fact, sprung out of his devoting himself to the practice of decorative art and requiring, as one might say, a canvas to work upon. When his approaching marriage made a home of some sort, other than London or Oxford lodgings, a necessity, the building of the house followed as a matter of course.

It was to be in the country, and by preference not far from London, though as to this he was really indifferent. The great network of suburban railways had then hardly begun to exist, and the spot finally fixed upon, though little more than ten miles from London by road, was about three miles from the nearest station, that at Abbey Wood on the North Kent Line. From the Plumstead marshes, along the inner edge of which this railway runs, a steep ascent leads southward through wooded slopes to a gently undulating country, intersected by the great high road from London to Dover, the ancient Watling Street. On the part of this plateau known as Bexley Heath, close to the little village of Upton, Morris had bought an orchard and meadow, and it was settled to build the house in the orchard so that it should have apple and cherry trees all round it from the first. Three or four labourers' cottages close by were locally known as Hog's Hole; the discovery of this name affording unspeakable and lasting satisfaction to Rossetti. The district, even when less built over than it is now, was not one of any remarkable charm: it had something of the sadness of that common English lowland country of which Morris was so fond; but was fertile, well wooded and watered, and interspersed with pleasant orchards and coppices.

What Morris required in a country was that it should be open and fertile, and have in it some central and distinguishing natural feature of hill or river. In the normal English landscape, "so rich and so limited, no big hill, no wide river to lead one's thoughts or hopes along," and everywhere inclosed, he felt a sense of imprisonment. The wide arid heaths of Surrey and the close rich Devonshire valleys were alike distasteful to him; he set his own plain and rather ugly Essex country far before either. But, till he went to live on the Upper Thames, Kent was probably his favourite county; and he may have pleased himself with the notion of living close to the track of the Canterbury pilgrims, the vena porta of mediæval England. Just below him lay the little valley of the Cray, beaded with its string of villages; and further off, but within an easy walk, the beautiful valley of the Darenth. At Abbey Farm were the remains of an Augustinian Priory, one of those suppressed by Wolsey in order to found his great college at Oxford. The particular spot, however, was very much chosen because the orchard seemed to suit his requirements as nearly as possible. It was one of a number of places advertised for sale which he had looked at in the previous summer.

The reaction from early Victorian stucco had just begun to set in, but had not yet begun to produce any visible effect over the country. Nowadays, when the red brick of the common modern country house is to be seen on every roadside, this, the first house that Webb built, might be passed without any remark by a casual traveller. But Mr. Norman Shaw was then a clerk in Street's office; stucco and slate still reigned supreme in all districts where stone was not the native building material; and the name of Red House given to the new building was sufficient to describe it without ambiguity to all the neighbourhood. Its planning was as original as its material. The type of house which Morris was fond of describing as a square box with a lid was completely abandoned: it was planned as an L-shaped building, two-storied, with a high-pitched roof of red tile. The beautiful oak staircase filled a bold projection in the angle, and corridors ran from it along both the inner walls, so that the rooms on both limbs of the house faced outward on to the garden. The two other sides of this half-quadrangle were masked by rose-trellises, inclosing a square inner court, in the middle of which rose the most striking architectural feature of the building, a well-house of brickwork and oak timber, with a steep conical tiled roof. Externally the house was plain almost to severity, and depended for its effect on its solidity and fine proportion. The decorative features it possessed were constructional, not of the nature of applied ornament: the frankly emphasized relieving arches over the windows, the deep cornice moulding, the louvre in the high open roof over the staircase, and the two spacious recessed porches. Inside, its most remarkable feature was the large drawing-room, which filled the external angle of the L on the upper floor. It looked by its main end window northwards towards the road and the open country; and a projecting oriel in the western side overlooked the long bowling green, which ran, encircled with apple trees, close under the length of that wing. The decoration of this room, and of the staircase by which it was reached, was to be the work of several years for Morris and his friends: and he boldly announced that he meant to make it the most beautiful room in England. But through the whole house, inside and out, the same ideal standard was, so far as possible, to be kept up.

It was at this point that the problem of decoration began. The bricklaying and carpentering could be executed directly from the architect's designs. But when the shell of the house was completed, and stood clean and bare among its apple trees, everything, or nearly everything, that was to furnish or decorate it had to be likewise designed and made. Only in a few isolated cases—such as Persian carpets, and blue china or delft for vessels of household use—was there anything then to be bought ready-made that Morris could be content with in his own house. Not a chair, or table, or bed; not a cloth or paper hanging for the walls; nor tiles to line fireplaces or passages; nor a curtain or a candlestick; nor a jug to hold wine or a glass to drink it out of, but had to be reinvented, one might almost say, to escape the flat ugliness of the current article. The great painted settle from Red Lion Square was taken and set up in the drawing-room, the top of it being railed in so as to form a small music gallery. Much of the furniture was specially designed by Webb and executed under his eye: the great oak dining-table, other tables, chairs, cupboards, massive copper candlesticks, fire-dogs, and table glass of extreme beauty. The plastered walls and ceilings were treated with simple designs in tempera, and for the hall and main living rooms a richer and more elaborate scheme of decoration was designed and gradually began to be executed. The garden was planned with the same care and originality as the house; in both alike the study of older models never sank into mere antiquarianism or imitation of obsolete forms. Morris's knowledge of architecture was so entirely a part of himself that he never seemed to think about it as anything peculiar. But in his knowledge of gardening he did, and did with reason, pride himself. It is very doubtful whether he was ever seen with a spade in his hands; in later years at Kelmscott his manual work in the garden was almost limited to clipping his yew hedges. But of flowers and vegetables and fruit trees he knew all the ways and capabilities. Red House garden, with its long grass walks, its midsummer lilies and autumn sunflowers, its wattled rose-trellises inclosing richly-flowered square garden plots, was then as unique as the house it surrounded. The building had been planned with such care that hardly a tree in the orchard had to be cut down; apples fell in at the windows as they stood open on hot autumn nights.

Red House was sufficiently advanced for occupation towards the end of the summer of 1860. It was meant to be a permanent home. Circumstances then unforeseen obliged him to leave it after only five years, while it was still growing in beauty. But the five years spent there were probably the happiest and not the least fruitful of his life.

The difficulty of furnishing the house when built was one that demanded some more practical solution than that of getting each article singly and laboriously manufactured, even had it been easier than it was to find manufacturers who would accept such orders. Instances like that of Messrs. Powell, the great glassmakers in Whitefriars, who were receptive of new ideas and really eager to produce beautiful objects, were of the rarest occurrence; the ordinary manufacturer, like the ordinary purchaser, looked at any beautiful design with a feeling compounded of fear, apathy, and contempt. Meanwhile Morris's apprenticeship to the arts of building and painting, with their subsidiary industries, had fully kindled his inborn instinct for handicraft: from the mood of idleness into which he had for a short time fallen he plunged back into the mood of energy, and his brain and fingers tingled to be at work. The eagerness of the maker, the joy of craftsmanship, had come to him, and came to stay. So it was that in half-unconscious adaptation to the conditions of modern life, the monastery of his Oxford dreams rose into being as a workshop, and the Brotherhood became a firm registered under the Companies Acts.

The first notion of the firm of Morris & Company, the name and wares of which have since become so widely spread, sprang up among the friends in talk, and cannot be assigned to any single author. It was in a large measure due to Madox Brown; but perhaps even more to Rossetti, who, poet and idealist as he was, had business qualities of a high order, and the eye of the trained financier for anything that had money in it. To Morris himself, who had not yet been forced by business experience into being a business man, the firm probably meant little more than a definite agreement for co-operation and common work among friends who were also artists. The directions in which it turned its energies were to be determined, primarily, by the things which he wanted to make or to have made for his own private use, and then by the requirements, towards the purposes of their own professional work, of the rest of his associates. Of these associates Burne-Jones and Madox Brown were already regularly employed in making designs for stained glass, mainly, of course, for church windows. Webb was not only an architect, but a designer of the smaller work which is usually separate from that of the architect, or only taken up by him as by-play; a master of proportion and ornament, whether applied to the larger masses of architecture or to such things as tables and chairs and lamps. Faulkner, deeply bitten with the enthusiasms of his friends, and unable to bear the loneliness oi Oxford now that all the rest were gone, had resigned the mathematical tutorship which he held together with his Fellowship at University, and had come to London to learn the business of a civil engineer. As a man with a head for figures, who could keep the accounts of the business, he was a valuable associate; and though he had no gift of design, he contributed a good deal of work as a craftsman. He helped in executing mural decorations; he painted pattern-tiles, and figure-tiles on which the design had been drawn by a more skilled hand; and he even, in March, 1862, successfully cut a wood-block, on which Rossetti had drawn the well-known illustration for his sister's poem of "Goblin Market."

Church decoration was at first the main employment of the new firm. It was just at that time rising into the rank of an important industry. Jowett, writing to a friend in 1865, remarks that "Muscular Christianity is gone out," and notices, as a prominent sign of the times, the æsthetico-Catholic revival going on in the London churches. But that movement had sprung up some years earlier, while the school of Kingsley and Maurice was still living and powerful. A large section of the neo-Catholic party, abandoning the exhausted battlefields of theology, had turned from theory to practice and from the fourth to the thirteenth century. Their earlier campaign had been among the clergy; and there they had won a decided, though in itself a barren, victory. Now with fresh ardour and with more practical sagacity, they flung themselves into the task of winning over the laity. Plain men and women, to whom primitive tradition and apostolical succession were tiresome or meaningless sounds, could appreciate the sensible beauty of Anglo-Catholic ritual. In the building of new, and the redecoration of old, churches, there was a demand for glass, tiles, altar-cloths, and every sort of furnishing, which was but feebly met by the established producers of upholsterer's Gothic. Through the architects Street and Bodley the newly-formed company had at once work of this sort put in their hands. The Rev. A.H. Mackonochie, curate-in-charge of St. Alban's, Holborn, whose name became so notorious a few years later in connexion with questions of the mixed chalice and altar lights, was one of the firm's earliest customers. St. Alban's was being built in 1862, and after its consecration in February, 1863, much remained to be done to it in the way of decoration. But their first commissions, and the principal pieces of their first year's business, were for the decoration of two new churches which were being built by Bodley, those of St. Martin's, Scarborough, and St. Michael's, Brighton. In the latter, the chancel-roof was painted by Morris, Webb, and Faulkner, with their own hands: and the windows were executed from designs by Madox Brown and Burne-Jones.

This typical instance of co-operation shows obvious reasons for the inclusion in the firm of the five members named. As for Rossetti, he contributed a few designs for both glass and tiles; but if asked why he had become a partner in a manufacturing firm, he might have, with some truth, given the reply, Quia nominor leo: he was looked up to by the younger men as their master mind, and they would hardly have thought of starting any new scheme without him. The seventh member of the company, Mr. Peter Paul Marshall, was a friend of Madox Brown's, by profession a surveyor and sanitary engineer at Tottenham. He contributed several cartoons for glass, and a few designs for furniture and church decoration, but otherwise took little part in the work of the firm. His inclusion was, even at the moment, rather unaccountable. There had been talk of asking others to join, and the matter seems to have been hurried through at the end owing to Morris's excitement and eagerness to get to work. Mr. Arthur Hughes had actually been included as a member, and his name appears in the first prospectus issued by the new firm, but he withdrew from it before it was formally registered. "I was living far off in the country," Mr. Hughes tells me, "while the others were in town, and attending the meetings was inconvenient for me, and also I rather despaired of its establishment, and I wrote asking to be let go. Curiously, my letter was crossed by one from Morris asking me to make a design for a portion of a window, and another for a piece of jewel work. I did the drawing for the window, and it remains my only contribution."

With the formation, in April, 1861, of the firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., the old Oxford Brotherhood, with its ideas of common life and united action, finally fell asunder. The outer fringe of that company had already passed into circles and interests of their own. Fulford and Dixon had taken Orders; Macdonald had gone to America. Price, the only other member of the inner circle, had, at the end of 1860, accepted an appointment in Russia, which took him away from England for three years. Morris, Burne-Jones, and Faulkner were actually in a minority on the new association. The Round Table was dissolved indeed.

Seldom has a business been begun on a smaller capital. Each of the members held one share, and on the nth of April the finance of the company began with a call of ₤1 per share. On this, and on an unsecured loan of ₤100 from Mrs. Morris of Leyton, the first year's trading was done. Premises were taken from Lady Day, 1861, at 8, Red Lion Square, a few doors off Morris's and Burne-Jones's old rooms. The ground floor of the house was occupied by a working jeweller: the firm rented the first floor for an office and show room, and the third floor, with part of the basement, for workshops. In the basement a small kiln was built, for firing glass and tiles. As the work grew on their hands, about a dozen men and boys came to be regularly employed on the premises. The boys were got from a Boys' Home in the Euston Road; the men chiefly from Camden Town. The foreman, Mr. George Campfield, was a glass-painter who had come under Morris's notice as a pupil at the evening classes of the Working Men's College in Great Ormond Street. He is still in the employment of the firm at Merton Abbey. There were regular weekly meetings of the firm on Wednesday evenings, but otherwise Morris and Faulkner were the only two partners who partook in the active management of the business. The following letter from Morris to his old tutor, inclosing a copy of the circular announcing the starting of the business, shows that church decoration was what he chiefly looked to for custom. Among the early purchases entered as house expenses in the books of the firm is a Clergy List, and—divided from it only by an entry for fluoric acid—a Vulgate. Work in Bodley's two new churches at Scarborough and Brighton, and in a third, that of Selsley All Saints, near Stroud, was the main business of this year.

"8, Red Lion Square,
"April 19th, 1861.

"My dear Guy,

"By reading the enclosed you will see that I have started as a decorator which I have long meant to do when I could get men of reputation to join me, and to this end mainly I have built my fine house. You see we are, or consider ourselves to be, the only really artistic firm of the kind, the others being only glass painters in point of fact (like Clayton & Bell), or else that curious nondescript mixture of clerical tailor and decorator that flourishes in Southampton Street, Strand; whereas we shall do—most things. However, what we are most anxious to get at present is wall-decoration, and I want to know if you could be so kind as to send me (without troubling yourself) a list of clergymen and others, to whom it might be any use to send a circular. In about a month we shall have some things to show in these rooms, painted cabinets, embroidery and all the rest of it, and perhaps you could look us up then: I suppose till the holidays you couldn't come down to Red House: I was very much disappointed that you called when I was out before.

" With kind regards to Mrs. Guy,
"Believe me
"Yours very truly
"William Morris."

But household furniture and decoration had also been taken in hand. Some of the table glass designed by Webb and executed by Messrs. Powell was the first thing actually sold: and designs of Webb's for furniture and jewellery were also being carried out, the former by Mr. Curwen, a cabinet-maker in the neighbourhood, the latter by the working jeweller on the ground floor at Red Lion Square. The circular referred to lays no stress on the ecclesiastical side of decoration. It is headed "Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., Fine Art Workmen in Painting, Carving, Furniture, and the Metals"; and the eight names of the members (including, as has been explained, that of Mr. Arthur Hughes) follow in alphabetical order.

"The growth of Decorative Art in this country," it proceeds, "owing to the efforts of English Architects, has now reached a point at which it seems desirable that Artists of reputation should devote their time to it. Although no doubt particular instances of success may be cited, still it must be generally felt that attempts of this kind hitherto have been crude and fragmentary. Up to this time, the want of that artistic supervision, which can alone bring about harmony between the various parts of a successful work, has been increased by the necessarily excessive outlay, consequent on taking one individual artist from his pictorial labours.

"The Artists whose names appear above hope by association to do away with this difficulty. Having among their number men of varied qualifications, they will be able to undertake any species of decoration, mural or otherwise, from pictures, properly so called, down to the consideration of the smallest work susceptible of art beauty. It is anticipated that by such co-operation, the largest amount of what is essentially the artist's work, along with his constant supervision, will be secured at the smallest possible expense, while the work done must necessarily be of a much more complete order, than if any single artist were incidentally employed in the usual manner.

"These Artists having for many years been deeply attached to the study of the Decorative Arts of all times and countries, have felt more than most people the want, of some one place, where they could either obtain or get produced work of a genuine and beautiful character. They have therefore now established themselves as a firm, for the production, by themselves and under their supervision, of—

I. Mural Decoration, either in Pictures or in Pattern Work, or merely in the arrangement of Colours, as applied to dwelling-houses, churches, or public buildings.

II. Carving generally, as applied to Architecture.

III. Stained Glass, especially with reference to its harmony with Mural Decoration.

IV. Metal Work in all its branches, including Jewellery.

V. Furniture, either depending for its beauty on its own design, on the application of materials hitherto overlooked, or on its conjunction with Figure and Pattern Painting. Under this head is included Embroidery of all kinds, Stamped Leather, and ornamental work in other such materials, besides every article necessary for domestic use.

"It is only requisite to state further, that work of all the above classes will be estimated for, and executed in a business-like manner; and it is believed that good decoration, involving rather the luxury of taste than the luxury of costliness, will be found to be much less expensive than is generally supposed."

In this interesting document it is not difficult to trace the slashing hand and imperious accent of Rossetti, now as always contemptuous of all difficulties and not over-scrupulous in accuracy of statement. The most generous of men towards brother artists, he at once put all young men in whom he saw the elements of genius on an equal footing with himself, and claimed for them the full status and privilege which he and Madox Brown had earned by long years of work. Burne-Jones and Morris had indeed by now established a claim to this equality. But even Faulkner, as their friend, was swept in with the rest as an artist of reputation and a profound student of the decorative arts.

The circular is said, no doubt with truth, to have set up the backs of the established firms of decorators, and the new firm met with some obloquy. But it throve in spite of their jealousy. By the end of the year the business was in full working order, and began to be put under more formal management. In January, 1862, a further call of ₤19 a share was made on the partners, raising the paid-up capital to ₤140, which was never increased till the dissolution of the firm in 1874. A few hundred pounds of further capital was supplied by loans, which bore, or were supposed to bear, interest at five per cent., from Morris himself and from his mother. Work done for the firm by any member was credited to his account at fixed rates, and paid for like any other debt. Morris was to receive a salary of ₤150 as general manager; and in May Faulkner was formally appointed book-keeper and business manager at the same salary.

The weak point of the whole business was the want of anything like real capital. For each piece of work executed a price could be charged, such as customers were found willing to pay, which covered the cost of its production. But the output was slow, the sales uncertain, and there was no reserve to draw upon; the conduct of the work was therefore necessarily from hand to mouth, and had to be guided by the exigencies of the moment. Any extension of the business, however ultimately remunerative, threw its finances off their very unstable equilibrium. In the course of the first three or four years Morris had, bit by bit, advanced all he could to the concern, and was not yet beginning to receive any appreciable returns. This was an anxious time for him, and perhaps the only time in his life when he was really in trouble about money. Once or twice in these early years the accounts showed an actual loss on the year's working. Fortunately his resources did prove sufficient to tide over this period, and thereafter a capital began to form itself out of accumulated profits. But these were in strict law divisible among the partners equally; and the initial fault of the enterprise very nearly led to disastrous results upon the dissolution of the partnership. Morris had yet to learn by unpleasant experiences of more kinds than one the principles on which sound business can be conducted. That he did so, and that while he was doing so he carried the business almost unaided through so crucial a period, was due to a persistency, a sagacity, an unweariable industry, for which he has seldom received adequate credit.

The designing of the work carried out by the firm was of course mainly done by the firm themselves. But other artists, including Albert Moore, William De Morgan, and Simeon Solomon, made occasional designs for glass and tiles; and, as in the days of the Union paintings, every one who could be got hold ox was expected to bear a hand. Faulkner's two sisters joined him in painting tiles and pottery. Mrs. Morris and her sister, Miss Burden, with several women working under them, executed embroidery on cloth and silk. Mrs. Burne-Jones, besides embroidering, painted figured tiles. Mrs. Campfield, the foreman's wife, helped to execute altar-cloths. The works became a small whirlpool of industry that sucked in every one who came near them. Morris's own manual labour at every kind of work which the firm undertook was unremitting. Among the various forms of mural decoration started were serge hangings, with figures and floral designs wrought on them in coloured wools. A coarse serge, in quiet but rather dull colours, was supplied by the Yorkshire manufacturers, and served well enough as a ground for the brightly-coloured embroideries. Even this Morris started with his own hands: "Top has taken to worsted work," was Rossetti's sarcastic comment. The payments for work credited to him in 1862 are more than those to all the other six partners put together: and in later years the disproportion increased still further.

At the Exhibition of 1862 the firm had two stalls, one of stained glass, the other, entered in the catalogue as "decorated furniture, tapestries, etc.," representing the beginnings of decorative work in many directions. The so-called tapestries were, of course, embroideries; it was not till many years later that Morris took up the art of weaving. Among the furniture designed by Webb during this and the following year were specimens of most articles of common domestic use, some large and highly decorated, but the greater number quite plain, and depending for their quality on their simplicity and elegant proportion. The list includes a chest, a bookcase, a wardrobe, a sideboard, a washstand, a dressing-table, a towel-horse, a looking-glass, long and round tables, an iron bedstead, table glass, and metal candlesticks. There were also painted tiles designed by Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Webb, and Morris himself, and a small amount of jewellery. Some of the tiles which were painted with subjects had also upon them verses by the firm's poet, as it amused Morris to describe himself. The work shown at the Exhibition, though from the jury it received only a colourless and vague approbation, attracted much attention, both favourable and adverse. That it really made some impression on the public is shown by the fact that nearly a hundred and fifty pounds' worth of goods were sold from the stalls.

"I perfectly remember," writes Mrs. Richmond Ritchie of a visit to Red Lion Square early in 1862, "going with Val Prinsep one foggy morning to some square, miles away; we came into an empty 'ground floor room, and Val Prinsep called 'Topsy' very loud, and some one came from above with hair on end and in a nonchalant way began to show one or two of his curious, and to my uninitiated soul, bewildering treasures. I think Morris said the glasses would stand firm when he put them on the table. I bought two tumblers of which Val Prinsep praised the shape. He and Val wrapped them up in paper, and I came away very much amused and interested, with a general impression of sympathetic shyness and shadows and dim green glass."

Chintzes, paper-hangings, and carpets, afterwards the staple products of the firm, were the successive developments of later years. Paper-hangings came first; and it was with them, owing to mere exigencies of space, that the firm was forced to deviate from its first intention of turning out the manufactured article complete from their own doors. The well-known trellis wall-paper was the first designed, the rose trellis by Morris, and the birds in it by Webb. This design was made in November, 1862, and it was at first attempted to print it in oil colours from etched zinc plates. But the process proved very tedious and not satisfactory. It was soon given up, and the design recut on wooden pear-tree blocks, from which the paper was printed, in the ordinary distemper, by Messrs. Jeffreys of Islington. Meanwhile other papers had been designed and cut on wood-blocks; and so it happened that the Daisy paper, still one of the most widely used, was, though not the first designed, the first published and placed upon the market. Once the blocks were cut, the success of the printing depended almost wholly on the care and fidelity of the colour-mixer; and to this Mr. Metford Warner, the managing partner of Messrs. Jeffreys' works, gave real and constant attention.

This first series of Morris wall-papers, the designing of which went on rapidly for several years, culminates in the favourite and beautiful pattern known as the Pomegranate. Beyond it that manner of decorating a surface could not go. When Morris resumed paper-designing, he abandoned the innocence of those formal early designs, and struck out a larger and more mature scheme of pattern. It is the later wall-papers, with their large masses and masterly composition, that are more admirable to the eye of the artist; but in those simple early patterns there is a charm of straightforward simplicity that appeals more directly to the first childlike instinct for beauty, the sense of form and colour that is undeveloped, but, so far as it reaches, perfectly true.

Some account of the progress of the business during its first year is given in a letter written by Faulkner to Price from Red Lion Square in April, 1862.

"Since Christmas, I have certainly been busy enough, what between the business of engineering, and our business in Red Lion Square. Moreover, Rossetti, with remarkable confidence, gave me a woodblock to engrave, which I with marvellous boldness, not to say impudence, undertook to do, and by jingo I have done it, and it is published, and flattering friends say it is not so bad for a beginning. Our business in the stained glass and general decoration line flourishes so successfully that I have decided to give up engineering and take part in it: so henceforth, or rather after a week or two, Topsy will give himself more to the artistic part of the work while I shall be the business manager. I don't know whether you have heard of our firm before from me or any one else. If not, I may just as well tell you that it is composed of Brown, Rossetti, Jones, Webb, Marshall, Morris, Faulkner; that it commenced with a capital which might be considered an infinitesimal of the second order, that it has meetings once or twice a fortnight which have rather the character of a meeting of the 'Jolly Masons' or the jolly something elses than of a meeting to discuss business. Beginning at 8 for 9 p.m. they open with the relation of anecdotes which have been culled by members of the firm since the last meeting—this store being exhausted, Topsy and Brown will perhaps discuss the relative merits of the art of the thirteenth and fifteenth century, and then perhaps after a few more anecdotes business matters will come up about 10 or 11 o'clock and be furiously discussed till 12, 1, or 2.

"Our firm has arrived at the dignity of exhibition at the great exhibition, where we have already sent some stained glass, and shall shortly send some furniture which will doubtless cause the majority of spectators to admire. The getting ready of our things first has cost more tribulation and swearing to Topsy than three exhibitions will be worth. I am going down to Topsy's this afternoon and shall try to finish this letter there.

"Dear Crom," the letter goes on, "after a delay of about a fortnight I recommence my letter. You see I did not succeed in completing it when staying down at Topsy's: the day was so beautiful and there was so much to do in the way of playing bowls and smoking pipes that the day passed without leaving time to do anything."

Life at Red House in those years was indeed realized felicity for the group of friends to a greater degree than often falls to the lot of schemes deliberately planned for happiness. The garden, skilfully laid out amid the old orchard, had developed its full beauty, and the adornment of the house kept growing into greater and greater elaboration. A scheme had been designed for the mural decoration of the hall, staircase, and drawing-room, upon various parts of which work went on intermittently for several years. The walls of the spacious and finely-proportioned staircase were to be completely covered with paintings in tempera of scenes from the War of Troy, to be designed and executed by Burne-Jones. Below them, on a large wall-space in the hall, was to be a great ship carrying the Greek heroes. It was designed, as the rest of the Troy-series were also to have been, in a frankly mediæval spirit; a warship indeed of the fourteenth century, with the shields of the kings hung over the bulwarks. Round the drawing-room, at a height of about five feet from the floor, was to be a continuous belt of pictures, the subjects of which were scenes from the fifteenth-century English romance of "Sir Degrevaunt." Three of them were executed by Burne-Jones, and remain on the walls now. Below them the wall was to have been covered with magnificent embroidered hangings. The principal bedroom was hung with indigo-dyed blue serge (then a substance which could only be procured with great difficulty) with a pattern of flowers worked on it in bright-coloured wools. For the dining-room embroidered hangings of a much more elaborate and splendid nature were designed and partly executed, in a scheme of design like those of his later tapestries when he revived the art of tapestry-weaving, of twelve figures with trees between and above them, and a belt of flowers running below their feet. Yet another hanging, executed by Morris with his own hands, was of green trees with gaily-coloured birds among them, and a running scroll emblazoned with his motto in English, "If I can." The same motto in French reappeared in the painted glass with which a number of the windows of the house were gradually filled, and on the tiles (also executed at the works in Red Lion Square) which lined the deep porches. In the hall, a second great cupboard began to be painted with scenes from the Niebelungenlied. There were no paper-hangings in the house. The rooms that had not painted walls were hung with flower-embroidered cloth worked from his designs by Mrs. Morris and other needlewomen. Even the ceilings were decorated with bold simple patterns in distemper, the design being pricked into the plaster so as to admit of the ceiling being re-whitewashed and the decoration renewed. "Top thrives though bandy," writes Burne-Jones in February, 1862, "and is slowly making Red House the beautifullest place on earth."

Here, as soon as the Morrises moved into it at the close of the wet summer of 1860, open house was kept for all their friends. Burne-Jones and his wife—he had been married that June—spent their Sundays there almost regularly. Rossetti, Faulkner and his two sisters, Webb, Swinburne, Madox Brown, Arthur Hughes, were also frequent and welcome visitors. Mr. Hughes remembers once riding down from London, and Morris riding back a good part of the way with him next day. In summer bowls were always played a great deal; and drives were taken about the country in a carriage which Morris had specially built for himself, with leather curtains, and a decided flavour of the Middle Ages about it. The winter festivities were even merrier: it was a home of young people full of the high spirits of youth. "O the joy of those Saturdays to Mondays at Red House!" writes one of the frequent guests of those days, "the getting out at Abbey Wood Station and smelling the sweet air, and then the scrambling, swinging drive of three miles or so to the house; and the beautiful roomy place where we seemed to be coming home just as much as when we returned to our own rooms. No protestations—only certainty of contentment in each other's society. We laughed because we were happy."

"It was the most beautiful sight in the world," says another of his old friends of the Red House days, "to see Morris coming up from the cellar before dinner, beaming with joy, with his hands full of bottles of wine and others tucked under his arms."

Here were born his two children. On the 18th of January, 1861, he writes to Madox Brown, with a fine affectation of unconcern.

"My dear Brown,

"Kid having appeared, Mrs. Brown kindly says she will stay till Monday, when you are to come to fetch her, please. I send a list of trains in evening to Abbey Wood met by bus, viz., from London Bridge, 2.20 p.m., 4.20 p.m., 6.0 p.m., and 7.15 p.m. Janey and kid (girl) are both very well."

At the christening of the baby, named Jane Alice, after his wife and his youngest sister, there was a great gathering of friends. "The day of the christening," one of them writes, "was rainy and windy. I remember the flapping of the cover of the wagonette and a feeling of hurry-skurry through the weather in the short drive to Bexley Church. The dinner was at a T-shaped table. It must have been at it that I remember Gabriel sitting in a royal manner and munching raisins from a dish in front of him before dessert time. The Marshalls, the Browns, Swinburne, were there. Janey and I went together with a candle to look at the beds strewn about the drawing room for the men. Swinburne had a sofa; I think P.P. Marshall's was made on the floor."

On the 25th of March in the following year a second girl was born, and named Mary, after the Lady of the day.

The life of those years at Red House was for Morris one of almost complete contentment. "I grieve to say," Faulkner writes just before the Christmas of 1863, "he has only kicked one panel out of a door for this twelvemonth past." The orderly civic element, which was always one of the strongest threads in his nature, developed till he became what he would himself have called in later days a typical bourgeois, the sort of father of a family whose features were being weekly registered by Leech. Indeed, as he quite realized himself, there was in him a distinct strain of Mr. Briggs. Like tens of thousands of his fellow-citizens, he joined a volunteer corps during the war scare of the winter of 1859-60. Lady Burne-Jones remembers that he was in camp with his battalion at Wimbledon in June, 1861, when the great Tooley Street fire broke out, and how he brought down news of its progress on returning to Red House. "I always did hate fireworks," he wrote afterwards while mentioning a fire at the works in Islington where his wall-papers were printed, "especially since I saw Cotton's wharf ablaze some eighteen years ago." The memory of that terrible sight of the blazing river seems to have been lifelong with all who witnessed it.

With a growing family and a constant hospitality, the expense of living at Red House and continuing its decoration on the same lavish scale became greater year by year. At the same time the copper mine, from which the greater part of his permanent income was still derived, began to yield rapidly diminishing returns. The business in Red Lion Square had not ceased to be a drain on these diminishing revenues, and was not till some years later a trustworthy source of income. Its prospects were indeed improving. The movement towards restoring to Anglican churches and church services some part of their ancient beauty and symbolism was taking definite shape all over the country, and was beginning to be known by the name of Ritualism. Commissions for church decoration in the form of wall-painting, embroideries, or hangings, altar-cloths, stained-glass windows, and floor-tiles, came in more and more steadily. And the movement was just beginning to spread from ecclesiastical into secular life, and become what was afterwards called Æstheticism.

But this very increase in the firm's work had already made the premises in Red Lion Square insufficient for their purpose, while, as Morris had to give more of his time to its management, the expense and fatigue of managing it from Upton both increased likewise. Early in 1864 the question of removing the works to Upton and setting up a manufactory there began to be seriously discussed. A plan was suggested and elaborated for the addition of another wing to Red House so as to make room for Bume-Jones to live there also; and ground for workshops was to be had on moderate terms close by. The scheme was very near being carried out. But before the end of the year, a series of misfortunes happened which altered the whole case for both.

In September, the Morrises had gone to seaside lodgings at Littlehampton with the Burne-Joneses and Faulkners. Scarlet fever broke out there. Miss Faulkner and Burne-Jones's little boy took back the infection with them to London. With them it ran its normal course; but a little later it developed in Mrs. Burne-Jones also, and she had a long and dangerous illness. Just then Morris caught a chill on a wet, cold journey between London and Upton, which brought on a severe attack of rheumatic fever. For some time he was wholly crippled. When he recovered, his health still was such as to make a daily journey to London quite out of the question. Burne-Jones, himself in very delicate health, in deep anxiety about his wife, and dependent for the means of actual livelihood on his daily work, felt that he could not cast himself loose from the resources and conveniences of London. The plan of a joint establishment had to be dropped. Had the business of the firm reached anything like the scale which it attained ten years later, it might have been practicable, and would have had obvious advantages, that Morris should move the works down to Upton, keeping a show-room and office in London under a resident manager. But such an expense was, as yet, out of the question. And when health began to be a serious consideration) Red House had certain disadvantages. Planned and begun in the extraordinarily hot dry summer of 1859, it had been made to face north and was very cold in winter: it was not well situated for medical or other aid on emergencies, and the drive between it and Abbey Wood was over an exposed plateau across which eastern and northerly winds raged unchecked. Reluctantly Morris was forced to the conclusion that short of giving up the business (and with it, the power of guiding his life otherwise as he chose) the only alternative left was to give up the beautiful house into which he had put so much of his best thought and work, in which he had enjoyed five years of almost unclouded happiness, and go back to live in London.

A letter to Burne-Jones, dated "In bed, Red House," and written in a very shaky hand, towards the end of November, when he was beginning to recover from the rheumatic fever, shows how deep the disappointment was at having to give up the plan of a joint home, even before the necessity of leaving Red House himself had been forced on him.

"As to our palace of art, I confess your letter was a blow to me at first, though hardly an unexpected one: in short I cried, but I have got over it now; of course I see it from your point of view but I like the idea of not giving it up for good even if it is delusive. But now I am only thirty years old; I shan't always have the rheumatism, and we shall have lots of jolly years of invention and lustre plates together I hope. I have been resting and thinking of what you are to do: I really think you must take some sort of house in London—unless indeed you might think of living a little way out and sharing a studio in town: Stanhope and I might join in this you know. There is only one other thing I can think of, which is when you come back from Hastings come and stay with me for a month or two, there is plenty of room for everybody and everything: you can do your work quietly and uninterruptedly; I shall have a good horse by then and Georgie and J. will be able to drive about, meantime you need not be hurried in taking your new crib. I would give ₤5 to see you old chap; wouldn't it be safe for you to come down here one day before you go to Hastings?"

At the end of the year the Burne-Joneses removed to Kensington, where they lived for the next three years. The giving up of Red House was fast becoming a settled thing, and it only remained to find a new home in London. It was finally found in one of the old houses in Queen Square, Bloomsbury. The house, with its yard and outbuildings behind, was large enough to serve for both living place and workshops. It was taken on lease from Midsummer, 1865, and thither, in the autumn, the business of Morris and Company was transferred from Red Lion Square, and the Morrises themselves removed from Upton in November. Red House was sold, together with such portions of its furniture and decorations as were either unremovable or too cumbrous to transfer to a house for which they had not been designed. Among the treasures thus abandoned were the whole of the tempera paintings executed on the walls, the magnificent sideboard which Webb had designed for the dining-room, and both the great painted cupboards; but the painted panels in one of these last were taken out and replaced by plain panels. There is still enough of its original decoration left at Red House to make it unique on that account alone. After he left it that autumn, Morris never set eyes on it again, confessing that the sight of it would be more than he could bear.

If emotion recollected in tranquillity were a working definition of poetry, it is in these five years, so busily tranquil after as long a period of stormy emotion, that one might expect to find poetical production the most copious. But the facts are quite the reverse. The latest poems printed in "The Defence of Guenevere" show the author in the full current of imaginative growth, reaching from manner to manner and just on the point (so one might fancy) of mastering a mixed lyrical and dramatic method capable of the most radiant and astonishing effects. For one reason or another, these beginnings were not destined to bear their natural fruit. The cycle of poems from the Trojan War, which had been planned and begun about that time, was fragmentarily continued at Red House, but remained unfinished and was soon wholly laid aside. When he began to write again, after he resumed life in London, the dramatic method was abandoned, and he reappeared to the world, not as a writer of lyrical romances, but as the author of long continuous narrative poems, of which the type was set and the fame assured by the single one first published, "The Life and Death of Jason."

Of the twelve poems which were to make up the Trojan cycle, only six were ever completed; there are imperfect drafts of two more, and of the remaining four no trace is extant. But the full list of the titles is noted down by Morris himself in a manuscript book probably dating from 1857, on a page following a fragment of the unfinished and unpublished "Maying of Guenevere." It is as follows, under the general heading of "Scenes from the Fall of Troy":

1. Helen Arming Paris.
2. The Defiance of the Greeks.
3. Hector's Last Battle.
4. Hector brought Dead to Troy.
5. Helen's Chamber.
6. Achilles' Love-Letter.
7. The Wedding of Polyxena.
8. The last Fight before Troy.
9. The Wooden Horse.
10. The Descent from the Wooden Horse.
11. Helen and Menelaus.
12. Æneas on Shipboard.

The completed scenes run to about 200 lines each in length, and the whole poem, therefore, would have been of about the bulk of a five-act play.

The story of the Trojan War is one which has for all story lovers the greatest and most abiding fascination; and its strange ending, the events that happened after the Iliad, was the part of the story which attracted Morris the most. In itself that part of the story is full of remarkably picturesque and romantic incident, which breaks out even in the dull records of Greek mythographers, Ælian and Philostratus, or in the arguments of the lost epics of the Cycle—the Æthiopiad, the Little Iliad, the Taking of Troy. It was these events which excited the imagination of the Middle Ages most; and it was in the same mediaeval and romantic spirit that Morris saw and felt the whole story. He did so by instinct, long before he knew of Caxton's "Historyes of Troye," or of the vast body of mediaeval romances that may be traced back to Benoit de Sainte-More and Guido delle Colonne. But when he came to know these he found them just what he meant and what he wanted; and to the last he pleased himself by fancying some thread of real tradition which had filtered down alongside of the regular literary channels of the Greek epic, and reappeared, after the lapse of many centuries, in Dares Phrygius and Dictys Cretensis.

"To-day," Sir Edward Burne-Jones writes in a letter of thirty years afterwards, "to breakfast came Morris, and we talked hard all morning, mainly of one subject, why the mediæval world was always on the side of the Trojans, and of Quintus Smyrnæus, and how Penthesilea came to be tenderly dealt with in ancient tales and tapestries. He was quite happy."

Troy is to his imagination a town exactly like Bruges or Chartres: spired and gabled, red-roofed, filled (like the city of King Æetes in "The Life and Death of Jason") with towers and swinging bells. The Trojan princes go out, like knights in Froissart, to tilt at the barriers, and look down from their walls on

Our great wet ditches, where the carp and tench,
In spite of arblasts and petrariæ,
Suck at the floating lilies all day long.

But over the city broods a strange and almost a spectral stillness, an atmosphere like that of a sultry afternoon, darkening to thunder. None of his poems, earlier or later, are more steeped in sadness. All the fierce joy of the war has long gone by; it drags wearily on towards its inevitable close.

Yea, they fought well, and ever, like a man
That hangs legs off the ground by both his hands
Over some great height, did they struggle sore,
Quite sure to slip at last; wherefore, take note
How almost all men, reading that sad siege,
Hold for the Trojans; as I did at least,
Thought Hector the best knight a long way—

So he had already written in his first volume, and the tone in these Troy poems is precisely the same. But here we only catch a last glimpse of Hector as he goes bravely to meet his fate, and with him all the sunlight seems to fade off Troy. The struggle becomes cruel and base on both sides. Paris arms himself again, but like a man in a nightmare.

Yea, like some man am I that lies and dreams
That he is dead, and turning round to wake
Is slain at once without a cry for help.

In what must be the most dolorous arming-song ever written he bids Helen a weary farewell. The lyric, in an altered shape and setting, is well known : recast, and with its sadness turned into a pensive tenderness, it occurs in the tale of "Ogier the Dane," as a song which Ogier hears sung early on a May morning by two young lovers. This is its original form:

Love, within the hawthorn brake
Pray you be merry for my sake,
While I last, for who knoweth
How near I may be my death ?

Sweet, be long in growing old!
Life and love in age grow cold;
Hold fast to life, for who knoweth
What thing cometh after death ?

Trouble must be kept afar.
Therefore go I to the war:
Less trouble is there among spears
Than with hard words about your ears.

Love me then, my sweet and fair,
And curse the folk that drive me there.
Kiss me, sweet, for who knoweth
What thing cometh after death?

Even in the Greek camp there is the same weariness and bitter languor. The homes they have left grow dim and strange:

Within the cedar presses the gold fades
Upon the garments they were wont to wear;
Red poppies grow now where their apple trees
Began to redden in late summer days.
Wheat grows upon their water-meadows now,
And wains pass over where the water ran.

This feeling culminates in a weird lyric sung by Hecuba, while still Queen in Troy, and plotting with Paris the murder of Achilles in the temple to which he is to be lured by the forged letter of Polyxena. "Ah, times are changed, the merry days are gone," has been the recurrent burden of her long speech to Paris; and then all at once she breaks into strange ballad music :

Yea, in the merry days of old
The sailors all grew overbold.
Whereof should days remembered be
That brought bitter ill to me?
Days agone I wore but gold,
Like a light town across the wold
Seen by the stars, I shone out bright;
Many a slave was mine of right.
Ah, but in the days of old
The sea-kings were waxen bold;
The yellow sands ran red with blood,
The towns burned up, both brick and wood;
In their long ship they carried me
And set me down by a strange sea;
None of the gods remembered me.
Ah, in the merry days of old
My garments were all made of gold:
Now have I but one poor gown,
Woven of black wool and brown.
I draw water from the well;
I bind wood that the men fell;
Whoso willeth smiteth me,
An old woman by the sea.

In the scenes of the last night of Troy, as they are given in "The Descent from the Wooden Horse" and "Helen and Menelaus," this effect of weird breathlessness rises to a height that is almost overwhelming. That the Greek captains in the wooden horse should be wrought up to the highest pitch of nervous tension is indeed no modernism ; it was clearly before the minds of the Greek ballad-singers three thousand years ago. But the strange story, preserved in the Odyssey, of Helen singing round the horse, is used here with extraordinary effect. As they lie crowded in the darkness a voice is heard singing from without—

O my merchants, whence come ye
Landing laden from the sea ?
— Behold, we come from Sicily :
Corn and wine and oil have we,
Blue cloths and cloths of red.
—Merry merchants, when you are dead
We shall gain that you have lorn :
Out-merchants from the sea,
Your graves are not in Sicily.
The corn for me, the wine for thee,
The blue and the red for our ladies free.

So singing, the voice passes away. The night is dark, rainy, and windless, as they slip out of the horse and take their plotted ways. Menelaus leaves the rest, and, all alone, goes straight to the house of Deiphobus.

There, in a dimly lighted chamber, Helen cannot sleep. Deiphobus, her new husband, lies sunk in the first undisturbed repose that the Trojan princes had taken since the ten years' war began, his sword hung above the bed. But she wanders through the room restlessly, wondering if she is growing old.

Three hours after midnight, I should think,
And I hear nothing but the quiet rain.
The Greeks are gone, think now, the Greeks are gone.
Henceforward a new life of quiet days
In this old town of Troy is now for me,

And I shall note it as it goeth past
Quietly as the rain does, day by day,
Eld creeping on me. Shall I hve sometimes
In these old days whereof this is the last?
Yea shall I live sometimes with sweet Paris
In that old happiness twixt mirth and tears?
The fitting on of arms and going forth,
The dreadful quiet sitting while they fought,
The kissing when he came back to my arms,
And all that I remember like a tale!

Thus musing to herself, she opens the window and thrusts out her bare arm into the cool wet darkness. There is a rustle in the room behind her. Before she can turn she is in the grasp of a mail-clad man, and hears the fierce whisper of her first husband. All her strength collapses in a moment. As in a trance, she dumbly obeys his order to lean over the bed and reach down Deiphobus's sword, and to hold down his feet while Menelaus thrusts him through. Menelaus drags the bloody corpse out on to the floor and takes its place himself.

I am the Menelaus that you knew
Come back to fetch a thing I left behind.
You think me changed: it is ten years ago,
And many weary things have happened since.
Behold me lying in my own place now :
Abed, Helen, before the night goes by!

But on the horror of this moment there breaks a great and mingled clamour from without, the roar of the taken city. A struggling mob of Greeks and Trojans sweep by. Menelaus and Helen go to the window; a Trojan sees the hated beautiful face in the glimmer of flaming houses, and shoots at her; the arrow just misses, and sings through the window-hole. Pyrrhus, still dripping with the blood of Priam, and after him Teucer, fresh from the outrage of Ajax on Cassandra, successively appear. In the middle of their story a cry is raised that the Trojans are making a fresh stand: and all hurry off amid a growing tumult of shouting as dawn begins to glimmer, ending in a long shrill cry of the rallied Trojans,

"Æneas, and Antenor to the ships!"

Between this vivid and startling dramatic method, and the equable sweetness of the later manner as it appears in its first perfection in "The Life and Death of Jason," the interval is great indeed; nor can it be matter of wonder that the transition took place through a period of silence. But there is more in it than that. Hitherto the poetry has been, alike in its beauties and in its defects, immature. When it is resumed, it is in a manner, and of a substance, deliberately chosen; we hear in it what we may like or dislike, may regard with admiration or with indifference, what appeals to various minds variously; but it is the serious voice of the grown man.