By Peter Walker
It struck me as odd when in a local branch of John Lewis my eye fell upon “Morris & Co” hand treatment cream packaged in a “Strawberry Thief” box. This seemed particularly inappropriate.
The typeface was that used by Morris & Co, and the packaging suggested that somehow Morris had been reborn as a cosmetics salesman. Never in the long history of cosmetic salesmen could the current owners of the Morris & Co franchise have got it so wrong.
To imagine the great socialist and artist, as an ambassador for hand cream is laughable. In life William Morris took little notice of his appearance as a result his friends adopted the affectionate nickname of “Topsy” for him. This was after the scruffy young character in the then popular Victorian novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”
Morris often arrived at friends with his hands dyed blue from his efforts to find the exact colour he wanted for the dye stuffs he used for weaving and wallpaper. Blue was Morris’s favourite colour. His scruffy appearance and blue hands were often a problem for Morris. On one occasion, when going to the theatre to see a production of Gilbert & Sullivan with his close friend Edward Burne-Jones, he admitted he was worried that he would be turned away because of his blue hands and scruffy appearance.
The reason for this appropriation of Morris & Co for selling an upmarket hand cream, is the recent acquisition of the brand by Walker Greenbank PLC: an international furnishings company.
Not content to re-style Morris as someone obsessed with cosmetics, they re-wrote his biography, describing him as a “political theorist” rather than an active campaigning socialist.
One can imagine the copy writers employed by Walker Greenback PLC desperately searching for this form of words, which while acknowledging that he did indeed have an interest in politics they avoided any mention of the “S” word.
Another example of the de-politicisation of Morris is shown in a piece by the Daily Telegraph about Morris last summer:
“Few designers have been so consistently popular as William Morris – and for so long. The arts and crafts textile designer, whose patterns are instantly recognisable, is more than just the creator of picturesque wallpapers in grand hallways. Today, his legacy extends into gardening, gloves and photo albums, too. And this interest shows no sign of fading.”
Again no mention of the politics of Morris.
Bringing Art to the Masses
The current surge in popularity for Morris and his rich legacy often ignores the philosophy which drove his art. When drafting the Manifesto for the Socialist League in 1884 Morris wrote: “The Socialist League therefore aims at the realisation of complete Revolutionary Socialism…….we are working for equality and brotherhood for all the world…”
The Hand Cream produced by Walker Greenback PLC is just the latest in the attempts by corporate culture to write out the core belief of Morris which drove his whole endeavour to bring art to the ordinary person.
Rather than trying to transform the legacy of William Morris into an upmarket cosmetic salesman it would be more truthful to remember that his art was underscored by a passionate belief in the value of good art and objects and the right of all people regardless of class to participate and produce art. This is best summed up by two celebrated Morris quotes:
“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
“I do not want art for a few any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.”
Pictures courtesy of: http://www.hancocks-paducah.com/SHOP-BY-THEME/Free-Spirit-William-Morris-Kelmscott/Free-Spirit-Fabrics-William-Morris-Kelmscott-Navy-Strawberry-Thief and https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/William_Morris and https://theculturetrip.com/europe/united-kingdom/england/articles/william-morris-the-socialist-interior-designer-who-revived-british-craftsmanship/