William Morris

Art: A Serious Thing

Some six weeks ago I had occasion to go from London to a place not far from here (called Manchester if you must know), we left London about 9 in the morning I think on rather a cold morning, with a white frost on the grass and a thickish mist piled above it some feet into the air, though it was visibly not a foul-weather day; well we went on so till we got to the foot of those chalk hills near Tring, the Chilterns I suppose, there we ran into a tunnel, and coming out on the other side were off the clay; being off the clay we were also out of the mist, and into the bright morning sun: it was an almost magical change, instead of the white thick mist through which one could barely see the ghost of a tree here and there, the bright hill-sides lay before us with the pleasant homesteads lying at their feet surrounded by the autumn elm-trees, and the sky above was clear blue though pale, while the only sign of the mist that had hidden meadows, houses, and all while we were on the clay, was a wreath or two of white vapour dragging along some of the hollows halfway up the hill: indeed it was all very beautiful, and I settled myself down to enjoy myself, knowing how little there is amusing to look at on the L.& N.W. railway till you have got clear of the pottery towns: but I had scarcely got my eyes well focussed on it when — crick — my neighbour opposite found the sun was in his eyes and pulled down the blind. I was so vexed that I was really inclined to be uncivil to the good man, who for the rest didn’t look very ruffianly; like a business man I should say, his countenance bearing no particular expression of any sort; just that look of mingled boredom and anxiety which [is] the usual expression of the modern Anglo-Saxon face: I suppose I ought to have suggested a change of seats to him, but I was too shy, so I just flounced off angrily to the other side, the unsunny side, of the carriage, and looked out of the window, which was also the dull and flat side as well as the unsunny; however there was something to be looked at, and my anger gradually faded away, while something in the sunny glimpse I had had reminded me of a window which was opened to me last year in the midst of Paris, and this is what I saw from that window:[1]

In the foreground I saw a sort of corridor or cloister of lovely and delicate round-arched architecture in which sat a slim serious-visaged woman dressed in a gown of deep blue; she was sitting for her portrait, and the painter who was taking it was serious of face also with a look of staid but refined enthusiasm, and was dressed in rich but sober stuffs: the cloister was in half-tone almost, but the sun shone widely abroad without, serene but not glittering: a quaint flowery garden I saw stretching down from the cloister pillars, 2 peacocks strutting about the path: the garden ended in a terraced battlemented wall over which leaned two burgher-like persons dressed in red and blue cloth of antique cut and looked at the landscape beyond: indeed they might well look for even what I could see of it was fair enough: we were in some house, an Abbey I think, but certainly high up on a hill out into terraces, and below the garden wall I could see a river running through a rich country of meadow and hill slopes; an islet split the river some way up and beyond it was a bridge guarded at both ends and the middle by ashlar-built towers: past this I could see the river coming down from hills that grew higher and higher till at last they grew into mountains and rose higher yet till their snow-capped summits cut the clear pale sky so far and far away.

That was the window I looked out in the gallery of the Louvre at Paris, and I thought I had not come all the way from London for nothing since I had seen all that, which I shall never any more forget.

Now he who opened that window to me and keeps it open for whomever will cross the narrow seas, has been dead near 500 years ago; when he was alive he was a citizen of a city which he called in his country tongue the bridges, but which we today call Bruges, and his name was John Van Eyck, the brother of Hubert and Margaret; all three of them had wondrous skill of hand, which however would have served them but little as window-openers but for the eyes they had and the diligent use they made of them; now that kind of use of the senses which nature has given us and joined in a strange way to that other part of us which we call the mind and soul is what I wish to recommend to all who are here present, not only to those who use their hands in trying to tell us what they think they see, and who are called artists, but also to other reasonable people, as a means for curing that bored and anxious expression of the Anglo-Saxon countenance, which, give me leave to say, is a ridiculous mask to put on our faces in a world which has or ought to have so much to interest a reasonable man as ours has or ought to have.

In passing I may say that my window-shutting fellow traveller turned out to be good-natured enough and not unintelligent, but it was quite clear that he never used his eyes for looking at anything that his business or his bodily wants didn’t compel him to look: his landscape was bounded by his ledger and his mutton chop.

Here is a contrast to that long-dead citizen of Bruges to whom I owe such gratitude, I and many another; for indeed you need not cross the narrow seas to look through his eyes, for in no prettier or cleaner place than Trafalgar Sq. in London you can see a chamber in Bruges city, and a man and his wife standing hand in hand amidst their household goods just as they stood 500 years ago, and to make it clear to all that he really did see it, the citizen of Bruges above-named wrote on the wall in gold letters, ‘Ego Johannes de Eyk fuit hic’: ‘I John Van Eyck was here.'

I say that is a great contrast, which however is only worth noticing because the man who snuffed out the sunlit Chilterns for me was no monster of stupidity, but the type of a class, and that class comprises the most of people nowadays; and once more I say no wonder that such people look bored and anxious.

Further the remedy to this strange perversity which I commend to all reasonable people is to use their eyes to wit. I am bound chief of all to commend to such of you as are definitely studying art, as we call it, to those of you whose special business 1t is to see yourselves and to make others see what there is in the world: by which indeed you will gain some insight both into what has been and what will be in it: with you it lies to get people in general to use their eyesight, for you can give them examples of the benefit of doing so: there is, or perhaps I may hopefully say, there was an idea abroad that the artist was a lazy, loafing sort of fellow, who if he were born of well-to-do people became an artist for the same sort of reason that his brother went into the army or the church, in order namely that he might escape hard work; or if he were an artisan work pretty hard at high wages 2 days a week so that he might be lazy and probably drunk the other 4 days: I say that was the idea of [the] result of a man being born with some artistic gift, if he were so ill-advised as to let the said gift have any scope and carry him into a fatal course of life.

Well, the amount of truth that may be at the bottom of this theory, I can dimly discern, but so dimly, that it is not worth while to try to put it into words for you: because practically and as far as dealing with the actualities of life, from a business point of view, let me say there is no truth in the theory.

I have the honour and advantage of knowing several artists of the higher kind, and nothing about their way of working is more noteworthy than the pains they take: they will not allow anything to come easy to them, for they are forever intent in making the very best of their talent, and when they have got the mastery over one point, they don’t rest and be thankful, but go on to master another: they don’t hug themselves on the work that they have done; hope which lit their path till that work was turned out of hand, has died out of it now, and is shining on the work which they have to do: nothing can be ever done well enough for them. Pray is this likely to be a lazy, loafing kind of life?

I don’t want to find fault anywhere if I can help it, but you must pardon me for saying that if our law-makers and law-administrators, our practical common sense men of business, who can be trusted worked half as hard, and single-heartedly as our real artists do — why England would be quite a decent place to live in.

Mind I say our real artists, and I don’t profess to think there are many of them: there are plenty of pretenders to the title, as there are in all occupations, who are criminal nuisances nothing short of it: so please to remember all you that are studying art that you have a heavy responsibility on your shoulders: if you are less than honest in your work, and you may judge by what I have just been saying what my standard of honesty is, if you are less than honest I say, every act of your artistic life is a nail in the coffin of art, or in plain words of civilization, or in plainer words still, of the hope of mankind to live a decent life fit for men.

Indeed I suppose that the fact of your having made up your minds to study art shows that you have some gifts in that direction: but pray don’t play with the matter, but find out through any failures if it must be so what your gifts are: then the worst that can happen will be that you will find out that you have no gifts for art, in which case, out with the knife — cut it all away, and betake yourselves to some other occupation, and you will at any rate have saved yourselves loss of time, and self-respect.

But the worst case will not be common: most men have still some gifts towards the arts which can be brought to light if they have opportunities for developing them; that last sentence shows you the meaning of the schools of art which have been established to teach people to use their eyes, and to eschew drawing down blinds on sunlit landscapes.

These opportunities for developing your talents, will if you use them properly show you infallibly what you can attempt, and what you had better leave alone: in the first place I believe that nearly as many people can be taught to draw anything that will stand still, as can be taught to write: well, well, I do assure you that many people are incapable of learning writing, even distinguished ones: I think the ghost of Dean Stanley[2] for instance will forgive me for saying that he was one of them.

Now, though a man may draw well in a sense, and still not be an artist in any sense, still the acquirement of the art will be useful to him even then, and I think it ought to be taught more widely and more systematically than it is, even looking at it from that point of view. But if you can learn to draw not only mechanically, but artistically also, that is to say, in such a way that it is obvious to those who can use their eyes that you have had pleasure in the drawing, and a hope of carrying on your art further, if this be the case, then you can lay claim to be an artist of some sort: in striving to find out of what sort, to what rank of artist you belong you will doubtless have difficulties and disappointments, but it will all come right in the end, so long as you are honest in your work: nor, as long as there is any real appreciation of art, need any man quarrel with himself because his rank as an artist is humble; everyone comes to the end of his tether step by step whether he be great or small; and let me tell you, that though every real artist aspires to do his best, and ever to better it, yet every real artist has also in him a fund of content, or if you please so to call it of humility: withal I repeat that whenever art is at all approximately in the state that it should be there is room for artists of all capacities from the greatest to the least: to be a pretender, a bungler, that is to be not a humble artist, but none at all; and the distance between the humblest man who can do a thing, and the showiest pretender who can not is not to be measured at all, it is infinite, the difference between nothing and something.

I think sometimes that there have been ages in the world’s history of which ours is one, that have thought over much of the glories of great men, and not enough of the welfare of common men; such ages have had a tendency to carry due hero-worship, which is a proper and necessary thing, into superstition; by which they not only injure their great men, flattering them like flunkies instead of honouring them like men and their very fellows, but also are easily led astray into taking pretentious men for great ones, not remembering that the foundation of all greatness is humility; you must be a man first before you are a great man. Now all artists cannot be Michael Angelos, but all can be worthy fellows and helpmates for him: and he will be the first to acknowledge this, the first to feel the want of such helpmates and fellows, if unhappily the time does not breed them for him: be sure that every great artist will do full justice to any piece of artistic work which is good and sound of its kind, and will not despise it because it does not profess to solve ‘the riddle of the painful earth’ in a hurry: indeed he need do justice to it, for it will show him that there is at least someone who can sympathize with his troubles and triumphs; he can no more do without an audience than can any other interpreter between nature and man; and I will go bail for it if he is a man of any note, he has had enough of the kind of worshipper who will stand before his easel, and say “charming!” looking out of the window at nothing all the time.

But remember this great man who will be sympathetic, indulgent even, for all genuine work will have nothing but justice for all empty pretence: the slap-dash and the vague they will send back to their grammar, and bid them learn before they try to teach.

I say remember this, and don’t be too mild in judging yourselves, however kind you are to others: and as to how you are to judge yourselves, I must say again use your eyes: your own eyes, you understand, in one way or other, and not other people’s: for I have noticed that one is often rather anxious for the favourable opinion of others on a piece of work which in one’s own heart one has condemned already.

Now as to the standard of comparison by which you are to judge your work, apart from the works of the great master, nature, I would have you take a high standard; nor be discouraged at the apparent difference between your attempts and this exemplary accomplishment: it is part of the great gifts of all thoroughly good work, and finely illustrates the fellowship of all genuine workmen little and great which I have been speaking of that such work does not discourage the learner, but encourage him: I suppose the reason for this is that the great natural principles on which it was done shine through the workmanship, and are, tacitly or not, understood by those who are honestly aspiring to do good work: while on the contrary coming across a bad and pretentious piece of work, does not exhilarate a successful artist with a sense of superiority but depresses him with a feeling of doubt as to the value of his own work: so immeasurable is the difference between bad and good in the arts, so unceasing the evil that falseness gives birth to.

Now again as to your standard of excellence though I do not wish to be considered a pedant or even a mere antiquarian, I do think you will judge yourselves better by comparison with work that has stood the test of ages, and is still accounted excellent, than if you used contemporary work to test yourselves by: to say, I can do as well as or better than my fellows, people who are in the same hobble as ourselves, that is apt to lower our standard, I think, and reduces what ought to be calm and cool judgment of our own work by ourselves to a mere piece of competition, and competition which is apt to be decided by reference to conventional standards applied by people who do not thoroughly know us.

Well, I have caught myself for some little time past advising you that are art students here; caught myself, I say because I feel shy of doing this to an audience I am not thoroughly acquainted with, and who are taught by competent teachers on a definite and well-considered plan:[3] all I can say in excuse is that it rather leads up to what I am going to say to you, and which I would say to any audience, whatever their calling might be.

A while ago I was speaking of what I considered the erroneous estimate that was and perhaps still is made by people of the effect of the study and practice of art on the lives of the artists: quite conventionally made, let me add, for the people who hold that view know nothing whatever of artists’ lives or the difficulties of their work: In trying to confute this erroneous impression which people have or had of art, I spoke almost entirely of the kind of workman whom we today call an artist: that is to say a man whose work is demanded entirely by the necessities of the mind; but there is another kind of workman whose work is demanded partly by the necessities of the body: him we call by various names, which I am ashamed to say do in most people’s minds imply inferiority: artisan for instance, or operative: as these names are certainly not English, and to my mind there is a smack of insult about them, as withal their etymological meaning is vague, I shall by your leave use an English word in their stead; a word full of meaning, and to all reasonable people implying honour and not reproach: I shall use the word handicraftsman.

Please excuse a word or two etymological, which also will have a serious bearing on our general subject of the arts; and let me remind you that the word craft and its adjective crafty have been degraded and misapplied in modern English very unfortunately as I think: they are used to express trickiness or dishonesty, where we ought to use the words guile or guileful: oddly enough by the way our kinsmen on the other side of the herring-pond have served the word clever in the same way, while they use the word ‘cunning’ in its true sense, ‘knowing’ viz. Well, the right meaning of the word craft is simply power: so that a handicraftsman signifies a man who exercises a power by means of his hands, and doubtless when it was first used was intended to signify that he exercised a certain kind of power; to wit, a readiness of mind and deftness of hand which had been acquired through many ages, handed down from father to son and increased generation by generation: surely a class of men who possess such a power is a class to be honoured and thanked rather than nicknamed by foolish outlandish words.

Well anyhow this kind of man is or ought to be the other kind of artist who is or was conventionally considered to be a ‘loose fish'[4] by prescriptive right: but I should call that opinion a libel on him if I had not heard it said that 'twas a maxim of law, the greater the truth the greater the libel: so the first syllable of the word libel must answer my purpose: for my own part I know by experience that ever so little of the artist added to the handicraftsman makes him a more profitable man to employ, to say nothing of the effect of art on himself, as giving some additional pleasure and interest to his life.

Thus much I have been saying of the artist and the handicraftsman as if they were naturally two distinct classes of workers: I suppose it is almost the universally received opinion not only that it is so, which is obvious, but also that it is natural and right that it should be so.

But if that be so, I will ask in the first place, what is intended to be done by all the schools of art and the like, which have been established under the superintendence of the Depart[ment] of Sci[ence] and Art? Are they intended to turn out any number of artists? and if so what kind of artists, and how are they going to live: my impression is that there is a pretty sharp struggle for subsistence in what may be called the lower ranks of those we call artists.

The fact is these schools were not intended to turn out what are conventionally termed artists, they were intended first for general artistic education, and second for the special education of those who design for industrial arts. As for the result of the second of these purposes, I have some doubts if it has quite answered the expectations formed, as for that of the first I suppose it has not been disappointing on the whole; at all events from whencesoever it comes there is more interest felt in art than there used to be; and moreover there was assuredly an idea in those who founded these places of education that some tincture would not spoil the handicraftsman but would improve him; in short that it is not natural and right that the artist should be wholly dissociated from the handicraftsman.

Meantime however, the wide distinction remains as wide as ever; the only difference made by the spread of artistic education is that there are more, and I hope better artists than there were; if a handicraftsman shows any decidedly artistic talents, instead of remaining in his craft, and illuminating it, so to say by his talents, he climbs up out of it into the class of artists, the craft that really needed his talent has lost it; the profession that did not specially want it has gained it, and probably smothered it into invisibility: surely there is waste of power here, waste of craftsmanship.

Well now I can understand some of you saying; but are you a crusted old Tory? would you prevent a clever man from rising in the world? because whereas when he was a handicraftsman he was not a gentleman, now he is one, since he is an artist, and so he has risen a step even if he hasn’t bettered his income; would you we say prevent the man from rising?

Indeed I mustn’t say what I am, but I suppose I may go as far as to say what I am not, and that is a crusted old Tory: so in any case I am glad if a clever man rises, and know well that in order to rise he must do as I have been saying as things are — more’s the pity! more’s the waste! and to be plain with you, you won’t better the matter on this side till you have got rid of all that folly of calling a man a gentleman or denying him the title according as he works in this or that way; all that quaint heraldic jargon with the mismanagement of forces and unfairness that goes with it.

Now don’t misunderstand me, I don’t want a mere confusion of the different grades of artists for I have said before that such grades must exist; but there must be no sharp distinction if we are to have art worth the trouble, widespread and ‘understanded of the people’: if we are to have popular art.

If things are to go on as they are now what will art amount to when we clear our eyes and look into the matter without fear of making ourselves disagreeable: in fact without hypocrisy? To my mind it will amount to this:

There will be on the one hand a great body of artists so-called turning out most of them unsatisfactory work not for lack of talent, but because their talent will be misapplied; they will be compelled to be gentlemen and more or less useless because they are more talented than their fellows, and so are to be set to supply the demand for fine art as 'tis called, and not really being artists enough for that demand will have to supply a substitute for it, which will receive very languid attention from the public in general, yet more attention than it will deserve: above the heads of these will be a very few men of genius, who at the expense of great toil and suffering will have acquired real mastery over their art, and will produce works of art of a high quality, but which will not in the least be ‘understanded of the people’ partly from their fault or rather misfortune, partly from the fault or misfortune of the people.

All this will supply the languid demand for the more intellectual side of art: the fine arts: but there is still a demand for the less intellectual side of the arts to wit the ornament of the industrial arts, that side of it which should be done by handicraftsmen. How is that to be supplied if things are to go on as they are? Well, the handicraftsmen can’t supply it, if the article is to be genuine, for they are not taught to be artists, nay are not allowed to be, are in fact turned into ‘operatives’ which I take it is another name for machines.

Now the machines some of which will be of steel and brass and some of flesh and bone will not turn out art, for a machine cannot do it, but they will turn out a substitute for it, which will be sold very cheap, but will not be worth the money it costs, for it will be worth nothing.

So that will be the art produced by the wasteful system of forcing men to do what they are unfit to do simply because we have fallen into a groove and will not get out of it: let us look at it clearly and see what it means.

First at the top of the tree will come very scanty however precious fruit, the art done by great men struggling under great disadvantages, the worst of which will be that the public in general will have little sympathy for them.

Then lower down the fruit will be tolerably plenteous, but unripe of little use as it is: the art of a good number of men of fair talents, but undisciplined, and striving to do what they have no chance to do really well: such art will be plausible pretension, but unsatisfying: nobody will care much about it because it will not have the root of the matter in it.

Last and lowest will come a very strange fruit indeed, which nobody will want, and nobody will be willing to pay for, but which will go on being produced from a sort of habit: that will be the position of ornamental art so-called; to be allowed to exist when it does not get in the way of the machine which is to be used for producing riches that nobody will be able to use.

Well, there is one comfort about it, that such a state of things cannot last very long: civilized man will either say, ‘let us have an end of this folly called art and live like decent beasts—' or what else will happen?

Indeed I should hope that man, even when he is so civilized as to be forced to live in Burslem or Widnes or Manchester[5] will still have some longing for beauty left him, enough at all events to feel discontented with the sweet spots I have just named, and that he will cast about to see if something cannot be done to get him as large a share of it as a red-skin or a Zulu gets for himself, and if by some means art cannot be begun again; in which case what ideal will he look up to beyond the humble present endeavours to bring art to a healthy new birth again? What ideas will he have as to what art has to do for him, and what kind of sacrifices will he be bound to make for it?

Surely, first of all he will remember that no pyramid can stand on its apex, but must stand on its base: he will know that before anything worthy to be called art can exist, it must be longed for by the whole people, and he will look forward to the day when no one save a few curious exceptions, men of more or less diseased minds, will fail to understand art and to demand his due share of it: in that day though there will be gradations of art from the humblest to the most exalted, there will [be] no sham art, nor even any bungling, because everyone who works with his hands will find out his real and proper place, and will do his best in it: and between all handicraftsmen will be mutual help and sympathy; they will all keep touch, as the drill sergeants call it: the great artist will think it a matter of course that his house and the goods in it should be made beautiful and interesting by the hearty thought and happy deftness of his humbler guild-brother, who in his turn will not find that the great master speaks to him in an unknown tongue: moreover it will be a consequence of this that civilized man will no longer seem (as he does now) to be the enemy of nature, to shame her and befoul her, and turn her rest and order and beauty into feverish ragged squalor: the house shall be like a natural growth of the meadow, and the city a necessary fulfillment of the valley. Nor is that all, nor the most of it: for this outward order and beauty will be but a token of fair and orderly life, of days made up of unwearisome work, and of leisure restful but not vacant: of a life in which year by year the land of his fathers shall grow dearer and fairer to a man as he gets to know it better and better, although his times be cast in a place where nature wears her everyday clothes, no queen but a thrifty housewife: so that when he goes into other lands richer of startling beauty and wild romance, he will fare not as a man driven by dullness that nothing can brighten, by weariness that no idleness can soothe, but as a pilgrim who has left his home a while that he may come back stored with new pictures and tales of the life of other men. A steadfast home that he shall never weary of, work that he shall never turn from in disgust, neighbours that never shame him with faces soured by injustice and hopelessness; these are the surroundings that he shall look to art to find for him, and if it be the art of his ideal, it will not fail him: would not such things as these be worth buying at a heavy price? or what price could buy them?

Indeed if ever such art as I am thinking of be gained by men once more when they look back on anything which they have had to sacrifice for it, they will think it little enough: but, to us looking forward, and, many of us, thinking of art vaguely, looking upon it as a pretty ornament which our lives may wear or not as they think fit, and be none the worse if they refuse it: to us I say who do not rightly know what art means, or have had [no] leisure or opportunity to think what a dull blank the total loss of it would make in all men’s lives, the necessary sacrifices to be made before art can be born again might seem great and overgreat if we could see them rightly all at once.

But let me say for myself, that I have now followed art for a good many years and through all that time have more and more directly set my face toward that ideal of art which I have been speaking of, till it seems to me that I have gained some inkling of what sacrifices must be made before art can become healthy and progressive again.

My views if I stated them fully would seem to many here too wild and eccentric to be even listened to, yet something I must at least hint at, since it seems to me that the first sacrifice to be made in favour of art is the pleasure of prophesying smooth things to one’s friends and neighbours whose kindness one would fain forebear to try by differing from them even a little.

I have said already that I durst not ask a man born to earning weekly wages to sacrifice his ambition to rise out of his class: what can I ask men to do who have little money and little leisure to spare for any cause that does not seem very clear indeed to them? Yet surely among such men the hope is not lacking nor the effort to raise their whole class as a class, and by such efforts is art more helped if we artists did but know it than by anything else that is done in our days.

I have taken note of many strikes, and I must needs say without circumlocution that with many of these I have heartily sympathized: but when the day comes that there is a serious strike of workmen against the poisoning of the air with smoke or the waters with filth, I shall think that art is getting on indeed, and that the schools of art have had a noble success: meanwhile I fancy most of you will agree with me in thinking it a hopeful token that all classes show signs of uniting to prevent the robbery of commons which till quite lately has gone on unchecked in England:[6] the more individuals are kept in due order by the public, the more public rights are respected the nearer grows our chance of the new birth of popular art.

For the rest I might I know preach a sermon to my brethren of the working classes on the benefit of thrift and sobriety and the rest of it, but I am thinking that art and the love of art will one day preach that sermon clearly enough to them so I had rather say a few words to finish with to those of my own class, to the rich and well-to-do, and the rather because, and it is a woeful confession to have to make I know little of any class save my own.

Now then I will say what I have often said before, and shall go on saying till there is no more need to say it: what I mean by art, what I am really interested in, is not the prevalence of this or that style, not the laying on the public taste whether it will or not a law that such or such a thing must be done in art, not this interests me, and forces me to speak when I had far rather hold my peace; but rather a general love of beauty, partly for its own sake, and because it is natural and right for the dwellers on the beautiful earth to help and not to mar its beauty, and partly, yes and chiefly, because that external beauty is a symbol of a decent and reasonable life, is above all the token of what chiefly makes life good and not evil, of joy in labour, in creation that is: and this joy in labour, this evidence of man helping in the work of creation, is I feel sure the thing which from the first all progress in civilization has been aiming at: feed this inspiration and you feed the flame of civilization throughout the world; extinguish it, and civilization will die also: material prosperity, as they call it, that is a thing, which according to our way of dealing with it will be either the helpful servant or the cruel tyrant of civilization: are you satisfied that it is still only our servant? If so bid it give back to England the green fields which it has wasted, bid it turn its terrible power to the task of giving us something worthy to supply the place of the stored-up loveliness of ten centuries of which it has robbed the homes of England: give it that command first, and see if it will obey you, for there will be tasks heavy enough for it when it has begun that.

And if you will find that it will not obey you, and that it is, as indeed I fear, our master now, and not our servant, what shall we do then? Two courses lie open to us; the first to sit down deedless, and pretend that we believe all is well and better, to let our material prosperity drag us into deeds of injustice at home and abroad: to destroy the prosperity both material and spiritual of far-off countries in the name of civilization, while at home we weakly try to palliate with our left hand the miseries we have recklessly raised with our right: to sit still and feign content, though we know that for all men day by day is less and less leisure, more and more wearisome work unworthy of men; to gather if we be rich some share of material prosperity to us, making an island in the sea of squalor, and hoping at least that we shall be eaten last or one of the last.

That is the one course open to us when we know that we have become the slaves of the tyrant we have made for ourselves: and the other what is that? Daily and hourly resistance to our tyrant. Ceaseless plotting of rebellion against him, till one day it breaks out openly and reduces him to his old condition of servant again: a heavy task you may say, even those of you who have your eyes open, and know the monster which we have misnamed commerce for what he is.

Indeed it is no light task, but I do believe that the heaviest part of it lies in making up our minds that it has to be undertaken: some ease and comfort the rebels of commerce will have to sacrifice doubtless, and many things which men oftenest desire; but of those many, most, will be found when we have lost them, to have been but troublous hindrances to life.

Surely there are those who now desire money unreasonably and who distress themselves (and their neighbours) very much in the acquirement of it who strive for it for reasons which would no longer exist if civilization should get into the right road again: I know some of those reasons, of the nature of fencing oneself against the intrusion of barbarous ugliness, or the desire for the private possession of works of art. The time will come when no one will need money for such purposes for ugliness in the work of man’s hands, which is now the rule will exist no longer; when there will be humble but satisfying art in private dwellings, and lofty soul-inspiring art in public places, in short nature here unspoiled, there helped in her loveliness about us on all hands.

Could any money buy that now? Still more could any money buy the deep content of which it will be at once a token and a cause, a content arising from a population employed in worthy work, which will bring pleasure and sympathy for the worker in him who uses it, pleasure and self-respect in him who makes it?

Compare that with the track of waste and squalor which the misnamed monster Commerce leaves behind him now, and join me I beg of you in hastening forward the day when the motto of our country and of all countries shall be ‘one for all, and all for one.’


[1] LeMire suggests that the painting in question is “The Madonna with the Chancellor Rolin” by Jan van Eyck, painted around 1434-5, although the description is from memory and not entirely accurate.

[2] Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, Dean of Westminster and a fairly voluminous writer had died in July, 1881. See R. E. Prothero, The Life and Correspondence of Stanley, Late Dean of Westminster. 2 vols. (London, 1893.)

[3] The “plan” referred to here is the national program of art education known as the South Kensington System.

[4] A dissipated man, one without moral boundaries (Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, E. Cobham Brewer, 1894).

[5] All three of these cities were centres of manufacturing: Burslem for pottery; Widnes for soap; and Manchester for the textile industry.

[6] The Commons Preservation Society, of which Morris was a member, had recently had successes in limiting seizure of common land by railway companies and speculative builders.

Bibliographical Note


Art: A Serious Thing. This title was added to the (untitled) manuscript by a later hand.


B.M. Add. MS. 45332(3) [Manuscript in the British Library]


12 December 1882: before the Leek School of Art on the occasion of the annual distribution of prizes to the students of that school. The lecture was given as part of the national program of art education known as “The South Kensington System”


Eugene D. LeMire (ed.), The Unpublished Lectures of William Morris, (Detroit,1969), pp.36-53. (from which this version and some of the notes are taken)

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Alexander Kither, November 2020