William Morris

Art and the People

Where are we going? (Part I of 2, as reported in the Hampstead and Highgate Express)

On Tuesday evening Mr. William Morris, author of "The Earthly Paradise," delivered the first of two lectures on "Art and the People" at the Vestry Hall, Haverstock-hill, on behalf of the Hampstead Town Club. About 150 ladies and gentlemen were present, the prices of admission being too high for any but those specially interested in the subject or the club. Mr. H. Holiday presided, the lecturer being also accompanied on to the platform by the Rev. W. A. Macdonald, M.A. The subtitle of the lecture was,"Where are we going".

The chairman briefly introduced the lecturer, whom he had had the pleasure of knowing for the last twenty years.

Mr. Morris, who was received with applause, invited the meeting to consider with him whether the "progress" of which they had heard so much was going in the right direction. It might be that some present thought it of no great moment if the art of the people were going astray, regarding it as the mere embroidery of life. That view accounted for the carelessness with which most of the educated classes saw with indifference the way in which the other classes were shut out from the pleasures of art. He thought they must acquit the richer class of conscious injustice to the poor on this point, because the general opinion was that art was not essentially a necessary of life. Nevertheless no society could be acquitted of blindness and stupidity, Art was necessary to the decency and dignity of life, and any society which disregarded it was in danger of degradation. Art to be healthy must not be confined to the richer class—no, so far as art was concerned there must be no classes. All real art was socialistic. They might put a toy enamel watch in their pocket, but a cathedral was as much a gift to the poor man as to the rich man. If those who were struggling for the freedom of mankind thrust from them the thought of art, they would be building up disappointment and discouragement for that future time they were working for. The lecturer then dealt with his subject under the three following headings. 1st. Art is necessary to the manly life of man. 2nd. It cannot long exist except shared by all. 3rd, it is the business of every serious man both to further art and to further its equitable distribution. Art had never been altogether lacking from any community. There was intellectual art, which was the higher, and there was industrial art. Tho household arts had never really flourished where the intellectual art was neglected—where they had not been neglected there the other was flourishing. It was with this, if it must so be called, the lesser art that he had chiefly to do, partly because it was this that was mostly the art of the people. The distinctive point about this art was that it was used for the decoration of articles which for their primary purpose might have done with less ornament. Novertheleas it had been the custom of man to ornament these articles of use. None had ever quite done without it from the dawn of history—nay, before that—till our own day. Why all this matter of extra work on useful articles—what was it done for? First and last, it had taken a great deal of trouble to do, had exercised the thoughts of many a man, being paid for in gold, or comfort, or clothing, or thanks, or honours. He thought it was done because the workman was pleased with his work, and wanted other peoplo to be pleased with it. The pleasure of life was the cause and the aim of it. It was, above all things, natural for man to adorn with soma beauty the matters which he made to help his material need. Nature had not made things less beautiful when they were useful—Nature wee the first teacher of ornamental art. She for ever cries out to man, "I cannot work without pleasure. Where I make, there I make beautiful." Those countries which are the fittest for man are endowed most with beauties of Nature, and man has declared loudly enough that these were made for him, and has often shown himself a creator by putting on the earth things as beautiful as himself. Greek temples and Gothic cathedrals sprang from a worthier thought than fear of some jealous god, though that might have led a Pharoah to build himself a tomb. These great works were the outcome of corporate and social feeling. If they had been drawn out of the people by the bribes of the rich they would have lacked the life which was to be seen in them. The aspirations towards beauty—the hope and joy of giving a lasting gift to the world—these motives might seem to be in themselves enough for fashioning art; hut it went without saying that no art which was to be the admiration of the world could be the work of slaves. The gift of the men who build up art is not only the work of free will, but it is giving freely—they are no martyrs, bet friends and good fellows. As the man of art belonged to the past, so he belonged to the present nod the future, and the work, no part of which was not important, had still to be carried on, While the work grows men's minds grow also—they are not operatives, but men, working under the Influence of co-operation. Pleasure accompanied the making of things, unless some tyrant came in and said, "You, sir, shall go on making the same box until you can make it very neatly and vary fast, every day except Sunday and the other days on which you get drunk, and I will sell your boxes and pay you one-third of what they fetch; and if you don't feel satisfied with that you will have—to go to the workhouse." That was the contract under the gospel of capital. (Laughter and applause.) The question, "Whither are we going?" must be met by making the question, "Whither is competitive commerce going?" It had popular art buttened up in its pocket. The lecturer contended that from the introduction of machinery, and with the growth of competitive commerce, there had been a steady deterioration in art, the Individuality of the workman having been swept away, leaving him nothing but his mechanical forces, which were still of use to capitalists for feeding those machines which in these latter days had become a curse to the world. Quotations from Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill were given in support of this theory, the lecturer adding that machines were not made for alleviating labour—they were made to make money out of other people's pains and degradation. The attempt to get art out of this kind of forced labour had been tried. but failed, and in the second quarter of the nineteenth century a sorely needed revolt set in against the madness and stupidity into which the arts affecting daily life had sunk. There was "the true principle of art" movement, which had now settled down into a movement in favour of general education. This movement had furnished us with schools of art and museums, which would be useful instruments when people began to wish to use them usefully. An earlier movement was "the Gothic revival," connected with the revolt in literature which had been nicknamed "the romantic school." These movements had achieved the doubtful victory of attempting to prevent the decadence of ornamental art, and had led to efforts, which the lecturer ridiculed, to "restore" old buildings. A real reverence for the knowledge of art in history had, however, begun to spread amongst those who had any knowledge on the subject, though at the same time men who professed to be anxious for the spread of art were flooding the world with articles which made the name of England a byeword, while, as to architecture, houses were built which were a disgrace to the designation. As showing the degradation to which labour had been reduced under the present system, the lecturer quoted a sad discription of the life of the Eastend labourer, with a family, on 20s. a week.

After speaking of "the justice of art," Mr. Morris said he hoped to be able to give them in his next lecture some hints towards the realization of a better state of things. For the present he thought he had offended them already too much, but nevertheless he asked them to remember the dreary, monotonous life of those who worked for wages, blamed when they failed, and not praised when they succeded, simply because, though of the same blood with the rest, they wore born poor, and had not learnt the trick of rising on the misfortunes of other people. He prayed them to think of this, though it might not be pleasant, when they wore looking at some cheap, machine-made articles, which the salesman ought to offer them in the words of the old Scotch fishwives:

It isn't cloth you're buying,
But the meals of men.


The chairman thanked Mr. Morris for his lecture, and said he hoped ell present would think of whet they had heard, and, so far as might be, try to be fellow workers with him.(Applause.)

Mr. Morris responded, and the meeting separated.

Bibliographical Note


Art and the People: Where are we going?


Hampstead Vestry Hall, Havelock Hill, June 12 1883, for the Hampstead Town Club. The second part was given on June 15th


This is a version of the first half of the talk Art and Socialism, given at Leicester in February 1884. The second half presumably also matched that talk, though it was not reported in the Hampstead and Highgate Express. There was a debate in the letters column of that paper, with complaints that "Art and the People meant nothing less than a concealed peg upon which to hang, before unsuspecting Hampstead folks, the revolutionary doctrine of the Comune". Morris was defended by the Christian Socialist C.E. Maurice, who he corresponded with, and by David Bell; the debate continued till August.


Hampstead & Highgate Express, Saturday 16 June 1883, p.3