Robert Bernard Martin

  • The Collected Letters of William Morris. Vol. I: 1848-1880 edited by Norman Kelvin
    Princeton, 626 pp, £50.30, April 1984, ISBN 0 691 06501 2

When he first heard of William Morris’s death, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt wrote in his diary, ‘He is the most wonderful man I have known,’ then added more equivocally: ‘unique in this, that he had no thought for anything or person, including himself, but only for the work he had in hand.’ This handsome new edition of Morris’s letters does not entirely answer our natural question of how a man so often apparently unmoved by other persons should have had the explosive creative energy to become famous as poet, artist, decorator, printer, manufacturer and socialist. As Jane Morris’s former lover, Blunt was not unprejudiced about her husband’s paucity of feeling, but his judgment underlines the troubling mystification that Morris’s personality induces.

In last year’s Pre-Raphaelite exhibition at the Tate Gallery, picture number 94 seemed an alien in the surrounding canvases. It was Queen Guenevere, Morris’s 1858 oil of the guilty queen, for which Jane Burden was the model. In the midst of all those reformed prostitutes, thoughtful nuns, sailors home from the main, moribund young poets, drowning ladies, eminent critics splashed by turbulent mountain streams, and fugitive Christian missionaries panting from the chase, here was a painting taking as its subject textures, patterns and things, rather than personal histories and emotions. Most of the other painters found persons so important that even their untenanted landscapes finally seem symbolic states of mind, paysages moralisés.

Queen Guenevere perhaps sprang initially from some of the same impulses that made Holman Hunt paint The Awakening Conscience, for the Queen’s face has a pensive look that may be remorse, and in the background is a second figure – seated, male, and so diminished that the viewer might easily overlook him – probably intended as Lancelot. But what is startling about the painting is that none of this literary baggage is of much importance, for what matters is the texture of the bed-hangings, the sheets, the cloth on the bedside chest, and above all Guenevere’s dress, which is as minutely and sensuously painted as any of those in Gainsborough’s portraits. The material of each of these fabrics echoes all the others, so that the dress is only a more richly worked version of the draperies and bed-furnishings. The simple composition of a double triangle leads not to Guenevere’s face but to her hips and waist, then to the used, untidy bed. All this should underline the erotic element of the picture, but curiously it works the other way and turns Guenevere into part of the furnishing of the room, hardly more important than its other components. Her dark head, disproportionately small, is placed high on the canvas, and we notice it only at a second glance: and even then it tends to recede into the dark background, outshone by the sumptuousness of her dress. It is a beautiful picture, but oddly inhuman, and it is something of a shock to realise that it was a message of love to Jane painted only a year before their marriage. ‘In a moment of despair’ Morris scrawled on the back of the canvas: ‘I cannot paint you, but I love you.’ No doubt true, but his passion seems directed more to the fabrics than to the static, decorative human centre of the painting. (It is probably not wholly irrelevant that he rumpled the sheets of the bed – to make it look as if it had been slept in – by getting in and lying there smoking.)

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