William Morris – along with Dante Gabriele Rosseti and Edward Burne Jones – is perhaps one of the more famous names associated with a group of people who had a very decided interests in things medieval. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which first came to public notice in the painting of John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the mid 1800s, was in many ways a prototype fandom; its canon was those works of art produced in the centuries before Raphael, which it responded to in accordance with the pronouncements of John Ruskin who shared their medievalist tendencies. Ruskin was an artist and critic of art and architecture, mover and shaker in the Gothic revival which recast the design of Victorian buildings into richly ornamented cathedrals rather than neo-classical temples. He was both inspiration and defender of the Pre-Raphaelites while Morris and Burne Jones were at Oxford, and Morris read and recommended Ruskin’s Seven Lamps of Architecture to his friends and acquaintances, along with several of Ruskin’s other works. Morris was a key part of what is sometimes known as Aesthetic Pre-Raphaelitism, which emphasised the medieval most strongly; read more about it on VictorianWeb here). His designs for everything from furniture to textiles, wallpaper to stained glass, reflected his interest in medieval stories and the aesthetics of medieval art, an interest shared by Burne Jones (who designed the window from which this blog header is taken).
However, Morris was also a writer, both of prose and of poetry, and a maker of translations and versions. Though influenced also by poets such as Keats, his early poetry is already rich with allusion to medieval literature, especially that concerning King Arthur, his knights and his beloved but fateful queen Guenevere. Working with specialists in the language, he produced reworkings of Icelandic sagas, of which he produced beautiful illuminated manuscripts, as well as a poetic version of Beowulf. It is interesting to note that he, like Tolkien after him, wrote a poetic version of the story of Sigurd. The most famous of his later ‘romances’ (and described by some as the first ‘fantasy novels’) are The Wood beyond the World and The Well at the World’s End, which we’ll look at later on, but Morris also wrote The House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountain, which have more in common with Beowulf than they do with later medieval texts. Though extraordinarily creative, Morris systematically based his work upon the medieval, writing back stories for characters, providing missing scenes and alternative versions, providing a Victorian’s re-reading of traditional tales (see for example his poem ‘The Defence of Guenevere’, in which he provides the queen with a spirited and moving speech at her trial for adultery).
You can find out more about the Pre-Raphaelites here and read the Pre-Raphaelite Society’s blog here. The V and A has a useful list of subject guides. You can see some Pre-Raphaelite paintings online. For a brief bibliography of Ruskin, go to the Ruskin Research Centre. VictorianWeb’s William Morris resources are here.
The Pre Raphaelites are more strongly associated with the Midlands than you might expect. Burne Jones grew up in Birmingham, and William Morris spent a great deal of time in the later 1870s in Leek, Staffordshire, experimenting with dyeing textiles at Thomas Wardle’s factory. Indeed, the Pre-Raphaelite Society for the study of those associated with the movement was founded in Birmingham in the 1980s. The Cathedral Church of St Philip in Birmingham contains some glorious windows designed by Burne Jones for an extension in the 1880s. You can find details and pictures of them online here, or try this spectacular Flickr set but nothing is better than seeing them for yourself. The cathedral is open to the public most of the time during the day, so drop in next time you are in the city centre. Tolkien, of course, also grew up in Birmingham from 1895 onwards, and was a great admirer of William Morris. Their lives overlapped by four years in the 1890s. For more on Tolkien growing up in Birmingham, particularly in relation to the Birmingham Oratory, go here.
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery has had an impressive collection of Pre-Raphaelite drawings since some focused buying in the early twentieth century, and provides online access through its Pre-Raphaelite Online Resource. Fortuitously, its new exhibition The Poetry of Drawing: Pre-Raphaelite Designs, Studies and Watercolours, opened this weekend (29th January 2011) and remains open until May. Tickets cost £5 for students; we may visit as a group if there is enough interest.
Aide-memoire post-seminar (click on the pictures for a larger version):