Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Great Works of Art for Troubled Times

"People like you and me have to work even harder to create the best art...that we possibly can. And the rest, the children, the country kitchen, the domestic bliss, we leave to others who will have different regrets." --Wendy Wasserstein, The Sisters Rosensweig

We are all living in a really tough time right now. The economy is in trouble, unemployment is rising, and more and more people are looking at ways to cut corners and live on a smaller budget. Here at The Beautiful Necessity, I've tried to create a small sanctuary of beauty, a place to pause and admire those things which are both priceless and free...great works of art...without the outside world intruding too much.

But I cannot help but think of how very applicable to our troubled times William Morris' life and philosophy truly are. The other day, while perusing a file of images I have stored on my computer to share here at the blog, I came across an image from a biography of Morris. The sketch shows a design for a small country cottage decorating scheme William Morris created. (click above to see in detail) I will quote the book the image comes from:

"Morris's second attempt to provide inexpensive ideas for furnishings came with the design of 'a model workman's small house' displayed in the newly opened Art Gallery in Queen's Park, Manchester, in 1884. This was commission by Thomas Coglan Horsfall, a Manchester philanthropist for whom Morris had visited Manchester in February 1879 to speak on 'Working Folk and the Future of Art,' a lecture in which he expounded his now famous advice '...do not have anything in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful'. At first Morris was very unhappy about Horsfall's proposals for displays in the newly opened museum, believing that 'what furniture a workman can buy should be exactly the same (if his room be large enough) as a lord buys'. However, he was persuaded and the room he designed included chairs from the Sussex range, a Madox Brown designed wash-stand and numerous wallpapers and chintzes."

I recently watched a British show on decorating with pattern, and the host observed that the reason why the Victorians chose such large-patterned wallpapers and home textiles was because the homes themselves were larger at the time. The host went on to further say that this is why most companies now reproduce these patterns in smaller formats, for the smaller homes we live in now. And granted, in the above image, William Morris chose one of his smallest, simplest patterns for this small country home plan, but his concept of beauty being accessible to people of all classes is aptly remembered. In fact, perhaps one of the biggest tragedies of Morris' life is that even though he accomplished more than ten men could in his lifetime, he never was able to make the beautifully crafted works of art affordable for the working classes, as he desired.

“In 1876, a wealthy industrialist whose house Morris's company was redecorating asked him why he was pacing up and down and muttering to himself. Morris replied "It's only that I spend my life in ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich."

William Morris understood that sometimes the harder life is, the more important it is to have something beautiful to hold on to. I read another article online the other day that marveled at how during this time of recession and economic trouble, handicrafts are enjoying quite a revival. I believe that this is not only because people feel the practical need to create things more affordably, but also because the process of creation is soothing, and also the idea of purchasing, giving, and owning items that were created by someone else's hands creates a link between us that we need during such a difficult time. Beauty is universal.

And boy do we need beauty now.


Hermes said...

I agree with this. Beauty is necessary at any time, but perhaps even more when all seems doom and gloom. The sort of houses that could afford Morris wallpaper were large (room for the servants etc.) but the idealistic country cottages they liked to depict were often no more than hovels and certainly didn't have wallpaper. He created rather an illusion really, but a beautiful one that still inspires many decorative firms.

Sophia Rose said...

Great post. it's times like these that we have to seek the beaut in the simpler things, whatever speaks to our hearts...I've admired his work because it's a good foundation to build upon.

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

Ah yes. You are so right; I hear about how tough it is, yet I still see people buying "affordable" luxuries. I thought about the very thing you raise,and that is no matter how grim it becomes, we seek beauty and comfort. Art is our way of creating that refuge of beauty. You have such an eye! And one day Grace, you will have your Decraled windows!! Anita