HOMELife & WorksAbout the SocietyMemberhip & DonationsPublications Events  •  Links

"The Obstinate Refusers: Work in News From Nowhere."

Rat Watkinson

Watkinson, Ray. "The Obstinate Refusers: Work in News From Nowhere." William Morris & News from Nowhere: A Vision for Our Time, eds. Stephen Coleman and Paddy O’Sullivan. Bideford, Devon: Green Books, 1990). 91–106.

IT IS HALLIDAY SPARLING [1] who tells how once, in a discussion with comrades, Morris suddenly picked up a copy of his Love is Enough, and exclaimed ‘This is a lie, and it was I who wrote it! Love and WORK, that is what we need!’ And it is in this light that we must look at what Morris shows of work, and its place in the lives of those who live in Nowhere. Work is presented in News from Nowhere as a necessity of life, needed and hungered after. It is thus put on the same plane as hunger, sex, and love. Hunger makes not even a ghostly appearance in Nowhere: but sex does, and love, and work is never far from these.

          Many of those to whom the socialist propaganda was addressed, were all too familiar with the need for work of quite another kind. In the main, this meant a desperate need for employment, for a wage with which to buy shelter, food and clothing for themselves and their families. Though many of them would follow specific trades, it was common enough in times of general unemployment, or of recession in particular trades, for them to find themselves forced to accept, even to plead for, work in another trade, or as labourers doing unskilled or semi-skilled work.

          Having found, in the trade to which you had been apprenticed, in its physical skills and the intellectual activities embedded in their use, a real source of pleasure, you might, often as not, find yourself expected, in the interest of profit, to work too fast, or to cut corners, skimping both materials and skill. You might be doing this in cramped, dark, and dirty conditions, and for long hours, leaving little time for leisure. In the hardest of times, the thing most dreaded was

[page 92]

that you should be forced to sell your tools for bread. From that pit there was mostly no return. This was a particular factor in the lives of those workers with whom Morris was most familiar, the skilled craft workers of the furnishing and decorative trades. In contrast, the factory hand had no place from which to fall but simply out of work into destitution, until the swing of trade, or the times, called for more workers to be once more taken on.

          This was a condition of life which Morris had read about, but had not seen at first hand, the condition which offered no imagined pleasure in labour. Many of the readers of Commonweal could share Morris’s dream: and it was his particular hope to win them away from the mechanistic pseudo-socialism of Bellamy’s Looking Backward that first impelled him to write News from Nowhere. To fall out of your trade merely to survive was a blow both to self-esteem, and to hope. It made clear that the search for work was, in the end, not for specific employment, but for work-in-general--not as an abstraction, but as the means of access to daily bread. To learn this bitter lesson, however, opened the possibility of looking further, if hope of a change, and of some control over your own life could be found. It was to give such hope that men like Morris joined the socialist propaganda of the 1880s, and that he wrote News from Nowhere.

          One reader of SDF and Socialist League propaganda, and who had read Morris, was Robert Noonan (‘Robert Tressell’), who was personally familiar with the kind of experience described above. And nowhere is the pressure and the degradation forced upon those actually in work more vividly expressed than in The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, [2] which is set in Morris’s own trade of decoration. There is a parallel to be drawn between Noonan himself, his own ‘hero’ Owen, and the nameless ‘hero’ of Morris’s The Pilgrims of Hope, which had preceded News from Nowhere in the pages of The Commonweal.

          The Pilgrims of Hope is far from being well-known, or as much studied as it should be: it is a serious text of socialist thought. Here, the skilled man, a joiner by trade, is secure in the workshop because of his skill; but also, and in the end more so, because he has a small ‘private’ income. The self-confidence that this, and a better education

[page 93]

than most of his fellows, gives, wins him respect from them, and keeps the boss off his back. The moment an absconding lawyer brings the income to an abrupt end, the boss takes him to task for his subversive views, and his street corner speaking. Soon, skill, education and all, he is ‘on the stones’, and reduced to the basic condition of the industrial worker, which is not that of being in work, but of being available for work, a commodity on the labour market. [3]

Work in Nowhere

Work, in News from Nowhere, is not often described circumstantially, though this Morris could well have done: his intention was not a mechanical account of technical matters, such as Bellamy might have offered, but an evocation of relationships, all of which at some point have work as an element, though it may not be, most of the time, in central focus. As Guest and Dick the boatman drive gently from Hammersmith towards Bloomsbury, Guest lights the pretty pipe he has just a little while before obtained from a shop (to his bewilderment, without payment). His comments on the fine carving of the bowl give an opportunity for a few words from Dick on carving in general.

Of course, if carvers were scarce, they would all be busy on the architecture, as you call it, and then these ‘toys’ (a good word) would not be made; but since there are plenty of people who can carve. . . in fact, almost everybody, and as the work is somewhat scarce, or we are afraid it might be, folk do not discourage this kind of petty work. [4]

Guest is about to enter into a difficult discussion of what is valuable, when he sees that they are passing a big building, in which some sort of work seemed to be going on. This Dick explains as a ‘Banded Workshop’ in which people come to work together--in this instance, at pottery and glass-making, to make use of common facilities. ‘It must be the power that brings them,’ Guest suggests. ‘Why so?’ says Dick: ‘they can have power at home or wherever they like: it is the big kilns and other equipment, and above all the companionship, that draw them.’ No smoke comes from the furnaces. ‘Smoke?’ says Dick.

[page 94]

‘Why should you see smoke?’ [5]--and as in the case of the ‘force-barges’ seen on the river, and the equivalent road vehicles, Guest realizes that here is a scientific development which he does not understand, and thinks best not to enquire into. Morris was probably thinking of electricity, by then well-developed, and beginning to have industrial uses, as many of his readers would know from daily experience. But technology is not the point: how people live together, what work means to them, how all the beauty of their buildings and ornament has come about (he is never taken to meet artists in their studios, still less architects or writers)--these are the matter of Morris’s argument.

          The way into this scene is both innocent and significant. Our introduction to work in the story is at the very beginning, with Dick waiting in his boat for the first would-be swimmer--who is the bewildered Morris of last-night’s Socialist League. Since he cannot pay Dick for his rowing, and finds that he is anyway about to relinquish the job to a friend, as a favour, it does not look at all like work as he has known it in his ‘real’ world. Nor does the friendly and easy serving of breakfast in the guest house seem more like such work: yet these people use the word, and the things they do are useful and necessary.

          Presently, they come upon a gang of men road-mending

. . . which delayed us a little; but I was not sorry for it; for all I had hitherto seen seemed a mere part of a summer holiday; and I wanted to see how this folk would set to a piece of real necessary work. [6] [my italics]

The gang consists of about a dozen

strong young men, looking much like a boating party at Oxford would have looked. . . and not more troubled with their work. . . a half-dozen of young women stood by watching the work or the workers, both of which were worth watching. . . . They were laughing and talking merrily with each other and the women. [7]

They have chosen this necessary piece of public work because they are well able to do it, with all the will and the pleasure of a rowing team, and because it needs to be done. As Guest looks, the gang stops

[page 95]

work to make way for their vehicle, and helps the old horse by easing the wheels over the half-undone road. This image, and the reference to Oxford, readily reminds us of Ruskin’s road-building at Hinksey, and Morris would know this: but these are not privileged young gentlemen: simply a gang doing a job. There is another and more important reference here: to Ford Madox Brown’s painting Work (1852-1863).

          If Morris’s brief word-picture is less packed with detail and particular meanings than Work, it must be understood in the light of that painting, which in the 1850s was a direct statement of fact, but pointing no way forward, as now did Morris, in News from Nowhere. In Work, every figure is individual: each of the navvies is both type and person--within the powerful collective entity of the gang. Though the two most conspicuous stand in heroic attitudes, it is the gang, not any of its members, that is the hero; and the gang is an image of the working class. The other figures, too, appear in relation to this working group; they are, all but the wandering herb-gatherer separated in his dream, middle class.

          Brown was working on this painting when, early in his first days in London, Morris, newly friendly with Rossetti, was taken to see him: it would be in his studio, being elaborated, while Morris worked there under Brown’s guidance on his first commissioned but long-lost painting Tristram recognized by the Dog he had given Iseult. Morris offers, in News from Nowhere, a very different image of work, of the road gang, of their relationships with passers-by and onlookers: one, naturally, far less-detailed in every way than Brown’s in his painting: but the comparison is valuable.

          Painting Work had brought Brown to a new strong sympathy with working men. In his search for models--who must not just be recognizable as labourers, but each show a distinct type--he talked to a great many; came to know some very well, and learn from them about their lives. One of them, five or six years later, became a packer for Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., when Morris, Brown, and their friends, set up that important little communal enterprise. Morris, in writing his little picture of the road gang, could not fail to remember Brown’s painting, and his early debt to the painter, not only for teaching, but for earnest conversations on social issues. Both he and Brown

[page 96]

had married working-class wives: Jane Morris’s father was a groom, Emma Brown’s a building worker. Nor could he fail to recall the years of anger and resentment that had kept him and Brown apart after the recasting of The Firm in 1875 as Morris & Co.

          The old, deep friendship of thirty years before could never be as it had been, but in 1884, in his early days as socialist propagandist, Morris had been reconciled to Brown by the act of a Manchester SDF member, a joiner who did work for Brown, then painting his murals in Manchester Town Hall. Brown, in youth a radical liberal, as Morris had been, was never a member of a political party, and took rather a Proudhonist stance. In his early Hampstead days, at the time of the painting of Work, and The Last of England, he had set up a soup-kitchen: and in the eighties in Manchester did the same. While he would always steer clear of any organization such as the SDF or the Socialist League, he was much in sympathy with Morris’s open political agitation, and subscribed to The Commonweal.


Why does Morris show only manual work in News from Nowhere, which, whatever it may have of subjectivity, is not simply about projecting the work and conditions of Morris & Co. on to our whole future? It is not because his utopia uses no machinery. In more than one place he indicates very clearly that machinery is used, and that new sources of power, probably electricity, are in general use. Thus, during Guest’s journey up the Thames with Clara and Dick, we read that

Both on this day, as well as yesterday, we had, as you may think, met and passed and been passed by, many craft of one kind or another. The most part of these were being rowed like ourselves, or were sailing, in the sort of way that sailing is managed on the upper reaches of the river; but every now and then we came on barges, laden with hay or other country produce, or carrying bricks, lime, timber, and the like, and these were going on their way without any means of propulsion visible to me . . . just a man at the tiller, with often a friend or two laughing and talking with him. Dick, seeing on one occasion that I was looking hard

[page 97]

at one of these, said: ‘That is one of our force-barges; it is quite as easy to work vehicles by force by water as by land.’ I understood pretty well that these ‘force vehicles’ had taken the place of our old steam-power carrying; but I took good care not to ask any questions about them. [8]

and as they near Kelmscott, Ellen, who has now joined them, says, just after they have passed a mill

‘You seem astonished at this being so pleasant to look at!’ . . . I should have said that all along the Thames were an abundance of mills used for various purposes; none of which were in any degree unsightly, and many strikingly beautiful: and the gardens about them marvels of loveliness. [9]

          Nor are these machines seen as alien, for he is explicit, in the account of the Banded Workshop at Bloomsbury, that people may have power to use not only in such large, communal enterprises, but at home, individually. Power here is to be taken as for machine or for process. And in discussion of machinery, Old Hammond makes it clear that it is, and should be, available to do those things that cannot be done, or done so well, by hand, or are excessively laborious, tedious, repetitive or repulsive. [10]

          At Wallingford, Guest, Clara and Dick stop to eat, and meet an elderly man, Henry Morsom, ‘who seemed in a country way to be another edition of Hammond’. [11] He tells them much about local history, including Civil War episodes: but as much about the change from machinery to hand work; how after the breakdown of production in the later Civil War, which made possible the communism under which they now live, it had been necessary to learn again how the machines worked, how to make, maintain, repair, even how to reinvent them, in order to get the economy moving again; and even, as the town populace moved out into the country, how to learn handicrafts by studying them, function by function, so analysing machines as to work back to the hand-actions which they had been invented to take over under power.

          What Morris is against is not the machines, but the alienation that, under capitalism, they produce. Thus,

[page 98]

You must remember that the handicraft was not the result of what used to be called material necessity: on the contrary, by that time the machines had been so much improved that almost all necessary work might have been done by them: and indeed, many people at that time, and before it, used to think that machinery would entirely supersede handicraft, which certainly, on the face of it, seemed more than likely. But there was another opinion, far less logical, prevalent among the rich people before the days of freedom, which did not die out at once after that epoch had begun. This opinion, which from all I can learn, seemed as natural then as it seems absurd now, was, that while the ordinary daily work of the world would be done entirely by automatic machinery, the energies of the more intelligent part of mankind would be set free to follow the higher forms of art, as well as science and the study of history. It was strange, was it not, that they should ignore that aspiration after complete equality which we now recognise as the bond of all happy human society. [12]

Clara’s comment is that this attitude arose from the general view of human life as separate from that of all other life.

It was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make nature their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them. [13]

And thus the majority of humans also began to be treated as objects to be exploited.

          Morris not only hates the alienation between humans which comes from and gives rise to exploitation, but sees that the actual use of machinery, as well as its applications, may itself be alienating. In craft cultures, by no means free of exploitation, the implement was an extension of the intelligent hand, and in no way alienating, in no way destructive of the ‘sensuous’ element necessary to the pleasure of work. Under the pressure of the market, in the pursuit of unlimited production, the implement itself is taken beyond that point to become a machine, severing the sensuous link, reducing the function of the intelligent hand, taking away the control of the workers’ intuitive acts, reducing the workers, as the machine develops to its own perfection, to minders and servants--alienated in their work, and alienated

[page 99]

in society by this degradation as they become less important than the machine they serve. All this is not in the interest of making the object of use or beauty, but in making the commodity saleable on the widest market, and at the least, but most profitable, cost.

          No doubt, in his earliest approaches to this problem, Morris saw it in romantic, anti-modern terms, in the light of Ruskin’s teaching: and it probably took him a long time to discard this romantic hostility to the machine as such, and to come to terms with the social aspects of machine production, to recognise that there are indeed uses for machines which might really be what was so often pretended in capitalist society, ‘labour saving’--this depending on social control, free of exploitive interests and the profit motive.

          I do not think that Morris modified his views on the use of machinery simply by adjusting theory to the needs of his socialist convictions and propaganda: I think that the change in his outlook, though slow and reluctant, went hand in hand with his way of life, and that between 1871 and 1875, against the background of the breakdown of his relationship with Jane; his increasingly important role in the management of The Firm, leading at last to its rebirth as Morris & Co, and the part which he chose, in those same years, to exercise in the affairs of the Devon Great Consolidated Mine Company, all played their part in deepening his understanding of economic and social affairs. Long a radical liberal, he began to see that more than general adherence to reforming sentiments was needed.

          Devon Great Consols had always been very much a family concern: the Morrises were not the only shareholders, but William Morris senior had held, and left to his wife and children, about one fifth of the stake: his brother Thomas had from the beginning been the managing partner in Tavistock, and another brother also had shares. Emma Morris had arranged for each of her children on coming of age to receive a proportion of the inheritance: what Morris did in this respect therefore--and he was head of the family--affected all his brothers and sisters, and their mother. It was to deal with this that in 1871, he became a director, and remained so until 1875.

          In 1876, he turned his whole attention to what had become, in March 1875, Morris & Company. He had used some of his Devon Great Consols shares to capitalize the new concern, and, mindful of

[page 100]

his family duties, had sold them to his younger brother Stanley, who took his place on the Board. By this time too (1874), Rossetti had had a second severe crisis: had left Kelmscott Manor for good, and ceased to be Janey’s lover. In every way, 1875 was the great divide between Morris’s first life and his new one, and this meant it was also the beginning of his move into socialism.

Beyond Ruskin

It is not first or most to News from Nowhere that we should look for a full statement of Morris’s ideas on art and work, though the measure of their identity is central to the book--expressed more in terms of relationships than of the production of things. This is characteristic of News from Nowhere, and it was to explore the transformation of relationships such as should follow the establishment of a socialist commonwealth (the very thing which Bellamy’s book missed) that Morris, enraged by a picture of social life ‘after the revolution’ as a cross between a barracks and a department store, set out to do. We can learn something of his matured ideas on this his lifelong dream, from News from Nowhere, but it is more fruitful, and the specific evidence stronger, if we take it back to much earlier days, and show how, out of his own life-experience, he came by stages to the vision implicit in News from Nowhere. These are set out more fully and specifically in some lectures, of which the first is the one that he gave to the Trades Guild of Learning on 4th December 1877--his first formal public utterance. [14] Little attention has been given to this shadowy body, [15] and it was not the only factor in the development of Morris’s ideas about art. It was though, important, and Morris’s involvement marks a step forward from his Ruskinian beginnings to a new stage.

          We might in fact set out Morris’s development from his innocent romantic beginnings, to his settled views, helped to coherence by his reading of Marx, and his part in the socialist propaganda of the eighties. The age of innocence begins when a naif, antiquarian, quasi-religious and medievalising idea finds its first expression in the poems, stories and articles of the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine (1856). The articles rest very much, and consciously, on Ruskin: of whom

[page 101]

he had read (before the magazine was published) Modern Painters volumes I and II; The Seven Lamps of Architecture; the Edinburgh Lectures, and, supreme, The Stones of Venice, and out of ‘Stones’, the famous chapter on ‘The Nature of Gothic Architecture and of the true office of the workman in Art’. [16] That is already a good deal, and the best of Ruskin, and in Morris’s view, as he reminded the world with his reprinting of that chapter at the Kelmscott Press in 1892, the most important. It is to be remarked that in his foreword to that reprint [17] he is at pains to link it with Unto This Last [18] of 1862, and that articles published by Ruskin in Fraser’s Magazine, [19] which herald the Marxist account of the relations between labour and capital and production which Morris came to know twenty years later.

          Morris read with great eagerness all that Ruskin wrote, at least up to Fors Clavigera: [20] after that, perhaps he troubled less not only about what Ruskin might say about art (the last volumes of Modern Painters he called ‘mostly gammon’), but about society too, for by 1870 Ruskin’s overstretched mind was in increasing disorder and distress. But if we recognize how exciting and how important to him was this reading--almost certainly at the instigation of Frederick Barlow Guy, his tutor between Marlborough and Oxford--we should also recognize that these books were all part of his coming to maturity, and entering the world from which to so large an extent his upbringing had sheltered him. Morris himself says, in the preface to the Kelmscott Press reprint of ‘The Nature of Gothic’ that, important as Ruskin’s ideas on painting had been--the only light shining in the darkness of that time--it was his ideas on social order and morality that, in the end, were his most valuable contribution to the age. And Ruskin himself thought that the chapter was the most important part of the Stones of Venice. In writing it, he had opened up a new world of ideas.

          With the Edinburgh lectures, which Morris and his friends read on first publication, Ruskin began a frontal assault on the civic pride and the complacency of the solid Scottish middle class from which he came: and a few years later, in 1859, the great wave of building strikes and lockouts, especially in London, disturbed him deeply, provoking him to a new look at modern labour relations and social justice. When Thackeray launched the Cornhill Magazine in 1860,

[page 102]

Ruskin published four new, short, simply phrased papers, in which he set out the ideas he had been pondering. Written in unidealistic and rational terms, they deeply disturbed his Tory parents, and so incensed the mainly Whig readers of the magazine that Thackeray had to bring them to an abrupt end. They appeared in a small volume two years later under the biblical title Unto This Last. [21] This Morris read, and in the preface to the Kelmscott edition of ‘The Nature of Gothic’, says of it

that great book Unto This Last, which has had the most enduring and beneficent effect on his contemporaries, and will have through them on succeeding generations. [22]

In ‘The Nature of Gothic’, Ruskin divides human activities into four types of Play. These are: wise play; necessary play; inordinate play; and not playing at all; the unhappy few in this last kind being ‘so dull or morose as to be incapable of inventing or jest’. [23] This takes Ruskin into a discussion of the Grotesque as an area in which the workers in the Gothic world, laboriously employed, found outlets for their perceptions and inventions.

For one hard-working man who possesses the finer instincts which decide on perfection of lines and harmonies of colour, twenty possess dry humour or quiet fancy; not because these facilities were originally given to the human race, or to any section of it, in greater degree than the sense of beauty, but because these are exercised in our daily intercourse with each other, and developed by the interest we take in the affairs of life, while the others do not. . . . We have seen that (the workman’s) application to art is to be playful and recreative, and it is not in recreation that the conditions of perfection can be fulfilled. [24]

Most obviously it was the carved bosses and corbels, the story-telling enrichments of doorways, the misericordes, that showed this play, but Ruskin, and Morris following him as well as his own perceptions, would include the tender playfulness of the carved capitals and crockets, the diapered in fillings in blank arches,--all, the sweetest or the most grotesque, drawn by the workers from the living world

[page 103]

about them as they worked, and not set out for them with rule and compass by master mason or architect.

           Morris’s first published story, in the January number of the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine of 1856, the ‘Story of the Unknown Church’, [25] makes great play of exactly this freedom. It is present too in the last two stanzas of that best-known of the poems of The Defence of Guenevere, ‘Concerning Geffraye Teste Noir’, [26] which may have been drafted at the same time. Central to each is the building and carving of a shrine to dead lovers, and the character of the carving is of free invention. Necessary play was, from the beginning, an essential part of Morris’s gothic vision, and we must expect to find it in News from Nowhere too. And indeed we do: for instance in the illustration of what shopping means, the new pipe Guest is given for his old, lost corncob, and the splendid carved friezes Guest has already seen in the Dining Hall and the Moot Hall of Hammersmith.

Red House, Work, and News from Nowhere

Eldest son of a large family, Morris had avoided the Church, stepping sideways into architecture, then just resolving itself into a profession. From this, within a year, he had moved on to an untramelled artist’s life: marrying and becoming the owner of a house built to accommodate his family and to express his ideas; to become, at the age of forty, sole proprieter and master, as well as chief designer and mastercraftsman, of an active company of a hundred workers of different kinds--all of whom, from shop boy to manager, were his employees.

          This was not necessarily Morris’s original intention for his life, or The Firm. I am convinced that at Red House, and in workshops immediately at hand, Morris meant to set up a small enterprise for the making of decorative goods such as architects might commission for churches, public buildings, or big private houses. This enterprise would be small in scale, and simple in its aims, would not employ many workers, nor be seen in managerial terms. Rather than those of employer and employees in trade, relationships would have been personal, familial and the kind experienced with house servants--those written of by Ruskin in his ‘Roots of Honour’. [27] The contrast with Devon Great Consols, which in its time was the greatest copper

[page 104]

mine in the world, with some forty miles of underground levels, and on which some six thousand people depended for their living, [28] could not have been greater.

          Red House would have been something different from The Firm: it would have been a ‘Banded Workshop’ such as is described thirty years later in News from Nowhere: [29] where a number of like-minded people, wishing to carry on certain kinds of work which will be better done thereby, come together in one building or set of buildings, with suitable equipment and facilities. In Nowhere there is no Boss: at Red House there would always have been Morris, but working on a familial basis with Ned (Burne-Jones), Jane, Georgie (Georgiana Burne-Jones) at least as equals, others with standing much more of that of family servants. There is, of course, in Nowhere, a ganger who organizes the work of the road-menders, but hardly as a boss, in no way proprietorial or managerial.

          Morris’s situation at The Firm, whether at Red Lion Square, or Queen Square, was never quite what he had meant; inevitably and especially as so much work was in his hands, he had much more the position of boss or manager; perhaps more so after 1870, when George Wardle took over as manager from Warington Taylor. Taylor, son of wealthy gentry, ex-officer and Old Etonian, saw himself as the equal of the partners: Wardle could never do this, and deferred much more to Morris. In the end, though, he became so valuable as to encourage Morris in his next step, the takeover of The Firm, which at last freed him to do what he meant for Red House some fifteen years before.

          The important token of this is that the first thing Morris had Wardle do, once severance was complete, and The Firm safely Morris & Company, was to draw up a profit-sharing scheme, which Morris then adopted virtually unaltered. It is this scheme which in 1884 he described in fair detail to Georgie: [30] he knows it is not socialism: he knows it is not the way to solve the problems of capitalist society: it is what he can do within that society while running The Firm on as egalitarian a basis as he can, doing his own large and multiple work within, making public propaganda for the necessary new order.

          When he thought of setting up Red House as that ‘banded workshop’ he did not envisage a workforce of a hundred--that would not

[page 105]

have been feasible--but it is in keeping with the same Ruskinian plan that he never let his workforce much exceed a hundred, nor did it ever fall much below: stability, wages above the market, one or two old employees no longer able to work significantly found possible tasks, and kept on--with mutual respect.


Ruskin lays the foundation of Morris’s ideas: Marx crowns them, and Morris gladly acknowledged both debts while taking the ideas further. Ruskin could not propose any change in the existing social order, though Unto This Last sets out plainly its unjust and alienating character. He can only propose self-denying ordinances and conscientious dealing between people within the given heirarchies, central to which shall be mutual respect between masters and men.

          Morris, like the angry readers of Fraser’s and the Cornhill, saw where Ruskin’s stark analysis must lead, though he despaired of seeing how change might come. From 1875, he was in no doubt that change must come, and set himself to find out what was to be done. From 1883, he was clear about Socialism, and the need for revolutionary change, not mere amelioration. For him, therefore, travelling beyond Ruskin, the matter of the interpenetration of art and work, comes to be seen not only in the existing context, but in the projected context of an egalitarian society in which alone they can be reunited.

          In his Hammersmith workroom, designing, writing poetry, he hears with rage the rowdy passing drunks--rage not that his quiet is disturbed, but that society should so degrade its children. He reflects on his own good fortune, not in money terms--which had given him freedom to choose--but as a matter of art and work. For the poor, worker and unemployed alike, these are polar opposites. For him, ever since his decision to enter Street’s office, they have been mutually necessary elements in a fulfilled life, and he is outraged that such a life is denied to the great majority of people--and not only to the poor.

          Once he had seen, romantically, Art as our salvation. Now he sees, as he writes the first instalment of News from Nowhere for The Commonweal, that art itself must be saved, and that only by saving

[page 106]

work--and those who perform it--from the alienation and degradation imposed by industrial capitalism, can either work, or art, and thus living society, be made fully human for all.

[page 183]


(All page references to News from Nowhere relate to the edition published in 1973 by Lawrence and Wishart, London, edited by A.L. Morton.)

[page 191]

1. H. Sparling The Kelmscott Press and William Morris Master Craftsman (London: Macmillan, 1924). Facsimile reprint (London: Dawson, 1975).

2. R. Noonan (‘Robert Tressell’) The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, 1st edition (London: Grant Richards, 1914). Standard edition ed. F. Ball (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1955).

3. See current DSS regulations concerning the ‘award’ of supplementary benefit!

4. N.F.N. p. 226.

5. N.F.N. p. 227.

6. N.F.N. p. 227.

7. N.F.N. pp. 227-8.

8. N.F.N. pp. 349-50.

9. N.F.N. p. 385.

10. N.F.N. pp. 277-80.

11. N.F.N. p. 365.

12. N.F.N. pp. 107-8.

13. N.F.N. p. 367.

[page 192]

14. W. Morris The Decorative Arts: their relation to modern life and progress (London: Ellis & White. Not dated but January 1878.)

15. The Trades Guild of Learning was being formed in 1873, in which year Morris was approached by Frederic Every, a radical artisan unknown to him but perhaps not to George Campfield his fore man. The Guild was promoted by Professor George Warr (positivist and feminist) of the University of London. Every was also active in the EQA, and through him Morris met the working class and trade union leaders of that agitation which met at least once at Queen Square.

16. J. Ruskin The Stones of Venice, vol. II, (London: Smith Elder, 1853). ‘On the Nature of Gothic’ is Chapter VI, pp. 151-231 in the 1st edition, but one section was held over to Vol. III, Chapter III (see note 17).

17. Kelmscott Press reprint of ‘The Nature of Gothic’. Preface dated February 1892. Printed at the Kelmscott Press, but published by Ruskin’s publisher, George Allen, not by Morris. Morris bought and read The Stones of Venice as it appeared, but his attention would be particularly directed to this chapter by the earlier reprint of October 1854. When the Workingmen’s College was being set up in that year, F.J. Furnivall, who like Morris married a working-class woman, and who was much closer to working folk than F.D. Maurice, went to Ruskin, asking permission to reprint this chapter as a pamphlet to be put into the hand of everybody who attended the inaugural address on 30th October. Ruskin readily agreed, and also agreed to take a drawing class--not hitherto proposed. The sub-title ‘and herein of the true functions of the Workman in Art’ is not in Ruskin’s original (though the words may be his), but was introduced by Furnivall, who also sought out, and attached to the pamphlet the significant part of Ruskin’s text which had been deferred to Volume III, the sections on Play. Morris used neither the subtitle, nor the added text--a pity.

18. J. Ruskin Unto This Last (London: Smith Elder, 1862).

19. Fraser’s Magazine, published at intervals from June 1862 to January 1863, and in volume as Munera Pulveris, George Allen (1872).

[page 193]


20. J. Ruskin Fors Clavigera: Letters to Working Men. Published monthly by George Allen between January 1871 and December 1877, and 1878-1884.

21. J. Ruskin op. cit. note 18.

22. See note 17.

23. J. Ruskin The Stones of Venice. Volume III, chapter III.

24. As 23.

25. ‘The Story of the Unknown Church’ in The Early Poems and Prose Romances of William Morris (London: Everyman, 1907) but facsimile reprinted P. Faulkner, ed. (Dent 1973) pp. 141-149.

26. As 25, pp. 72-77.

27. J. Ruskin Unto This Last (see note 17) Essay I: sections 11-17.

28. F. Booker The Industrial Archaeology of the Tamar Valley (Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1969).

29. See note 5.

30. William Morris to Georgiana Burne-Jones, 1st June 1884. In P. Henderson, ed. The Letters of William Morris to his Family and Friends (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1950).


This text was scanned, OCRed, and proofread from the original source by JoAnn R. Seeman. This document was created by the William Morris Society with the kind permission of Green Books. For permission to use this document, in whole or in part, for any purpose except educational, please contact Green Books.

Reprinted from William Morris & News from Nowhere: A Vision for Our Time, edited by Stephen Coleman and Paddy O’Sullivan, by permission of Green Books. Copyright © 1990 by Green Books.