12 November, 2011

In Which I Go on a Pilgrimage

Forget six counties overhung with smoke,
Forget the snorting steam and piston stroke,
Forget the spreading of the hideous town;
Think rather of the pack-horse on the down,
And dream of London, small, and white, and clean,
The clear Thames bordered by its gardens green...
- Prologue to "The Earthly Paradise," William Morris

Today I visited Red House, the home of William Morris.  Morris was my "first love" in art and design history...I guess you could call this beauty-seeking, story-loving Socialist my historical crush.  In his work, writings, and ideals I found so many things that resonated with me: a love of story, a craving for beauty, a delight in honest design, and a desire for the marriage of beauty and utility.  "My work is the embodiment of dreams," he said at one point; yet he wanted those dreams to be realized very practically in the lives of ordinary people, giving the commonest of common men access to beautiful, useful, well-made things.

I took the train from "the hideous town" to Bexleyheath, which I must assume was "small, and white, and clean" countryside in Morris's day.  Today it is, honestly, a drab, nondescript little town full of drab, nondescript little houses.  Walking from the train station, I wondered to myself what Morris would think if he saw it today.

Red House
I turned off of Red House Lane and the house appeared as a haven, set amidst gardens protected from the road by high brick walls.  I think I went in believing myself too old and studied to feel any sort of childlike wonder at whatever I might discover inside, but I was wrong.  I couldn't hold back gasps of delight as I moved from each part of the house to the next.  Delight is the only word for it.  I grinned and laughed like a child, taken aback by the thoughtful skill -- love, really -- that was present in every detail of this house.  There is restraint and simplicity in the materials and fixtures, but they prove the makers' knowledge of craft, story, and context.  I was so glad to find that I can still be surprised -- disarmed, even -- by beautiful things.  The words trip from my mouth when I try to speak them, and tumble awkwardly from my fingers when I try to type them -- the things we feel most deeply are often the hardest to articulate -- but it feeds and restores my soul to be in surroundings such as these.  I've been teased for my love of buildings and objects...but they are all swirling with a meaning I can hardly begin to explain to you.

"Apple" wallpaper, Morris & Co.
Albeit a dreamer, Morris was a real man who really lived and really died.  He really lived in the house I walked through today, and he really believed in ideas that still influence the way people think and live and create.  I wonder what he found lying under and over and in all the beauty he adored.  What Truth did he find wrapped in the Icelandic sagas and medieval poems and Greek epics that stirred him so?  What was revealed to his heart during many hours of drawing, writing, carving, stitching, weaving, dyeing - - tasks that, in one way or another, emulated the divine creation of order out of chaos?  Did he find what I have found, that all these things we long for are, as my sister put it, "a constellation of good things" tracing the image of their Source?  I hope someday I'll find that he did.





Morris's motto: "Si je puis" ("If I can")

Wood block used to print Morris wallpaper


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