Walking round the William Morris exhibition with my friend Julio earlier today, something struck me — about what isn’t in it, or rather (since it’s a smallish exhibition curated to make quite specific political links, somewhat misleadingly summarised via the word “anarchy” in the title) the element in art and sensibility in Morris’s time, and before it and after, which presents as the shadow side to the Arts and Crafts movement. The name of this aspect is of course “the Gothic” — and what actually fell in to place wasn’t so much about what this exhibition lacked; as what’s never touched on in the show currently at the British Library (which I went round last week with my friend Vick). They’re undeclared siblings; and (to be gothic about it) incestuous siblings at that.
Ages ago I had a plan to write a book — its half-jokey title was Goths and the Gothic, from Alaric to Buffy — and right in the middle of it, at the point where fantasy re-emerged as a mainstream element in grown-up culture, I wanted to sketch the links between catholic conservative Tolkien and marxist Morris, whose quasi-mediaevalist ethos and craft sensibility (and sequence of fantasy novels) Tolkien deeply bought into as a kid, despite the apparent political gulf (one of the ambiguous bridges between the two being Kipling, who was born into the heart of the Morris circle; relatedly, another is the rise of the illustrated children’s book as a shaping immersive milieu that informed the middle-class adult-to-come). Curator Fiona MacCarthy very deftly sketches the links between Ruskin and Morris and the top-down social democratic social engineering of mid-20th-century (post-imperial) England, from Garden Cities to the Festival of Britain, along with Walter Crane’s union banners, Edward Carpenter’s home-made sandals (and pioneering homosexual activism), and Arnold Dolmetsch’s revival of the instruments of pre-classical music. But she leaves out the shadow side, though it whispers everywhere — even in the strand of coolly functional modernism that emerged (especially via the Bauhaus) out of the Arts and Crafts movement, insisting that it was its opposite; Futurism is nothing if not a bunch of shouty Italian goths, after all; Kipling was (some of the time) a Futurist short storywriter, fascinated by the technics and perspective of (as Ruskin would have said) “right-making” artisans and engineers and administrators, and how these were fashioning and driving a culture that thrilled him (and which he nevertheless doggedly explored the pervasive grisly dark of).
The problem is that (a) it’s a very complex, long and twisty tale, all the contradictions and reversals and dubious victories of all these intertwined, squabbling tendencies, a mess of Frankenstein intentions distorting traditions more than they preserved them, the whole mutating over decades into stuff the quasi-radical intenders would largely have loathed, and (b) I really really REALLY don’t have the lifespace to embark on any of it properly anyway, despite actually having won myself some time next year to finish a book or two.
And to be honest (c) I like and am interested in the making of children’s books as an artform, and I sort of feel it comes out of this reach of the story really quite badly.
Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and His Legacy, 1860-1960:
National Portrait Gallery until 11 January 2015
Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination:
British Library until 20 January 2015