Sunday, 21 August 2016

Mentor to William Morris

As is well known, William Morris began training with architect George Edmund Street in Oxford in 1855, where he met Philip Webb.  Morris’s time in Street’s office  was short – in less than a year he changed  direction in favour of painting and then in 1858 he published his first book of poetry.   But during his time with Street, Morris imbibed the  Gothick Revival passion that  Street held to be superior to all others, and the correct model for his own time, not only for churches but also public buildings, as he would demonstrate with London’s Law Courts in the 1870s.    

Among other writings on architectural principles, in 1855 Street had published a book of architectural and travel notes chronicling a tour of northern Italy, which Morris no doubt read and absorbed.  Following Pugin and Ruskin, Street was already a believer in Northern Gothic or ‘pointed’ principles.  ‘As in the pointed arch we have not only the most beautiful, but at the same time the most convenient feature in construction which has ever been, or which, I firmly believe, ever can be invented, we should not be true artists if we neglected to use it,’ he wrote.  The work of Italian Renaissance architects showed ‘the same falseness of construction, and heaviness, coarseness, and bad grotesqueness of ornamentation … together with the same contempt of simplicity, repose and delicacy which we are so accustomed to connect with them.’

As a result, even when medieval, many buildings described in Street’s book failed to meet ‘true’ Gothic standards, almost as if they were exam candidates. Some passed the test, others were found wanting. This was not chauvinism, for the great cathedrals of northern France and Germany were deemed as excellent as Lincoln, Canterbury and the like,  but it was distinctly partisan, and above all romantic, as is clear in Street’s closing paragraphs:

The principle which artists now have mainly to contend for is that of TRUTH; forgotten, trodden under foot, despised, if not hated for ages, this must be their watchword.’  Whether architects, sculptors or painters, ‘let them remember how all-important a return to first principles and truth in the delineation of nature and natural forms is, if they are ever to create a school of art by which they may be remembered in another age.
    Finally, I wish that all artists would remember the one great fact which separates by so wide  a gap the architects, sculptors and painters of the best days of the Middle Ages from us now – their earnestness and their thorough self-sacrifice in the pursuit of art, and in the exaltation of their faith.  They were men who had a faith, and hearts earnestly bent on the propagation of that faith; and were it not for this, their work would never have had the life, vigour, and freshness which even now they so remarkably retain.  Why should we not be equally remembered three centuries hence? Have we less to contend for, less faith to exhibit, or less self-sacrifice to offer than they, because we live in later days?  Or is it true that the temper of men is so much changed, and that the vocation of art has changed with it?  I believe not.
This chimed with Morris’s youthful idealism, even if he had already  cast off a good deal of Street’s religious faith.  And it certainly coloured his own response to medieval buildings when he came to defend them against restoration in the 1870s. 

In like manner, Street’s critical assessment of Italian architecture surely fed into Morris’s prejudice, no doubt later augmented in reaction to Janey’s predilection for the land and the language during her infatuation with Rossetti.  When obliged to escort his family home from Italy, Morris developed a severe attack of gout, which prevented him from sightseeing, and no doubt soured his mood also.

As a coda to his Italian survey, Street wrote positively of the use of brickwork and polychrome, two features seldom seen or admired in Britain.  'It has been by far too much the fashion of late years to look upon brick as a very inferior material, fit only to be covered with compo, and never fit to be used in church building, or indeed in any buildings of any architectural pretension’, he declared.  In the Netherlands, south--west France, Northern Germany, large tracts  of Spain and throughout northern Italy, however, brick was ‘everywhere and most fearlessly used.’  And as a result of his observations, Street hoped that ‘the ignorant prejudice which made many good people regard stone as a sort of sacred material, and red brick as one fit only for the commonest and meanest purposes, is fast wearing out, and that what now mainly remains to be done is to shew how it may most effectively be used, not only in external, but also in internal works.’

This sounds like the challenge taken up by Webb, designing Red House for Morris, all in fearless red brick, including internal arches, window surrounds and fireplaces.

Street remained a friend to Morris and Webb, and one would love to know if he ever passed an opinion on his proteges’ building in Bexley.


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