Morris’s Earthly Paradise: Nature, Division and Structure

by

Paul Harper


As with all things that he turned his hand and mind to, William Morris was a passionate gardener, deeply knowledgeable about plants and steeped in the art and science of horticulture – although, as with some of the things that he turned his hand and mind to, his genius was for organisation. He was a great, and influential, creator of gardens. He was not much inclined to wield a spade.

For Morris the garden was a richly symbolic space. In his verse it is a place of sensual pleasure, love, erotic longing and memory – the unruly beauty of nature, contained and given human meaning.

He loved nature, but, whilst he was clearly inspired by the extravagantly bleak grandeur of Iceland, in truth he favoured the more regulated landscapes of southern England. Not for him the Romantic sublime of Helvellyn, he first found his muse in the wildish woods of Epping, and later on the banks of the gentle Thames. He extolled the rustic honesty of vernacular design and the bucolic simplicity of rural life but loved the teeming conviviality of the city. Kelmscott Manor in rural Oxfordshire may have been his spiritual home, but he was ever drawn back to Kelmscott, Hammersmith. It is not to say that he didn’t love nature in wild and unruly form, but that his love was balanced by an essentially homely temperament and perhaps an Enlightenment sense of order.

This ambivalence is given idealised expression in his ideas on garden design. Here was nature humanised, circumscribed perhaps. In a lecture delivered in 1879 he summed up his conception of a garden,

       … large and small, it should look both orderly and rich. It should be well fenced from the outside world. It should by no means imitate either the wilfulness or the wildness of nature, but should look like a thing never to been seen except near a house. It should in fact look like part of a house.

Morris was a pattern maker and in his patterns we see a kind of schema for his love of nature. In his textile and wallpaper designs he developed a distinctive visual language based on natural forms, richly layered, with all the spiralling luxuriant abundance and fluid energy of vines, branches, leaves and flowers – stylised and regulated through a process of repetition, division and structure. Similarly, his gardens can be read as complex but orderly patterns. Long grass walks ran between neatly planted orchards of apple and cherry trees; nearer the house; there would be square beds, defined and protected by low hedges or wattle fences, containing a lush profusion of colour and form; the walls of the house itself might be trained with climbing plants – jasmine, honeysuckle, roses and passion-flower – all the parts conceived as one complete whole. Burne-Jones’s wife Georgina compared the garden at Red House to those depicted in medieval illuminated manuscripts, evoking a delightful image of precise geometry combined with free embellishment and brilliant colour.

So far, this narrative conforms to a common image of Morris: medievalist, Romantic, designer of quintessential English interiors and gardens.  But what is always important about Morris’s endeavours – his designs and crafted objects, his writing or his gardens – is not the actual products in themselves.  These were just by-products of what he most valued – the sensuous and intellectual labour of making them. For Morris, the garden is a place where physical labour and aesthetic labour converge, and as such a formative locus of his political thinking.

The association of gardening and flowery wallpaper might suggest a gentle Fabian, but Morris was a radical Socialist who pioneered a kind of proto-Ecological Socialism. His ideas had evolved as a response to the nineteenth-century expansion of industrial capitalism, which he observed as having a detrimental effect, not only on the material, social and spiritual wellbeing of mankind, but on the ecosystem that sustains us.  

Seen from our own times, the connection between Morris’s radical politics and his gardens may not be immediately obvious. Aesthetically, it may lie in the balance between a human instinct for pattern, for making sense of our environment, and the freeness of nature. The garden becomes a model for an ideal relationship with nature – man and nature in harmony, and gardening, as an activity, becomes a practice of harmonizing the human will with an external reality, a letting go of the self – a microcosm in which we learn and act out this relationship.

We must learn to love the narrow spot that surrounds our daily life for what of beauty and sympathy there is in it. For surely there is no square mile of earth’s inhabitable surface that is not beautiful in its own way, if we men will only abstain from wilfully destroying that beauty; and it is this reasonable share in the beauty of the earth that I claim as the right of every man who will earn it by due labour… that is the claim which I make for you in the name of art.

His conception of ‘due labour’, or ‘useful work’ was not solely or even principally concerned with an aestheticized means of production or material outcomes. At the heart of Morris’s concerns was the question of how to live well,

Well now, to begin with, I am bound to suppose that the realisation of Socialism will tend to make men happy. What is it then that makes people happy? Free and full life and the consciousness of life. Or, if you will, the pleasurable exercise of our energies, and the enjoyment of the rest which that exercise or expenditure of energy makes necessary to us

To toil in the garden and then to sit back and take pleasure in the fruits of one’s work is the very opposite of alienated labour. For Morris, gardening is not merely compensation for the industrialized, alienated world in which it takes place, but rather something that forms an organic link between the self and the surrounding material and social environment. The acquisition of knowledge and skills grounded in this kind of physical engagement with the material world, and the pleasures that follow from it, formed the basis of Morris’s politicized theories of art and work.

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