I have lived in Shangri La. Yes, that magical, mystical world, that paradise on earth, that remote and exotic utopia, that faraway haven of idyllic beauty and tranquility. My Shangri La took the form of a small, Catholic, liberal arts college tucked neatly away in the folds of some beloved brown mountains in Southern California. And in that magical place I found my first real taste of the beautiful. The beauty of philosophy, of Theology, of the nature of the Heavens and the movement of stars, of the genuine possibility of noble deeds, and the experience of seeing “man, fully alive” in my fellow students and professors as they wrestled energetically with the meanings of things. The beautiful seeped like fragrant chrism from liturgies sweet with Byrd, Hassler, and Palestrina. Brunches under wisteria, evenings reading plays out loud while learning how to discern a fine chardonnay by sipping many a lovely glass. Order, calm, culture, true prayer. The beautiful. Of course, I knew the four years would end. But I did not want to think about that. The world out there, I assumed, knew nothing of Shangri La. When I finally did leave, it felt like I was being sent to an arid, remote outpost to live out my days in a wasteland of modern mediocrity. I was a very romantic, fanciful young woman then, with a penchant for tragedy. And so, I set my face like flint and faced the future with the courage that comes from utter despair tempered with faith. For, I was a child of the ugly 70’s.
My particular wasteland was the basement floor of an ad agency, a warren of cubicles lit by the artificial sun of fluorescent lights. All day long I proofed ads in this building, dreaming of the lost and bygone days of Palestrina and wisteria. Yes, I was a romantic, fanciful girl. On one particularly trying day that seemed to stretch on forever in this way, I received a card in the mail. It was from an old college friend. And out slipped this piece of loveliness – a drawing of birds, curling vines, and ripe strawberries all in a profusion of jeweled colors. The missive inside the card was my friend lamenting her own banished state in far off Oregon, and sending me words of comfort and courage. But it is the card that I remember. How that one simple drawing could fill me with the aching beauty of my far-off Shangri La. It turns out this drawing was called: The Strawberry Thief and that I was having my first encounter with the beauty that is a William Morris painting. It ravished me. I began looking for more of his paintings, and his whole beautiful inner world opened to me its treasures: tapestries and wallpaper with glorious titles like: Tree of Life, Trellis, Willow, Marigold, Wreath, Jasmine, Christ Church. I began to collect them all and to drink them in daily. They were my own personal, portable Shangri La. But not mine only, as it turns out. I brought this card with me to work and pinned it to the bulletin board of my cubicle. Almost every person who passed my cubicle would stop, gaze at it for a moment and say, “Oh, how pretty!” before they moved on. William Morris had found his way down the stairs of this cold, sterile, florescent environment and planted his flag, his calling card – the beautiful. And he would have been delighted.
William Morris was no stranger to “wastelands.” He grew of age during the fast moving and turbulent industrial revolution of his beloved England. A once agrarian society suddenly found itself sprouting factories and railroads. Cities were soot-covered and heavy with the pollution of production. These factories were staffed by workmen who lived in cheap, shoddy houses without any sign of a tree or plant nearby. They breathed in the pollution and became sick with it. William Morris, on the other hand, grew up in a well-to-do family that lived on an estate in the English countryside. William spent his childhood roaming the hills around his home. He spent hours of his boyhood sitting in a large window seat reading voraciously – tales of Medieval times, of Canterbury, of King Arthur’s legendary and beautiful world. All this roaming and reading were tucked away in his memory for future use. He eventually found his way to Oxford as a young man intent on a career in the Church; but that was soon eclipsed by his growing fascination with the arts. He decided, to the great consternation of his worried mother, to pursue – alas – art. He dabbled in architecture for a while but that didn’t quite fit. He then began to experiment with embroidery, with weaving cloth, with pursuing the “lesser arts” as they were called in Victorian England. He naturally gathered like-minded friends along the way with his visions of sugarplum-ed beauty dancing in his head. He slowly began to notice, with great anger and sadness, the squalor in the cities of his fellow Englishmen. And his vocation began to take shape: he was to bring beauty into the homes of every Englishman, rich or poor. All deserved beauty to live as true men. He believed with his whole heart that without beauty, man could only hope to live as a depressed animal and lose all his true, lively dignity. Beauty was vital, not a nice addition. This is the noble, dignified, gentlemanly vision I had of William Morris then, as I collected all his art cards.
Fast forward many years to my present self. One day this past February, I received a lovely box from England with the cherished words: Morris & Co printed in exquisite lettering on the cover. In the box was a coffee cup covered in those vines and flowers I had come to cherish. I melted in delight and just stared at it. Once again ravished. I decided to delve a little deeper into the life of this magical man. I found a delightful book called, Anarchy and Beauty by Fionna MacCarthy. Mind you, I came to this book with my previous notions of him in my mind. They seemed to be quite justified when I paged to the portrait of him painted by G.F. Watts. It is quite satisfying: he looks eccentric, of course, in a beautiful, fairy tale kind of way, with sensitive eyes and mouth. You imagine him tall, thin, with an elegant walk and a quiet voice. As dreamlike, reserved and calm as his wallpaper designs. A most worthy citizen of Shangri La if there ever was one. But as Toad of Toad hall said so eloquently, “You are ALL deceived!”
As I began to read, my own surprise was summed up in the words of Andrew Lang when HE first met him: .”..oh, the shock of meeting your favourite poet and finding he looked like a ship’s purser.” Morris was an “irresistibly peculiar mixture, combining the roughness of the Norseman with the tenderness, even the shyness of a woman.” He “also swears awfully, and walks with a rolling gait, as if partially intoxicated.” He had a strange jerkiness of movement, and a sometimes violent unpredictability of mood. He was intense and had such a gift of observation that it almost “amounted to clairvoyance.” W.B. Yeats had a portrait of Morris over his mantelpiece, so fascinated was he, and compared Morris’s grave wide-open eyes to “the eyes of a dreaming beast.”
He was not tall and languid and graceful as I had imagined. He was short, stout, and sturdily set, with a great shock of crazy hair on his head that was always mussed. This hair earned him the name ‘Toppers’ by his chums at Oxford. His arms were perpetually stained blue with his dyeing experiments. He read poetry out loud, VERY loud in a sing song voice that resembled blustering wind. He remained a voracious reader. He took jokes well, and laughed good-naturedly at all the cartoons his good friend Edward Burnes-Jones never tired of making, so taken was he with Morris’s delightfully quirky personality. He was an avid and dedicated socialist, but somehow created and ran one of the most successful art and home businesses that is still open today: the very company my tea cup hailed from: Morris and Co. He could never sit still. When thinking about painting a formal portrait of him, one artist approached Morris’s good friend Bernard Shaw and asked if he would sit. Shaw tartly replied: “he’s not to be drawn. It might be done with a Kodak, taking the same precautions as you would if you were garrotting him; but I know my man too well to suggest a sitting!” He could do or make anything. He bound books, he designed furniture. He was captivated by the Medieval tales of Canterbury, and Arthurian legends of his youth. He painted like a dream, embroidered, sewed, made incredible furniture. Once, when one of his customers remarked that the chair he was sitting in did not promote relaxation, Morris quipped, “if you want to relax, go to bed.” He himself never really did relax. He was too intent on filling up the world with beauty of thought, home goods, beautiful china, books, literature, poetry. He was driven! Beauty, art MUST prevail. And under his hands and eyes and hard-working vision, it DID.
Any and all sorts of people were invited to his home including Russian dissidents who escaped to England, suffragettes, women who studied philosophy or ran their own pottery businesses. They would discuss, drink, argue all as equals! He was very fond of Oscar Wilde who would show up at his house among his eclectic guests with his signature crimson dahlia in his buttonhole. Wilde once wrote to Morris, “I have always felt that your work comes from the sheer delight of making beautiful things – that no alien motive ever interests you.” And indeed it was so.
And when I closed the covers of this book I just sat and laughed. Laughed at my complete misconceptions of a man whose art had ravished me all these years. And I learned a lesson. A lesson learned late, I suppose, but better late than never. Beauty will not only consent to exist in the perfect and pristine setting. Beauty exists in the minds and hearts of real people everywhere. It lives in the wasteland. It lives in penthouses, it lives on city streets, it reveals itself in a simple daisy in a cracked vase on a table. Beauty will always find us. It does not leave us orphaned. It does not banish us to outposts without coming with us. It even comes to us through a stout, tussle-haired, dye stained little visionary like William Morris.
My first romantic impressions of my hero William have all flown out the window but the wonderful human being that has replaced them is more remarkable by far. My second impression of him is one of hope that I too have that beauty in me and it will blossom anywhere through me in the most unlikely places. I am not only here on earth to absorb the beauty brought to me by others. I must bring beauty to the waiting world. I will always be indebted to William ‘Toppers’ Morris with the famously unruly hair. I love him even more now than I did in my older vision. And I hear him laugh and slap his knee in a roar of laughter saying, “Now, let’s get to WORK!”
Denise Trull lives in St. Louis, MO with her husband Tony. She is the artistic director of a small but mighty theater company and loves the written word in all its forms.