Merton Abbey

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The Pond at Merton Abbey by Lexden Lewis Pocock

Because his Queen’s Square workshops proved too small to weave carpets or dye textiles, in 1882 Morris consolidated all production processes, except furniture, at a new workshop about an hour away from London. Merton Abbey seemed a dream factory. About one hundred people labored there; a few were day workers, but most worked by the piece under special foremen for each branch of manufacturing: glass, dying, printing, and weaving. Set within a garden, “the low long buildings with the clear rushing little stream running between them, and the wooden outside staircases leading to their upper story, have nothing about them to suggest the modern factory,” J.M. MacKail, Morris’s biographer, remembered in 1899. “Even upon the great sunk dye-vats the sun flickers through leaves, and trout leap outside the windows of the long cheerful  room where the carpet-looms are built.” Business manager George Wardle recalled,” . . . it was altogether delightful. We had a spacious ground floor, well lighted, for the carpet looms, and, over it a ‘shop’ for the block printers.” Morris kept a personal studio and bedroom at the factory.

Many employees worshiped Morris. “One and all his workmen live back in the ‘good old days,’ as they call them.” reported the American designer Ernest Batchelder in 1905. One hardly has to ask why. Dressed in a workman’s blouse, his hands stained by dye, Morris shared the labor and understood the work culture of his men. He conscientiously strove to build into the work as much room for individual expression as compatible with aesthetic quality. Although he was able to affect “the more artistic side of the work,” like free-hand pattern copying, Morris felt that he “could not do anything (0r at least but a little) to give this pleasure to the workman, because I should have to change their methods of work so utterly that I should have disqualified them from earning their living elsewhere.” Such concern developed as much from working with employees on the same tasks as it stemmed from being a benevolent employer. Morris’s enthusiasm stirred his subordinates; later his sense of justice and socialist zeal would cement lasting bonds between them.

Eileen Borris, Art and Labor, (doctoral diss, June 1981) p. 26-27

The contrast between William Morris and Josiah Wedgwood couldn’t be greater. Interesting that Herbert Read fails to comment on Morris’s appropriation of useful factory labor practices (including using foremen, as initiated by Wedgwood) while grudgingly avoiding the same sort of specialization in the lines that might hamper the future employment potential of his workers. Wedgwood thought nothing of fractioning things out into specialized tasks that would quickly be rendered obsolete by changes of taste.

I must say that I am quite taken by Morris’s pragmatic approach. He may have idolized the feudal labor system, but he did not seek to recreate it in the capitalist world of modern business. He simply tried to use what he could of the existing system while preserving age-old techniques and practices. Hardly a “dilettante” in my estimation.

Read’s summary of the differences between the two approaches, it seems to me, couldn’t get much further from the truth:

It will be seen that Morris’s attitude was the inverse of Wedgwood’s. Wedgwood was the industrialist who thought art was something external which he could import and use; Morris was the artist who thought of industry as something inconsistent with art, which must therefore be abandoned or abolished. Of the two attitudes, Wedgwood’s is much the simpler—indeed, it is naive, Morris’s attitude is complicated by ethical concerns which most of us find sympathetic. (Art and Industry, 31-32)

Read suggests that the way to address Morris’s concern over the welfare of workers is to simply grant that industrial practices are better at providing “the means of life” while artistic practices furnish “the ends of life.” This rings hollow to me; to have a world where workers are berated and devalued, but allowed to go home to nicely appointed industrial cubicles to do their handicrafts denies the fact that people do indeed want to work, and work at rewarding occupations.

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