Merton Abbey

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.

Reading Josiah Wedgwood

rawlings-walter-statue-of-josiah-wedgwood-stoke-on-trent-staffordshire-england-united-kingdomOne of the most easily predictable things about late nineteenth/early twentieth century writing is the consistent call to dead white men for authority.

In Herbert Read’s case, the two major figures he summons are Josiah Wedgwood and William Morris. Morris, I have some familiarity with; Wedgwood was more of a mystery to me so I did a little research.

After flirting with Bernard Leach a bit, it’s fun to visit another potter. I found it intriguing that Wedgwood and Leach actually have some overlap in their attitudes toward labor. I’ll return to that later.

The epigraph that opens Part 1 of Art and Industry is from Lewis Mumford’s Art and Technics, which claims that in order to become more “profoundly human” we must learn the lessons of the machine; Wedgwood fits nicely into this, as he apparently brought the factory approach to the problem of supplying pots to a nation. The lessons of the machine that Mumford identifies are objectivity, impersonality, and neutrality. I begin to get suspicious any time the word “neutrality” is invoked.

What’s also curious to me is the way that Read refers to holistic aesthetic sources, such as Walter Pater, while attempting to divide and conquer the problems of aesthetics. Read fashions a history in which “cabinet painting” is evolved from book illustration; at one time pictures of patrons were woven into illuminated books, and eventually these portraits were separated from their (implied) public use to create a private genre. He suggests that it’s a case of the aesthetic being separated from it’s applied, holistic function in a useful object (the book). That stretches credibility for me, because it seems to me that wall painting precedes book illustration in human history, but that’s a qibble.

I think it’s a much bigger leap to suppose that aesthetic appeal can be divided into three categories:

  1. formal elements of dimension and proportion which have a direct sensory appeal;
  2. elements of emotional or intellectual expression which may be combined with the formal elements;
  3. elements of an intuitive or subconscious nature. (14)

Further, Read asserts that the elements that are not “humanistic” are then labeled abstract. Looking at this list, unless we’re opening up sensory appeal to the animal kingdom, all of these elements (as listed) are humanistic. Alternatives to “abstract” read lists as “nonfigurative,” “nonpictorial,” “nonrepresentational,” etc., which to me also read as human in a very direct sense. Later, he defines form as simply “shape.” which is indeed not necessarily humanistic. This is easier to abide by.

Turning from this naturally into proportion, Read assumes that mathematical proportions have a strong relationship with aesthetics, turning to the usual “golden section” argument, which is a historically mathematical concern rather than an aesthetic one. Of course, he is aware of the limitations citing Ruskin: “All beautiful lines are drawn under mathematical laws organically transgressed” (18). He also cites Freud’s notion of the subconscious, returning full circle to what appears to me to be a humanistic concern:

I do not raise these problems to present a solution; I merely wish to suggest that the question of form in art—even in industrial art—is not a simple one. It cannot be solved by a rule of thumb. If the Golden Section or some other canon of proportion were made compulsory for all industrial design, I have no doubt that the whole standard of production would be improved; but only at the cost of a profounder and more essential vitality. (20)

All proposed divisions aside, Read accepts that there is an “intuitive” side to art (but oddly, not a cultural one) that must be dealt with. Read pivots to the subject of ornament (or decoration) offering a distinctly Western upper class take on the subject:

At present, all I wish to insist on is that the instinct is not essentially aesthetic. All ornament should be treated as suspect. I feel that a really civilized person would as soon tattoo his body as cover the form of a good work of art with meaningless ornament. The only real justification for ornament is that it should in some way emphasize form. I avoid the word “enhance” because if form is adequate, it cannot be enhanced. (23)

It is to this end, and to address the issue of “decoration” that he summons Josiah Wedgwood and William Morris. The adulation of Wedgwood is palpable:

It would help at this point to consider two historical attempts to solve our problem. One comes right at the beginning of the industrial age, and is so interesting and instructive that it would merit a separate and exhaustive examination. All the problems that confront us now were obvious to Josiah Wedgwood, one of the greatest of industrial genuses, a man who in his own lifetime converted a peasant craft into an industrial manufacture, a man who, in whatever sphere he had applied his gifts for organization and rationalization, would have effected a revolution. (23-4)

Before Wedgwood, apparently, pottery was not worthy of notice, “a cult of few dilettanti” (24). The word choice is telling, because it shows up in Read’s description of William Morris. In fact, he can’t even stop talking about Wedgwood when he turns to Morris:

The case of William Morris, a century later, is equally instructive. He differed from Wedgwood in not being born to a trade. Wedgwood’s reforms sprang from an internal necessity of the time and the craft. Morris was external, dilettante. (29)

My jaw just dropped when I read that. There are many words that I might choose to describe Morris, but dilettante certainly isn’t one of them. Yes, he’s the son of a stockbroker. But even David Pye agrees that even an amateur (and Morris wasn’t even that) isn’t necessarily a bad craftsman. The more I read about Wedgwood, the more it seems like Read was willing to overlook what he would consider as grave sins (the division of form from ornament, for example) to adore his capitalist hero.

One of the primary themes of Read’s book is to argue against the separation of aesthetic qualities as separate from (0r applied to) products, and yet that is precisely what Wedgwood’s big innovation actually was. He had separate production lines for aesthetic or “art” pieces and “useful” articles. Read acknowledges this, claiming that while the “artistic” items were of little or no merit, his useful pieces were among the best ever made and destined to be emulated. It is primarily Wedgwood’s embrace of modern industrial labor practices and improved tooling that Read admires, feeling that it delivered quality products to the reach of more households than ever before, a problem that Morris simply didn’t address.

Morris actually did set up a working factory and embraced technologies that would improve the quality of his output, but that’s a subject for another piece. What I’d like to look at here instead is Wedgwoods employment practices and his contribution to the labor problems of the Industrial Revolution.

His designs aimed at a conveyor belt progress through the works: the kiln room succeeded the painting room, the account room the kiln room, and the ware room the account room, so that there was a smooth progression from the ware being painted, to being fired, to being entered into the books, to being stored. Yet each process remained quite separate.

He organized his men on the same basis, for he believed that ‘the same hands cannot make fine, & coarse-expensive & cheap articles so as to turn to any good account to the Master’. The ‘fine figure Painters are another ord(e)r of beings’ compared with the common ‘flower painters’  and must be treated accordingly—paid higher wages, set to work in a different workshop, and encouraged to specialize. His workmen were not allowed to wander at will from one task to another as the workmen did in the pre-Wedgwood potteries. They were trained to one particular task and they had to stick to it. Wedgwood felt that this was the only way to improve the quality of the ware-‘ We are preparing some hands to work at red & black… (ware)… constantly & then we shall make them good, there is no such thing as making now & then a few of any artcicle to have them tolerable.’

Neil McKendrick, “Josiah Wedgwood and Factory Discipline,” The Historical Journal, Vol. 4, No. 1 (1961)

In essence, this is the Henry Ford assembly line operating in the late 18th century. He’s credited with inventing the time clock by instituting the ringing of a bell to mark work periods, etc, as well as conveyor systems. Like Ford, Wedgwood was concerned with behavioral engineering of his workers:

Wedgwood had not only to train a new generation of skilled potters, he had also to mould these workers to the needs of his factory system. It was not an easy task, for he had centuries of local tradition to oppose him. The potters had enjoyed their independence too long to take kindly to the rules which Wedgwood attempted to enforce-the punctuality, the constant attendance, the fixed hours, the scrupulous standards of care and cleanliness, the avoidance of waste, the ban on drinking. They did not surrender easily. The stoppages for a wake or a fair or a three-day drinking spree were an accepted part of the potter’s life-and they proved the most difficult to up- root. When they did work, they worked by rule of thumb; their methods of production were careless and uneconomical; and their working arrangements arbitrary, slipshod and unscientific. For they regarded the dirt, the inefficiency and the inevitable waste, which their methods involved, as the natural companions to pot-making. (ibid)

And of course, he ruled his factory with an iron fist:

There can be little doubt of his authority. The impact on his workmen of his almost brutal face-stern even when composed by a Hackwood or portrayed by the grace of a Reynolds-was clear even to himself: ‘my name has been made such a scarecrow to them, that the poor fellows are frighten’d out of their wits when they hear of Mr W. coming to town, & I perceive upon our first meeting they look as if they saw the D(evi)l ‘.His discipline was not, of course, universally accepted. Some found an irresistible challenge in the figure of Josiah. Like many men with powerful temperaments he evoked rebellion in the fractious. Like young bulls in the herd some of them had to try their strength against the old patriarch. Few came out of the contest well. There were a succession of such men-leaders of pay demands, subordinates with their own methods. But they were quelled and if not quelled, replaced. (ibid)

This is Herbert Read’s hero. A man who did everything possible to scare the humanity out of his workers and create an environment where men might be interchangeable like machine parts. However admirable the products might be, the process is something I find terribly abhorrent. For the modernists, the trains must run on time and with a profit.