Perpetuating the memory of one of the greatest men of the Victorian age

William Morris Society Young Volunteer Project Exhibition

Over several sessions between May and July of 2021, a group of seven young volunteers came together to work on a project inspired by William Morris’s work as an early environmentalist. These young volunteers explored issues around climate change and produced artistic responses to the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham’s declaration of a climate emergency and aim to reduce carbon emissions in the borough to net zero by 2030.

William Morris was a socialist campaigner and designer who lived in Hammersmith, and we think he would have been a campaigner for sustainable living. His novel ‘News from Nowhere’ imagines a utopian future and his wallpaper and textile designs drew upon nature to provide people with a deeper connection to the natural world.

The project provided the participants the opportunity to imagine what Hammersmith & Fulham could look like in the future and to produce their own art pieces to encourage people to live more eco-friendly lifestyles. Over the course of the project the young people took part in various workshops, they learnt about William Morris’s odes to nature through his writing and designs, discovered ways to advocate for the climate crisis, and thought about using verse, digital resources and found materials to create pieces which address the environmental crisis.

This online exhibition is a glimpse of the work they undertook and at the end you can explore the culmination of the project, a zine called “The earth and the growth of it and the life of it!”, named after a quote from William Morris’s ‘News from Nowhere’.

'The earthly paradise'

William Morris addresses issues around the environment in all his work, but it is probably most explicit in his writing. In this extract of his poem ‘The Earthly Paradise’(1868-70), Morris first criticises what he sees around him: ‘smoke’; ‘snorting steam’ and ‘the hideous town’

‘Forget six counties overhung with smoke,
Forget the snorting steam and piston stroke,
Forget the spreading of the hideous town;
Think rather of the pack-horse on the down,
And dream of London, small and white and clean,
The clear Thames bordered by its gardens green;
Think, that below bridge the green lapping waves
Smite some few keels that bear Levantine staves,
Cut from the yew wood on the burnt-up hill.’

We were stirred by this extract to write our own short verses that demonstrate what we would like to get rid of in the environment around us and what we would like to see instead, replacing Morris’s examples with our own.

Poem 1

‘Forget the miles of repetitive glossy window displays vying for attention

Forget chaotic junctions and morning standstills in rush hour panics,

Forget the boxes upon boxes of flat packed offices and accommodation spreading up into the sky

Think rather of the pack-horse on the down,

And dream of London, its people acting as caretakers,

Feeding the Thames with their love and care;

Rewilding Her Majesty’s carefully gated parks and private gardens

Planting saplings and seedlings of magnificent oaks and elms and chestnuts to come,

And take the place of worship once occupied by crumbling gargantuan statues of old men with swords, horses and guns.’

Poem 2

‘Beyond the commercial glare of LED artifice,
Beyond the clamping grasp of profit mongers
That squeezes the soul from the sun’s rays.
Dream of London ripe with colour and music,
A dance of orbs as you squint at the summer sky.
Think, a night bright with stars
Free from the foggy lens of humming streetlights.
Where the naked ape lives among its fellows, not instead of.

Forget empty streets overhung with quiet,
Forget the distance and the months in private,
Forget the spreading of the coughing plague;
Think rather of the city wide awake,
And dream of London, alive and free and clean,
The clear Thames bordered by its gardens green;
Think, that below bridge the green lapping waves
Pass people weary of their caves,
Eager for air and sick of being still.’

Experiments in design
Untitled textile design on William Morris wallpaper by David Mabb, 2013
Luibov Popova Untitled Textile Design on William Morris Wallpaper for HM, David Mabb (2013)

We were inspired by this piece in our collection ‘Luibov Popova Untitled Textile Design on William Morris wallpaper for HM’ by David Mabb (2013). Mabb is a current practising artist who has been using Morris’s fabric and wallpaper designs and incorporating them into printed works. He comments on the contradictions between Morris’s political beliefs and his practice as a designer and a businessman.

In this piece he is layering Luibov Popova’s work over a Morris & Co wallpaper. Popova is a Russian constructivist artist, who created textile designs that were machine printed and cheap. She produced utilitarian objects for the socialist collective but abandoned the idea of the individual craftsman. Morris’s designs were hand-printed and expensive to purchase, with floral designs hinting at a nostalgia for rural life. Mabb’s work brings the two designers together as comrades in socialism. Both used pattern design to promote utopian enterprise, but in two very different ways.

We spent one of our weekly sessions overlaying imagery and text over a Morris pattern. The designs below were an exploration of what we had learnt so far about climate change and an experiment for what we were hoping to create for our final piece.

OUR FINAL PROJECT

We decided to use everything we had learnt throughout the sessions to create a zine to encourage the local population to think more critically about the climate crisis and to utilise art as a powerful tool of advocacy and communication.

We have taken inspiration from William Morris’s “Penny Pamphlets”. These were affordable printed versions of his speeches and smaller cheaper reproductions of his books, which were more accessible for working-class readers.

Enjoy our zine below (click to enlarge), and hopefully it will encourage you to live more sustainably and mobilise a movement of climate activists inspired by Morris and the wider Arts and Crafts movement.

By Tabitha Gibbs, Learning and Outreach Officer for The William Morris Society