Wednesday, March 26, 2014

139. William Morris and a Dutch eye-witness

On 2 November 1893 William Morris gave a lecture 'On the Printing of Books' at a meeting in the North Gallery of the New Gallery, 121 Regent Street, London, under the auspices of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. The Unpublished Lectures of William Morris (edited by Eugene D. Lemire, 1969) mentioned that 'no text remains' of this lecture, although it must have been comparable to one published in Arts and Crafts Essays (1899). 

The William Morris Internet Archive Chronology also mentions the lecture, and states that the text was published in The Times, 6 November 1893: 'On the Printing of Books'. However, The Times did not print the text of the lecture, only an account of it: 'Mr. William Morris on the Printing of Books'.

The Times asserted that the gallery was completely filled and that Morris was received with cheers. Morris lantern-lecture was a short history of printing, showing pages printed by Gutenberg, Schweinheim, and others up to 1532.

In the audience was at least one Dutch reporter: Leo Simons (1862-1932). Simons was a Dutch critic, reporter and publisher, who lived in London between 1893 and 1897, when he was a partner of publishing firm Henry & Co. Among the last books issued by the short-lived firm was the second volume of Charles Shannon's and Gleeson White's magazine The Pageant. The firm went bankrupt in 1897. (Around 1881, by the way, Simons had been a student at the Kensington Art School to learn drawing.)

In 1893, Leo Simons wrote a series of articles on the Arts and Crafts movement for a major Dutch newspaper, Opregte Haarlemsche Courant. He had been its theatre critic since 1885. The first part appeared on 16 October 1893, the second one on 30 October, and the last one on 4 December 1893. Next week, I will quote from the third issue those parts that were about Ricketts and Shannon.

Leo Simons
The two earlier instalments were mainly devoted to William Morris, as was part of the last issue that contained an account of the lecture that Morris had delivered on 2 November. It had been announced at the end of Simons' second article: 'On the Second of November William Morris will deliver a lecture on "the art of printing"'. As Simons lived in London, he decided to attend.

These three articles are a remarkable early Dutch testimony of the importance of the Arts and Craft movement, and were previously unknown. They were not mentioned in a bibliography on the Dutch reception of Morris and his works in the Netherlands: William Morris in Nederland. Een bibliografie. Geschriften van en over William Morris verschenen in het Nederlands taalgebied 1874-2000, edited by Lieske Tibbe, Wim Gerlagh and Sjaak Hubregtse (Leiden 2003). A more recent publication, Anne van Buul's In vreemde grond geworteld. Prerafaëlitisme in de Nederlandse literatuur en beeldende kunst (1855-1910) (Groningen 1983) did not mention them either. Only recently, when I blogged about the Flemish arts nouveau periodical Van Nu en Straks, did I stumble upon a reference to Simons's articles. There is no online archive of this newspaper, and I had to consult the microfiche edition at the National Library of the Netherlands.

Starting point for the three articles was the recently opened Fourth Arts and Crafts Exhibition (2 October-2 December 1893). Because of his importance to the Arts and Crafts movement, Simons began with a portrait of Morris, whom he described as 'a somewhat stout figure of average height', dressed in 'an oversized blue jacket that is worn with age'. His somewhat casual dress and his shabby wide-brimmed hat were in contrast with his 'powerful head and its grey square beard', and with his 'steady eyes that were half hidden by his glasses'. 

William Morris
In his first essay, Simons described the work of Morris & Co. and of the Kelmscott Press. He also gave a short catalogue of furniture that was for sale at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition. Simons saw the importance of Morris, but argued that the Gothic inspiration would make these chairs and tables unsuited for the modern home.

The second essay was an introduction to the history of the Arts and Crafts, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood: Maddox Brown, Rossetti, Burne-Jones. Simons also mentioned the work of Walter Crane and the Fitzroy Picture Society, before announcing Morris's lecture of 2 November.

His third essay started with another picture of William Morris:

William Morris was standing on the low platform, dressed slightly more careful than usual, broad, and round, in his blue jacket, unlike the formal and respectable dress of English gentlemen at a soirée. No orator, no raconteur; he is a teacher who wants to instruct his audience, and does not care for  the style of his lecture. His talk was held together by awkward interjections such as 'now I have still to say this' and 'now I must add' [Simons actually quoted these phrases in English!], and his lecture was a disruptive flow of stuttered comments to lantern slides of early printed books.

Simons concluded that it was almost impossible to give a summary of this presentation. His detailed account mentions that Morris talked about calligraphy, and the art of the book. Morris contested that a beautiful book did not need decorations, which Simons found remarkable as the Kelmscott Press books displayed numerous decorative illustrations. He talked about type, and discussed his preference for Gothic types. He then discussed lay-out, margins, paper, ink, and ended with pictures of his own books. It is interesting to see that Simons, a relative outsider, wrote about the quality of the lecturer, and his appearance on the platform; and also that he did not summarize (as The Times did) the history of the book in Morris's lecture (which did not contain anything new), but concentrated on what was novel: Morris's view of 'the ideal book'. 

Leo Simons