The BBC series on ‘The History of the World in 100 Objects’ has been deservedly popular over the last few months, and Radio 4 this morning celebrated the 100th object, which completed the series: a solar-powered lamp. Could we, I wonder, envisage a History of William Morris in 100 Objects, and which would be the one object that might most evoke his presence and activities for us?
Some of the earlier biographers of Morris, including J.W. Mackail himself, have argued that Morris’s real relationships were indeed with objects rather than with people, that he was somehow strangely detached from the human and only fully himself when engaged with the tools, materials and products of his various craft enthusiasms across the years. As Mackail himself bluntly puts it, ‘He was interested in things much more than in people’ (vol II, p.93). So the notion of doing a Biography of Morris in 100 Objects should certainly, on this showing, be plausible enough.
As for a single object that might most represent our hero, well, we will all have our personal favourites and preferences here. My own special Morrisian object would be the battered brown satchel in the collection at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow. In this Morris carried his socialist newspapers and leaflets (and his pipes) when he went campaigning and lecturing around the country, so – humble artefact though it is in itself – it vividly evokes for me the extraordinary political commitment and personal energy that Morris put into the British socialist movement in its formative early years. But I’m sure that you, dear reader, will have your own view here!