My tale today begins in the Hammersmith Socialist League.
It is where confirmed socialist and pioneer of beautiful things in the late 19th century, William Morris,met up with a man who knew a lot about books and print.
Morris was quite the socialist. He once knocked a policeman’s hat off and went to court for it. And he felt much as that other socialist, George Orwell, felt about beautiful things.
Remember 1984, and Winston’s diary? A beautiful, hand-made book: a thing of grace, it tempted Winston back towards humanity: he bought it from a shop full of old beautiful things. It proved his downfall.
Morris, in the second half of the 19th century, felt just the same about beautiful things. He felt they made life beautiful; they graced what they brushed. They could prove the saviour of the masses. He abhorred the mass-produced things made by industrialisation. And he fought for a return to something beautiful to feed the soul.
He is well-known for fripperies; wallpaper and suchlike – but his meeting with Emery Walker at the Hammersmith Socialist League sparked a friendship and partnership which would culminate in something very beautiful indeed.
Orwell’s regime would have burned it instantly. Emery Walker was a typographer, and together with Morris he set about examining early books. ‘Cradle’ books, they called them: icunabula.
It led them to create a version of Chaucer which has set the standard for book design ever since. For the type they selected a design made by Nicholas Jensen in 1470 and adapted it. The gorgeous illustrations were those of Edward Burne-Jones, whose spare pre-Raphaelite faces haunt so many images of the late 19th century:
Together, they made something beautiful.
A stunning collaboration of pattern, and image, and print, it was published by William Morris’s own press, the Kelmscott Press, in 1896: Morris’s last great work, with the beautiful pre-Raphaelite visages of Burne-Jones gazing out from the pages.
I mention this, because I came late in the afternoon to a church yesterday. A church in Easthampstead, St Michael and St Mary Magdalene, which has been there for 1400 years in some form or other. It is surrounded by new-town houses these days: a democratic town of the people.
We walked in at 4pm and it was pitch-black, eerie and hushed, as the light faded outside.
But there was just enough light to make the stained glass windows glow with eerie twilight. And here, the dusk lights the faces painted on glass by the illustrator of the Kelmscott Chaucer.
They were commissioned by a local worthy at the height of Burne-Jones’ fame.
They are incredibly beautiful, at this time, in this place, lit as they are by fading light. Anyone from the neighbouring housing estates can wander in and see them. It is democratic beauty; though I wonder what Morris and Orwell would have thought of the masses who choose television and shops over this awe-striking sight. The church was deserted and dark.
Given the choice, the Proletariat do not always choose beauty.