An essay to accompany my Sudden summer installation at The William Morris Society - if like me you find reading long form text difficult I've made a video below of me reading the text... or read the full text below.
Sudden summers and broken patterns
William Morris anticipated many features of the modern Green Movement: renewable energy, reforestation, the reduction of waste, the joy of a simple lifestyle, the redefinition of work and taking pleasure in nature. In a time of climate crisis, Morris’s ideas have particular resonance and offer an alternative to how we might live if we wish to avoid climate catastrophe.
‘Sudden summer’ is a subtitle from Morris’s utopian fiction News From Nowhere and points to the moment the protagonist wakes into a utopia of eco-socialism. The opening of the book is set in Kelmscott House, Morris’s London home for the last 18 years of his life, and today the home of the William Morris Society where I have a show opening on the 24th March. Morris held weekly meetings of the Hammersmith Socialist League (of which he was a founding member) here and worked relentlessly on ideas that, if taken seriously, may well offer us a way out of the many faceted crises we face today.
“I felt the place so hot that I made haste to get out of the room and out of the house... for it was winter when I went to bed the last night, and now, by witness of the river-side trees, it was summer”
During the first three months of 2022, my 3rd Morris-anuary, I’ve built an overarching narrative that, knowingly or unknowingly, this page of News from Nowhere is a prophecy from Morris of the climate crisis we are living through. I’ve spoken with curators, academics, socialists and environmental activists, studied Morris & Co. designs, read Morris’s body of writing and stared long and hard into Morris’s eyes. It's definitely contentious, but also plausible, funny and hopefully could be the hook needed to bring more people to his writing and ideas.
The ‘story’ below sets out what I have learnt so far this year, and maps the themes featured in my new artworks. Plotting how my understanding of Morris as an environmentalist and activist has overlapped with what I already knew about the climate and ecological crisis. Like Morris, I am not the greatest writer, but like him I believe in the passing of messages and ideas - I hope you can stick with it. (To be fair it’s his narrative that was dense, his political and non-fiction writing is quite masterful.)
I’ll warn you - It’s not the happiest story you will ever read - but it does contain hope. And I hope it can act as a call to read more of Morris’s writing and a summons to come together in action and compromise.
This year we have already had numerous 'sudden summers' in terms of dramatic changes in temperature day to day. We’ve been talking about human induced climate change for over twenty years, but now we feel it daily. New Year's Eve this year was one of the warmest on record - then within a week we returned to the more expected winter freeze.
The seasons have literally changed - the patterns we knew are broken. Spring flowers now arrive in January and always will. Global heating is changing the behaviour of the flora and fauna - Morris’s favourite design subjects.
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!, Digital print, 2022
Insects are arriving early during bursts of warmth, only to find none of their needed food waiting for them. Or emerge to be met with a cold snap a few days later - it’s an ecological tragedy playing out before our eyes. A life with less insects or even the wrong insects at the wrong times will lead to all sorts of ecosystem collapse. First no fruit and vegetables that require insect pollination - that's 30% of what we currently eat. But then there is the prospect of losing birds and animals who would have eaten the missing insects and fruits, and so on, up the food chain.
I have used plant pollen collected by bees to make paintings with its natural pigment for several years. The use of pollen references monocultures and the impact mass agriculture has on the ecology of our world. Over the past few months I’ve made text paintings and small agricultural landscapes focussed on Morris and the Sudden Summers he predicted.
Glut, 2021, Pollen on paper
Last year during a farm visit I witnessed first hand that food systems in this country are in disarray as crops come early in gluts (going to waste due to a flooded market) or fail all together due to broken weather patterns. Agriculture contributes roughly 30% of all climate change emissions, with food waste being about a third of that, waste on farms being the largest contributor. It’s a problem that we need to be more aware of and talk about. Notice that at COP26 Agriculture was hardly mentioned, probably because the commercial Lobbies are so powerful. I have no doubt if Morris was still here he would be looking at how to support farmers and break the complete control that major corporations have over food systems in the UK.
Crisis, climate, capitalism, imagination
William Morris famously refused to enter the Great Exhibition of 1851. Today it is clear - his disgust for industrialisation and the destruction of nature have come to their logical end. Perhaps his ideas and multi-faceted approach bringing art, nature and politics together can once again become part of how we adapt to live in our finite world.
What makes our time so unique and troublesome is that we not only have a climate and ecological crisis and a crisis of capitalism and consumption to contend with but also a crisis of imagination. There is no shortage of creativity - but can creative minds present genuinely new ways of living that people will buy-in to. Brave ideas are desperately needed for us to find ways out of the mess we've got ourselves in as a species.
In a way it's a confluence of issues that Morris was so singularly suited to address. Caroline Lucus MP said in her 2012 Lecture in Morris’s Coach House “What Morris achieves is to present an alternative.” She talks of his jewel-like nature, so many facets that people know him for but it is when taken as a whole that he really sparkles.
As I understand it now, essentially Morris was an eco-socialist, he believed humans were best served and fulfilled through fellowship with each other and with nature. Which Lucus reinforces, “As individuals, and as society, our physical and mental well-being and our quality of life are all dependent on the quality of our environment. And our ability to meet our needs fairly depends on living within our means; the alternative is exploitation of the poor by the rich, or meeting today's demands at the expense of future generations.”
Yet of course Morris came from a wealthy family. He single handedly funded his various fledgling socialist movements. His company may have had workers rights and worker fulfilment at its heart but as a result it made goods that only the rich could access. William Morris was compromised. He knew this - and yet he continued. He did not want to be a master, he truly modelled bottom up politics. He used his knowledge, extraordinary capacity for work and creativity for positive ends.
Perhaps compromise is in fact an approach that we all need to be better at, to be comfortable with. Compromise can bring individuals short term discomfort - but in the long term doesn’t compromise become a form of adaptation? And adaptation is something the world is going to have to do - going to have to be better at. Last month's report from the intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC), made clear many climate impacts are now here to stay and adaptation is a very real part of what is needed. So alongside ongoing action to reduce emissions, we also need to imagine new ways to adapt.
Progressives and liberals are constantly looking to argue, to take each other down a peg or two - seemingly enjoying the argument more than an opportunity to drive change (I'm guilty as charged here also!). Isn’t it time we dared to see beyond small annoyances and differences and took more of a broad brushstroke approach. New alternatives need people to buy into them and believe, to achieve a ‘bigger picture’ the world needs people to compromise and adapt.
Glut, 2021, Pollen on paper
So Morris was rich, you might not like his wallpaper or most likely find his fiction exciting for their ideas but in their formation dense and boring! But hopefully you can find a way to see beyond these possible flaws to his “true purpose: presenting an alternative to the assumption that our current world - unjust, exploitative, and unsustainable - is the best it can be”
By March 24th I should be looking quite like Morris - so alongside 'opening' a show of paintings in the windows of Morris’s Coach House, I will wade into the Thames and go fishing. Stepping into a ‘Chemical cocktail’ of sewage, slurry and plastic polluting English rivers (that) puts public health and nature at risk. I’ll be hoping for Salmon ... but also hoping to spark imaginations towards a kind of Morrisian eco-socialism - fingers crossed.
We all need to drop our guard a bit - creating space to adapt and compromise - and work together. Bringing all our creative, environmental and political facets to work as one.
How we should live now
The most recent IPCC report makes bleak reading - but does offer some hope if we act together now. "Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future."
When taken as a whole Morris’s life and ideas in their simplest form brought art, meaningful work and nature together for the wellbeing of all people and all nature. Beautifully simple and hopeful - and I believe, from my own compromised position, worth working hard for.
Morris summed up what was needed to live a ‘decent life’ as,
“First, a healthy body;
second, an active mind in sympathy with the past, the present, and the future;
thirdly, occupation fit for a healthy body and an active mind;
and fourthly, a beautiful world to live in.”
As Owen Hatherly, who I was lucky to spend time talking to recently, put it, “Morris’s socialism is... not the accelerating kind but the emergency brake. It will be a society that is, in cadences that now sound incredibly utopian - ‘plentiful, generous, un-anxious’”.
Bring it on, I say, and do come and see me Fishing for Utopia on March 24th.
If you would like to read more of William Morris’s writing then I would recommend News From Nowhere (I listen to the audio book each year!) and the recent Verso collection How I became a socialist - most of his writing is also available for free here.
William Morris, News From Nowhere, 1980 - https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3261/3261-h/3261-h.htm
William Morris in the Twenty-First Century, 2012, Caroline Lucas MP
Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability - https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg2/
William Morris, How We Live and How We Might Live, 1884 - https://www.marxists.org/archive/morris/works/1884/hwl/hwl.htm
How I became a socialist / William Morris ; with an introduction by Owen Hatherley, 2020