The Ruskin–Morris Connection

Portrait of William Morris, aged 53

Portrait by John Everett Millais, 1853-1854


In late nineteenth-century Britain, theorist and critic John Ruskin and the designer, writer and activist William Morris began pioneering new approaches to design and the decorative arts. But what sort of relationship did they have and how did their approaches to crafts and politics differ? Dr Mark Frost, author of The Lost Companions and John Ruskin’s Guild of St George: A Revisionary History, explores the connection between the two most influential figures of the Arts and Crafts Movement.

 In recalling encounters with William Morris in the 1880s, W. B. Yeats spoke of asking him what led up to the Arts and Crafts movement. Morris replied:

“O Ruskin and Carlyle, but somebody should have been beside Carlyle and punched his head every five minutes.”

The remark, amusing as it is, reveals a great deal about differences in the approaches – to crafts, practical work, and politics – of Ruskin and his disciple, Morris. Ruskin remained deeply indebted to his ‘master’, Thomas Carlyle, and powerful strains of Carlylean authoritarianism darkened his otherwise radical political outlook. Morris, by contrast, managed to extract what he saw as the most productive elements of Ruskin’s vision while rejecting all of its Carlylean elements.


Morris shared Ruskin’s belief in the superiority of medieval crafts. He imbibed Ruskin’s conviction that a nation can be judged by its aesthetic productions; that an immoral nation is incapable of creating great art; and that only non-mechanical, freely creative crafts could produce genuine beauty.

This message, articulated most effectively in the chapter entitled ‘The Nature of Gothic’ in the second volume of Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice (1851, 3 vols), a work described by Morris as ‘one of the very few necessary and inevitable utterances of the century’, sought not merely to inspire beautiful buildings, paintings, and crafts, but to transform what Ruskin saw as the inhuman conditions of labour endured by Victorian workers.

Morris was so inspired by Ruskin that he produced an 1892 edition of The Nature of Gothic for his Kelmscott Press, influenced by Ruskin’s insistence on the virtues of high quality hand labour. Morris’s amazing Kelmscott books, like the famous William Morris & Co. wallpapers, textiles, ceramics, furniture, metalwork, and glass, represent the finest flowerings of the Arts and Crafts movement that Ruskin did so much to inspire. While Morris & Co. was a commercial success and provided a fine school for many workers, it also underlined the limitations of arts and crafts as a genuine challenge to modern industrial practices because such products were so expensive that they could never reach large sections of the mainstream market.

This limitation was even more evident in of one of the craft experiments with which Ruskin was associated. The Langdale Linen Industry, a revival of Lake District spinning and weaving led by Ruskin devotees, Marian Twelves and Albert Fleming, only ever found a market amongst wealthier buyers, including some illustrious aristocratic figures. The Linen Industry was loosely connected to Ruskin’s major utopian venture, the Guild of St George, begun in 1871 and conceived as a means to fundamentally challenge the steam-powered dragons of Victorian modernity.


Ruskin hoped that the Guild would attract many adherents or ‘Companions’ and create a series of agricultural and artisanal communities devoted to hand labour, fine products, and the socially transformative effects of non-mechanised land work. They would, he believed, encourage sustainable practices and environmental good practice. The reality, sadly, was much more modest – less than a hundred Companions joined the Guild and its projects were relatively few in number. It was also a disaster for a significant number of young idealists who signed up as agricultural Companions only to find that their time on Ruskin’s estates around the country was a nightmare of drudgery and neglect.

Their stories are only now being fully understood. A number of reasons have routinely been forwarded for the failure of the Guild to fulfil its laudable intentions. These have included Ruskin’s failing mental health, his incapacity in the organisation of practical schemes, and the disastrous impact of his failed relationship with Rose La Touche, the young Irishwoman he had pursued from the mid-1860s until her tragic death in 1875. While these were certainly contributory factors, the Guild’s principal weakness was arguably the adverse effects of Ruskin’s authoritarian politics.

For the Guild’s agricultural Companions, Ruskin’s authoritarianism meant that they were consigned to obey while suffering neglect, or to submit to the leadership of unscrupulous and unsympathetic local agents. Embracing the Guild with genuine zeal, they found all possibilities to exercise personal agency in the Guild’s work barred to them, while all of the potential energy and creativity that they might have used to make the Guild estates succeed was squandered – with often tragic consequences.

In Morris’s fictional utopia, News From Nowhere, contented citizens lived in creative harmony amidst beautiful landscapes while effortlessly producing exquisitely beautiful goods and a plenitude of necessities. They do so because their shared commitment to socialism rested on fundamental principles of egalitarianism and libertarianism. Whether such a society is possible in reality remains an open question, but Ruskin’s Guild certainly offered the painful lesson that it is simply impossible to combine ideals of free, creative labour with authoritarian power structures.


Celebrating Indian Independence Day

Globalization, Nationalism and the Text of the Kichaka-Vadha

As India celebrates its 68th anniversary of independence from colonial rule, many look to the massive political demonstrations and innovative theorists that prompted sociopolitical change. While such things were highly effective in attaining independence, a number of playwrights in colonial India crafted didactic works that forced an Indian audience to ponder existing political situations with the use of allegory and subtle suggestion that prompted social change. Even with close political censorship enforced by the British Raj, playwrights such as Krishnaji Prabhakar Khadilkar laced their plays with coded political messages that supported the end of colonial rule.

In the very first English translation of Kichaka-Vadha, Globalization, Nationalism and the Text of the “Kichaka-Vadha” , Rakesh H. Solomon of Indiana University Bloomington offers the most extensive scholarly analysis to date on the Marathi play. With the use of colonial-era police, judicial, administrative, legislative and newspaper sources, this study highlights the allusions in the play that parallel Indian political circumstances of the time and the dramaturgic tactics used to prompt political change.

For more information, check out the book’s webpage.

August Book of the Month: “Women, Gender and Everyday Transformation in India”

By Kenneth Bo Nielsen and Anne Waldrop

Women, Gender and Everyday Transformation in India


“This book is a remarkable exercise aimed at comprehending and capturing change in a very complex society. It is an extremely useful volume for students and researchers of development and women’s studies.”

— Padmini Swaminathan, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad, India

It is a challenge to select a “Book of the Month” as we publish books across a range of genres. This month, we are proud to highlight a title from our Anthem South Asian Studies series which has already been well reviewed online just one week after publication. We are also excited to read forthcoming reviews in journals including Contemporary South Asia, Norwegian Anthropological and Gender and Development.

In the midst of rapid socioeconomic shifts in India, “Women, Gender and Everyday Transformation in India“ explores how these changes have affected the everyday lives of Indian women. Through stimulating and ethnographically grounded case studies from the university classroom to non-governmental organizations, the urban slum to the rural health clinic, this book takes the reader deep into the current debate of Indian gender relations.

In their introduction, the editors highlight some key questions about the changing roles of Indian women:

  • How does women’s ability to participate in an increasingly globalized and volatile Indian labor market alter the terrain upon which gender relations are negotiated and organized?
  • How is contemporary Indian feminism articulated and contested?
  • How does women’s grassroots political activism reconfigure gender relations and practices?


For more information, check out the book’s webpage.

Plus don’t miss these upcoming Anthem South Asian Studies titles:

The Politics of Time and Youth in Brand India: Bargaining with Capital

The Politics of Time and Youth in Brand India
By Jyotsna Kapur

Communication and Colonialism in Eastern India: Bihar, 1760s–1880s By Nitin Sinha

Communication and Colonialism in Eastern India: Bihar, 1760s–1880s
By Nitin Sinha

The “Slumdog” Phenomenon: A Critical Anthology Edited by Ajay Gehlawat

The “Slumdog” Phenomenon: A Critical Anthology
Edited by Ajay Gehlawat



Interview with Belinda Barnet, author of “Memory Machines: The Evolution of Hypertext”

9780857280602_hi-res_1The following is an interview with Belinda Barnet, author of
Memory Machines: The Evolution of Hypertext

This book is an exploration of the history of hypertext, an influential concept that forms the underlying structure of the World Wide Web and innumerable software applications.

Q: In the Introduction to your book, Stuart Moulthrop describes the current state of networked, computational media as ‘ugly and benighted’. Do you agree with him?

Belinda Barnet: I think we are facing some very real problems with networked computational media that people like Ted Nelson predicted we would face. For example, although the web is a successful globe-spanning archive and publishing system, it has issues as a hypertext system. Links break, content is duplicated all over the shop, copyright is difficult to preserve, the page you visited three months ago has now vanished. Many of the earlier hypertext systems I survey in this book had their own solutions to these problems. So yes, I understand what Stuart means by ‘ugly and beighted’.

Q: How do you account for the success of the Web if earlier versions were ‘in some respects more powerful than the Web’, as you say?

BB: I think the web won because it worked. It was not a proprietary system (like most of the systems I survey in the book), it was not difficult to learn, it provided a cheap and quick and effective way to publish things and create links *between* documents on opposite sides of the world. That’s quite an amazing feat. But just because it works doesn’t mean other systems would not work just as well, or better. Systems like Xanadu for example.

Q: You write that ‘[t]he systems I look at here were exciting and revolutionary in their era, but like mermaids gold from children’s storybooks, they turned to ashes when brought to the surface’. Why do you think alternative visions have never made it to the surface?

BB: They all had different reasons. For NLS, although the demo changed the computing world, the system itself ultimately faded out. I think it was because it was difficult to learn and use, but also because Doug was brilliant, a gifted and visionary person, but not really a businessman. I personally still hold out hope that Xanadu will make it to the surface, but I think it hasn’t so far for a number of reasons that are detailed in the book. Part of it may be that Nelson was at times his own worst enemy. Another reason may be that transclusion, the very powerful and groundbreaking idea that content should be re-used by reference rather than copying (and that this content should be traceable back to its source), has been a little difficult to build. Nelson has always wanted that to work, and has waited a long time for it. Memex was never built because digital computing swept the planet and it was really an analogue device, so the technology itself became obsolete.

Q: What, in your opinion, would be the aim and purpose of a perfect hypertext?

BB: The perfect hypertext system would be simple and easy to use, which the web already is. But links would not disappear or break, you would not lose documents, you would be able to re-use content by reference and trace that content back to its source. The perfect hypertext system would not require you to festoon content with markup before you publish it – and it would not require search engines to make sense of it for you.

Q: Why would you recommend students read your book?

BB: There is much to be learned from the history of hypertext, especially the systems that failed. We are currently facing problems that the early pioneers predicted we would face, and they had their own solutions to those problems. So this history is also relevant to people who are currently trying to design solutions for the problems, like the semantic web. I would like to see computing science as well as media and communications people reading this book.


Find out more about the book and the author on our website:

Newly Released Australian Studies Titles!

Some newly released Australian and Australasia-related books from a collaboration between Anthem Press and Melbourne-based Australian Scholarly Publishing:


 ‘For those who’ve come across the seas...’‘For those who’ve come across the seas…’: Australian Multicultural Theory, Policy and Practice

Edited by Andrew Jakubowicz and Christina Ho

‘An exhilarating intervention in the global ‘multiculturalism has failed’ debates, this well-researched and passionately argued volume details how people actually live diversity in their everyday existence, and the ways in which everyday multiculturalism might profitably inform more nuanced policies.’
—Professor Sneja Gunew, University of British Columbia, Canada


Nazi DreamtimeNazi Dreamtime: Australian Enthusiasts for Hitler’s Germany

By David Bird

The ground-breaking story of extreme-right, ultra-nationalist thought and practice in Australia in the period immediately before and during the Second World War.




 Constitutional Conventions in AustraliaConstitutional Conventions in Australia: An Introduction to the Unwritten Rules of Australias Constitutions

By Ian Killey

Responding to the omissions of Australia’s constitutions, this work explains the nature of conventions, how they arise, how they are altered, and their operation and development.




Parliamentary Government in AustraliaParliamentary Government in Australia

By Alan J. Ward

Combining constitutional history and political science, this volume compares all nine of Australia’s political systems, federal, state and territory, from colonial times to the present.


Vivian E. Thomson Talks About the US on the World Stage of Climate Change

The 2 June announcement of a new draft of regulations under the United States Clean Air Act has brought environmental issues to the forefront political discourse. The new act includes a lofty proposal of a 30% cut in carbon emissions by 2030, making the US a leader in global climate change. Thomson and Colleagues at her Book Launch at the Heinrich Böll Foundation

Anthem author and University of Virginia professor of environmental science and politics Vivan Thomson (left) speaks to the theoretical frameworks of the recent act in her book, Sophisticated Interdependence in Climate Policy: Federalism in the United States, Brazil, and Germany. “My book relates directly to EPA’s forthcoming announcement,” says Thomson. Her experience in the State Air Pollution Control Board of Virginia, a state hard hit by the EPA’s announcement because of the economic dependency on the coal industry, give her an insightful take on the state-federal cooperation in environmental affairs. Although the great reduction in carbon emissions is an admirable environmental goal, much of Virginia’s economy depends on highly pollutive coal. Despite the discordant state and federal goals, Thomson pushes for coherence, pointing to Brazil and Germany as examples for the United States to emulate. 

As the conversation over the EPA’s goal for climate change in the United States continues, we watch for the state-federal cooperation Thomson prescribes.

HEAR more from Thomson, listen to her recent podcast here:  

WATCH Vivian Thomson discuss her book on Inside Scoop: