William Morris

Address at the Cambridge School of Art Prizegiving

The annual presentation of prizes to the successful pupils of the School of Art took place in the small room at the Guildhall on Thursday evening, in the presence of a large number of ladies and gentlemen. [....]

Mr. W. Morris addressed the meeting as follows:─

In these days, when even those of us who love art most are apt sometimes to be discouraged by the carelessness for art that surrounds us, it is not wonderful that people should ask, some in triumph and some in sorrow, is the desire for beauty, and even fulness of form that produces art, an essential part of man's nature? or is it only one of the fleeting outcomes of the necessary energy of life, like many another fashion that has now passed away for ever?

That is an anxious question for you and me, whose lives are being spent now in dealing with that art. For indeed, I conceive that, to put it in another way, it means, are we merely trifling over the cast-off hobbies of former ages, and weakly trying to spin out the time a little before all these toys are looked upon with clear eyes and priced at their proper value; or are we working diligently, looking backward with gratitude and forward with hope, expecting while we toil to see some glimmer of the new light beginning to shine upon neglected art, on the creative powers of man, that as in the latter days shone so fully on science, on man's analytical powers. I say it is a most serious question to us, whether art has become a mere rag of past history or is still a living fibre of our present days. For if we must say yes to the first part of the question, then we artists are wasting our time, or worse; we by our trifling are helping to make the age effeminate and trifling and we had better at once make an end of what we call art and hope to see some new thing take the place of it.

And now I must say that the very fact that such a question can be put by any one that loves the Art[s], is a sign that some great change is at work in these matters. Who could have thought of such a thing once except a few devotees or grumbling philosophers, with whose contempt of Art, indeed, I imagine there was mingled not a little affectation. The most of men worked on, letting their hands follow the instinct of their brains, and producing abundant beauty either simple even to childishness, or sublime and mighty, according to the measure of the mind that guided their hands. There has been accomplished all that great body of Art that we in these latter days have the pleasure and advantage of studying, if we have no other pleasure and advantage. [I]t rose from mere barbarism, how or where we know not: it changed, it wavered, grew faint, rose up again, lost on one side, gained on the other, fitted itself to all races all creeds, and th[r]ough everything was still the same Art, with one unbroken though varying life.

Where is this art now? Where is the life of so many thousand years? Has it died out? And if so, can the dead live again? Indeed, in appearance, I should say it has died; or rather, we must at least say that the link that binds the imitative conscious art of today with that progressive unconscious art of the past is hard to find, if indeed it can be found at all. Yet somehow we artists must find it if we are not to call ourselves triflers over effete rubbish, even as I said before. If you are astonished at my taking what must at first seem such a gloomy view of art, I can only say many people, I know, think or rather feel that that link is clean lost.

I am forced to say that beyond a very small circle now-a-days, I find people living in a world that does not know art at all. For the most part even highly cultivated people eager for the good of the world with all kinds of sensitiveness, nevertheless are utterly blind on this side of things. True, they may think it necessary or rather desirable that something should be known of art as a matter of education, but they would not miss it if it were to disappear; they do not really care about it at all; they will live amidst the most frightful ugliness quite blandly and happily: though some of them, at least, make a profession of loving the country, the mountains, the sea, and so on, all the things that inspire art in those that produce it. I say "make a profession to do so," since I rather more than suspect they are not a little blunt to these impressions also. This, I am sure, can never have been the case in those past times I have been talking of, and it is a puzzle to me, how it can be now.

A puzzle to me in one way: yet in another way I must acknowledge the justice of it, yes and rejoice in it even. I say I must rejoice in it when I think of the mass of squalor and misery, the unhelped and apparently unhelpable hideousness, which surrounds the greater part of our big towns. I should doubt the existence of any possible justice in the world if while 999 thousandths of the people, say, of London, are living in such a state that it is impossible for them to have any idea of beauty at all, the thousandth part were not oppressed by the mere brutality, unconsciously if they did not share it, as they verily do. For I declare to you that though in this as in all else the rich have the advantage over the poor, the advantage in matters of taste, in appreciation of and longing for beauty, I would rather say, is but small. Glitter show and vulgarity are copiously paid for by the rich. Into such strange byways of folly has civilization strayed at whiles.

I must ask you not to think that I am wandering from the point, for let us consider. These unconscious artists of past days were thinking of something more than art when they wrought wonders that we rejoice in. They were earning their bread, they were glorifying their creeds, they were struggling with difficult and intricate prizes of knowledge while they wrought them. Their life was in those works of art and showed in them their ways of life. But with us the life of our great cities, the places, you understand, in which the arts must always mostly flourish, is so distasteful and disgusting to every man─I will not say of taste, but of heart rather,─that we who work in the arts cannot by any means help striving to escape from all that into some unreal world, in which nothing but art exists; and the result is that all we do is weak, isolated, wanting in abundance and spontaneity.

Now I do not stand before you as a mere praiser of past time. I also know the injustice, the ignorance, the violence, and unreasoning passion of those past ages. I know what the world has won since then. But I ask what it seems to have lost. Has it lost it past recovery? My discontent of the present of art is bred by the hope of its future. I am speaking [so] hardly [of] what we do, not for our discouragement, but for our encouragement. For, look you; the arts have gone so far in one direction as they possibly can go: say 300 years ago it had come to that at last. Then people tried to push it further in the same direction, and failed, as might have been expected. Hence three centuries of trifling, of eclipse, and neglect of the arts coinciding with the enormous increase of riches and consequent luxury, which has been, is, and will be, I most solemnly affirm, the very bane of all the arts.

I say the arts have gone as far as they can go in one direction. By some means or other new scope, new life, must be found for them. Go into our museums, and look at the works there, and if you mean imitation you will despair if you know anything about the matter; so complete, so miraculous you will find them. But if you are looking for instruction, if you are seeking insight, you will hope and rejoice rather at the sight of that unapproachable excellence, [t]hinking the mind of man that brought such things to pass is still alive in its vehement and partly successful struggles for other good things. [I]t has been blind to these hopes for a while, but when those matters that it has of late desired have been some of them attained to, some of them found out not to be desirable, the mind of man will again turn to the embers still as I think kept alive from the old times of art; and will once more carry on the torch to be a light and a glory to the world.

Like enough the youngest of us all will not live to see one of those new days, and yet I say the hope of their coming even now makes me a part of them, even as memory makes me a part of the great works of the past. For, indeed, I cannot seriously think that anything can really permanently take the place of art in men's minds, whatever the seeming outlook may be. Nay, I affirm that looking all over the world, looking at the decay of the East and the tumult of the West, secure as I am that our present civilization in some form must needs be pushed on further afield, so sure I am that elsewhere─yes, I will be [so] bold [as] to say it, especially in brutal America, in brutal England, our civilization must needs be re-civilized; nor do I think that anything but art can do it─I mean real living art, springing as ancient art did from religion. I use that word in no narrow sense, but in the widest imaginable sense, and again I say that in these days our civilization halts and sickens, nay sometimes seems as if it would take some steps on the backward path for lack of an art springing from pure and simple ways of life[;] from the exaltation of soul that comes from the constant practice of courage, kindness, and good faith.

Once more I say that whatever reaction there may be, yet assuredly such art will arise, and in the meantime I am sure also that our task, our pleasure of preparing the path for it, of keeping alive the hope of it may well make for us artists a serious and earnest, and not a trifling life.

To you especially who are studying in this school, I have but little advice to give that your own good sense would not give. You know very well that nature can be your only final guide, your only test of right and wrong. You know very well that as you work no diligence can be too great for the sake of getting a thing right from the outset, that shuffling and pretence will always find you out, and land you in discomfort and waste of time. You know very well, and the more you know of art the more you will know it, that you cannot study the works of the past too much, always on one condition, that you do it for the sake of study, not for the sake of reproduction; for of course it is clear to you that no one can have any call to be an artist, except in virtue of his being able to do something that nobody else can do. Even as in a wider scope [so] it is with the arts. I mean that no words can describe a picture, that no prose analysis can say what a poem means.

I do not mean by saying all this to discourage those of you who are studying for the sake of educating yourselves to know and love beauty rather than for becoming professional artists of any sort, still less those who are or will one day be artists of the lesser kind like myself, designers as they are called. What I say is that however humble a man's walk in the arts may be, any excellence he may be capable of will come from some grain of originality in him, and on what side that may lie he will find out by finding what he really likes, which is not as easy a matter as it seems to be at first sight.

Let me finish these few words by praising the pleasures of an artist's life. Other people work hard and are glad often I am afraid to shake off the thought of their work at the day's end and forget it, nay often if they could and were free they would choose some other work, or no work at all perhaps. But with us every day is a holiday, except perhaps the days when we fail notably. We don't like to leave off at night, and are in a hurry to begin in the morning. Nor if we were the free[-]est and richest people in the world would we lead any other life. I must ask the rest of you to forgive me when I say that to be an artist or a handicraftsman seems to me to be the only quite satisfactory way of living.

Ah, sir[s], might it not come about that by far the greater part of mankind had that happiness. It was so once. Every handicraftsman was once an artist, and I must needs think that our civilization has gone astray in this, that it is no longer so. And once again I say without any condition, without any "if", that one day or other this will be amended, and I call upon all you here present to consider this[,] if this is not the great end of all instruction in the arts[:] to make men's labour a pleasure to them and a pleasure to those for whom they labour. Nay, I think that it is a very good work for us all to help in though we may be long in bringing any great measure of it about, for it will be a changed world indeed and a world that will have cured many and many an evil when every man's share of daily toil is dignified with pleasure, good will, and hope.

[....] Dr Bateson said the address they had heard from Mr. Morris was a sort of weekday sermon, and seemed to come home to them. He hoped such a valuable address would prove profitable to them, and proposed a hearty vote of thanks to Mr. Morris for his admirable discourse.

Bibliographical Note


Untitled address at the Cambridge School of Art annual prizegiving


21 February 1878, in the Guildhall, Cambridge


Cambridge Chronicle and Journal, Saturday 23 February 1878 pp. 4-5


This lecture does not seem to have been published previously other than in the Cambridge newspapers of the time. The text appears to have been copied directly from William Morris's manuscript (which has not survived) but with some minor copying errors by the typesetter. These have been corrected above with corrections in [square brackets]. It is not known if any of these errors were in the original manuscript. The source has no paragraph breaks; all paragraph breaks were inserted by MIA.

Transcription, HTML and notes

Graham Seaman, November 2020