Morris, Bowie & The Beatles: more musings from Sweden’s sole member of The William Morris Society

Hello again!
This is Petter, the one and only Swedish member of The William Morris Society.
In my last blog I wrote about how my parents introduced me to William Morris. This got me musing on other British cultural icons when I was growing up and ways they connected to Morris.

My first real lesson in English came from The Beatles, you know: “Hello, Goodbye” and “Yes It Is”; what more do you need? ”Why don’t we do it in the Road” was another favourite.
Question: did the Beatles have any deeper connections to William Morris?
I have seen a picture of George Harrison, crossing a street wearing a trendy Granny Takes A Trip-jacket with the Golden Lily pattern. Kings Road fashion in the Sixties, yes, but did Morris in any way influence the mop tops when they headed into psychedelia? Someone should investigate that. I can’t find Morris on the Sgt Pepper cover, but Karl Marx is there and George Bernard Shaw and also Aubrey Beardsley.
Guitarist hero Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin was fascinated by the Pre-Raphaelites since his early years, I learned much later. The Zep world was a curious mix of graphics and style loans: Arts & Crafts, Art Nouveau, runes, Celtic mysticism and The Studio-fonts. When the metal millions came pouring in Page bought architect William Burges’ famous London “palace of art”, The Tower House in 1972, outbidding another Arts & Crafts aficionado, David Bowie.
Both Page and Bowie hunted for objects in the sixties-seventies. Funny to imagine them on days off, chasing old pottery and furniture while humming new tunes like Dazed and Confused (Jimmy) and Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed (David). “Hey, that De Morgan-pot is mine!”
Today Jimmy Page has an extensive collection of Pre-Raphaelite art. In 2008 a famous Edward Burne Jones Holy Grail tapestry was up for sale for £1m at Sotheby’s. The Attainment: The vision of The Holy Grail to Sir Galahad, Sir Bors and Sir Percival, was made in Morris workshops 1891-94. Page bought the tapestry in 1978. Thirty years later he could part with it – too tricky to dust? – but it didn’t meet the reserve price at Sotheby’s and remains in Page’s collection. Hopefully, he will lend it to a museum, but it will have to be a big one, since the tapestry is a mighty seven meters long.

David Bowie had his go at the Pre-Raphaelite hippieness on the original cover of The Man Who Sold The World-album, where he posed in a Michael Fish “man’s dress” against what Bowie claimed was a Morris screen, but that in fact was just bargain Art Nouveau. The cover was some kind of Rossetti “in-joke”, and was banned in the USA. A lovely man in a lovely frock, throwing playing cards from a daybed, was too much for the American market. Bowie had the guts to travel in this dress on a promotional tour through the United States in 1971. Extensive mining in the layers of pop culture would reveal a rich load of other Morris references. Check your record collection, if it’s not already in the cellar or lost forever at some flea market.

I just found this little gem, Liberation (1993), the second album from The Divine Comedy. The cover shows some wallpapers which I believe are Morris. (They are indeed – on left is Wallflower, which adorns the walls of Emery Walker’s House and on the right is Iris by Henry Deal, Morris & Co 1887. Ed.) The patterns were the perfect anti-image to the then universal grunge rock trend and a clever hint at the group’s own mix of quirky, sweet and ironic chamber pop. It’s “Morris” as anti-rock and pop resistance. Style icon, Bryan Ferry, was always a bit more Hollywood than Arts & Crafts, even though he touched on the Arthurian romance on the Roxy Music Avalon album cover in 1982, where Ferry’s then future wife Lucy Hellmore acts a lady warrior, gazing across the water at the mythical Avalon. The first single from the album, More Than This, shows a part of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting Veronica Veronese (1872). The green velvet dress shown in the painting was lent to Rossetti from Jane Morris, who around that time was his lover. The back cover of Avalon shows a dark green velvet fabric, so it fits together nicely. In later years, on stage, Ferry has worn this non custom made Louis Vuitton blazer with a Morris-like pattern, a slight reference to the 1960’s pop art Victorian cult, but also to the 1860’s love for wavy floral patterns.
Until next time,
Member 7432

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *