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2. Artistic and Literary Commitments (1880-1950)
I/ Late-nineteenth Literary Commitments

Ruskin’s heirs: art, nature and socialism

Charles-François MATHIS


Sous l’impulsion de John Ruskin, de jeunes penseurs et artistes de la fin de l’ère victorienne comme William Morris et Edward Carpenter ont tenté de mêler étroitement engagements artistiques et politiques, dont l’article présente les contours et les conséquences. Le rejet de la civilisation industrielle, et particulièrement de sa laideur, mène les deux hommes au socialisme — mais leur engagement combine des aspects traditionnels et d’autres plus originaux : un aboutissement artistique pour Morris, une nouvelle religion de l’homme pour Carpenter. L’engagement politique se teinte donc des couleurs d’une conception artistique qui est propre à chacun. Inversement, la dimension politique influe sur l’œuvre artistique des deux hommes : elle semble éloigner Carpenter de ses premières amours poétiques, et plonge Morris dans une douloureuse aporie créatrice.

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  • 1 The farm was situated near Sheffield and was actually visited by Edward Carpenter, who described it (...)
  • 2 See Edward Carpenter, “A Minstrel Communist”, Commonweal 9 March 1889, 74-5.

1In 1871, in the letters entitled Fors Clavigera that he wrote to the workers of Great Britain, John Ruskin suggested the establishment of a new and utopian community, the Guild of St George,1 that would be based on cooperation instead of competition, on manual labour of the earth instead of mechanisation (Ruskin 48). Despite the famous St George’s Creed written in 1875, the enterprise was a failure: the agricultural lands bought were bad, those who settled on them had no previous experience in agriculture, and acute tensions soon occurred between the members of the community, which had to be dispersed.2 Ruskin was deeply affected by such a turn of events, as the Guild of St George was his only concrete endeavour to oppose the industrial path chosen by Great Britain a century before.

  • 3 We use this word to describe the people who fought to defend some natural places from urban and ind (...)

2More fundamentally, the Guild project triggered a division inside the nature preservation movement, which was in full bloom at that time, in the 1870s. Up to then, the members of this movement had considered Ruskin as their main inspiration; he was the one pursuing the thoughts and actions of their first prophet, William Wordsworth, offering a new way to see the world, cursing his time for its ugliness and its ignorance of everything artistic and moral. Robert Somervell, for instance, one of the leading members of this young generation of “environmentalists”,3 said:

But what really gave a new direction to my thoughts and life was my first coming across a book of Ruskin’s, I suppose in 1872. This was The Political Economy of Art. […] It was by no means among the best of Ruskin’s books, but it came like fresh breeze and sunrise to a stumbling, half lost traveller, and the change it made was something like the change made by the Renaissance. […] I soon set about buying more of Ruskin’s works, and before long had quite a considerable collection. […] He opened my eyes to see, both in the world of Nature and in the world of Art, […] as I had never seen before. But the two passages in his words that made the most permanent impression were the chapter on ‘The Roots of Honour’ in Unto this Last and the chapter on ‘The Nature of Gothic’ in the second volume of The Stones of Venice. […] It was under the influence of Ruskin that I now broke out in a new line altogether, and one which I honestly think I was a humble pioneer. (Somervell 43-46)

3But Ruskin’s involvement in the community of St George caused a rift, as the most moderate of the environmentalists could not support what they considered as a foolish and quixotic initiative, which could only ridicule their own undertakings. What was at that time called “the sentimental movement” was indeed making progress in the acceptance of its claims by the Victorian society. The Commons Preservation Society, led by John George Shaw-Lefevre, a MP, and by Robert Hunter, its lawyer, managed in 1874 to save hundreds of acres of Epping Forest from enclosure; in 1876-1878, the Lake Thirlmere controversy, prompted by Manchester’s acquisition of the lake to use it as a dam to supply its population with fresh water, revealed the strength of, and the popular support for, this dawning green movement (Ritvo 3). The leaders of these societies had been struggling for years to erase the negative innuendoes implied by the nickname “sentimentalists” given by their opponents—they were on the contrary stressing the practicability of their most moderate ideas, and their necessity for the well-being of the English population. Ruskin’s utopia was a threat to this normalisation of the movement, and occurred at the worst moment.

4The break was sometimes violent and painful, as was the case with Octavia Hill, a former student and admirer of Ruskin, whose pragmatism could not tolerate Ruskin’s utopian experiments. She reproached him for being “most incapable of carrying out any great practical scheme”, to which Ruskin answered that “of all injuries you could have done—not me—but the cause I have in hand, the giving the slightest countenance to the vulgar mob’s cry of ‘unpractical’ was the fatalest” (Darley 195).

5The Guild became thus a visible symbol of a general division taking place in the last third of the 19th century among the “environmentalists” between reformists and utopians (Mathis chap. 6). Only the latter would remain entirely loyal to Ruskin’s ideas, trying, just like him, to combine political and artistic commitments. Among them, I would like to distinguish William Morris and Edward Carpenter, two influential members of what was called “sentimental socialism” at the end of the 19th century, who offer valuable insight on how the links between art and politics were conceived at that time.

1. From Ruskin to socialism

1.1 An asserted radicalism

6Those I call Ruskin’s heirs refused the timidity of the reformists and followed his intransigence. This asserted radicalism relied on a global refusal of the modern Victorian civilisation, which was first and foremost an aesthetic rejection. Many of Ruskin’s contemporaries did not understand these premises of his thoughts. Indeed, when, in the mid-1850s, Ruskin started writing against the orthodox political economy of his time, to offer a rather iconoclast economic theory, he upset many of his former admirers. Unto this last, which first appeared as a series of articles in the Cornhill Magazine, had to be stopped by the editor and was only completed as a book in 1862 (Wilmer 7-37). Ruskin was accused of wandering in what his opponents called the “alien field” of political economy, instead of wisely restraining himself to art criticism and nature preservation. What they obviously did not understand was the coherence of Ruskin’s thoughts: his fight for beauty at all prices was precisely the reason why he could not avoid becoming involved in political economy (Montagu Blatchford 148).

  • 4 I have already mentioned Epping Forest in 1874. In the previous years, the Commons Preservation Soc (...)
  • 5 On these questions, see Jan Marsh, Back to the land. London: Quartet, 1982; Peter Gould, Early Gree (...)

7To compromise with the existing order of things by preserving some beautiful natural places, as a number of environmental associations were doing with increasing efficiency and success,4 was therefore unthinkable. One had to reverse the course of time to a pre-industrial world, in order to re-establish mankind in a harmonious relationship to nature, art and beauty.5 Both Morris and Carpenter agreed with such a purpose. Morris stated it clearly: “Apart from the desire to produce beautiful things, the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilization.” (Morris, “How I became a socialist”)

8But to go beyond this spontaneous intuition and to bring it to fruition, Morris and Carpenter had to discover the means to change the world. What could they concretely do to embellish their country? In his famous article “How I became a socialist”, Morris gave a moving testimony of his despair when confronted with his helplessness: he found it hard to give shape to his indignation. As for Carpenter, he resigned his Clerical Fellowship at Trinity Hall in 1871: this was a major decision in his life, a leap in the dark; from a vicar thought about as a possible tutor for two of the royal princes, he became an itinerant lecturer in the industrial North, looking for his own path—trying to find his voice as a poet, his social and professional destiny, even his intimate fulfilment.

9For both of them, socialism became the answer.

1.2 The shift to socialism

10At the end of the 1870s, Morris considered socialism as the practical solution he had been looking for years to bring down the industrial society.

The whole face of things was changed to me by that discovery, and all I had to do then in order to become a Socialist was to hook myself on to the practical movement, which, as before said, I have tried to do as well as I could (Morris, “How I became a socialist”).

  • 6 Created in 1881, the Democratic Federation became the Social Democratic Federation in 1883.

11This desire to move from a sentimental denunciation of his world to an action that he saw as, at the same time, practical and utopian, was one of Morris’s great strengths (Thompson 1977). He refused, as he asserted in this article, a partial betterment of the British population’s fate. This is why he was drawn to the socialist ideology, and why he joined, in 1881, the Democratic Federation (then Social Democratic Federation) founded by Henry Hyndman,6 the first Marxist orthodox party in Great Britain.

  • 7 For Carpenter’s life, this article relies on Chushichi Tsuzuki, Edward Carpenter, Prophet of Human (...)
  • 8 Carpenter said of Whitman that: “He gave you that good sense of newness” (Rowbotham 57).

12Carpenter was also progressively introduced to socialism.7 The meeting with the hero of his youth, Walt Whitman, in 1877, was one of the turning points of his life. It reinforced his desire to write poetry, it offered him a new vision of the world and of life,8 and it certainly played a part in the acceptance of his homosexuality. It could therefore be seen as a first step on the way to a radical break with Victorianism. This was made obvious in the centrality of the Whitmanian (more than Marxist) concept of “Comradeship” in Carpenter’s subsequent writings. Indeed, Comradeship completely reversed Victorian attitudes and values. It stressed class and gender equality instead of hierarchy, community instead of a divided industrial society—hence anarchism’s appeal for Carpenter. It liberated feelings, of whatever kind, between human beings. It could only fully bloom in a preserved natural environment and an artificial one filled with the simple beauty of man-made objects. This concept thus combined a sexual, political and artistic revolution.

13Carpenter was also looking for male partners among the Sheffield working class, where he felt more at ease. There again, his regular contacts with the outcasts of Victorian society would make him more sensitive to their lot, and introduced him to the socialist ideas that were discussed in these circles. The disastrous experiment of the Guild of St George, which took place near Sheffield and to which Carpenter briefly belonged, played its part too in revealing the limits of some utopian experiments and in developing his socialist reflections.

14Nonetheless, the decisive impulse came in 1883. This was when Carpenter settled down in a new smallholding at Millthorpe (close to Sheffield), published his first collection of poems Towards Democracy (strongly Whitmanian in its style), and read England for All by Henry Hyndman—therefore discovering Marxism, joining the socialist movement, and notably the Social Democratic Federation. It is noteworthy, then, that Carpenter’s artistic accomplishment took place at the same time as his political commitment.

2. An original approach to socialism?

2.1 A traditional commitment

  • 9 This was the name given to a mass-demonstration of about 10,000 people protesting against unemploym (...)

15Commitment to socialism led Carpenter, as well as Morris, to actively participate in their new comrades’ propaganda and actions. As intellectuals, their main action would consist in the writing of dozens of pamphlets or in the publishing of essays to defend socialism. Morris, for instance, was editor of the Commonweal, the journal of the Socialist League. They also held numerous conferences for a growing number of people. For financial reasons first, and then because of his success, Carpenter was the more prolific of the two, making conference tours in the 1890s in Sheffield, Rotherham, Chesterfield, Manchester, Bristol, Nottingham, Derby, London. He addressed very diverse audiences, belonging to the various branches of socialism (SDF, Fabians, Independent Labour Party, anarchists, etc.), but also the Liberal party. At the end of the century, the attendance at his meetings reached one thousand people, sometimes more (Rowbotham 170-171). Morris and Carpenter also used their fame to support the movement when they signed petitions or attended demonstrations—sometimes at the risk of physical injuries. In the single year 1887, Morris attended 105 demonstrations. On the 13th of November 1887, the famous Bloody Sunday,9 he and Carpenter were in the crowd when the police force charged and when a worker died under the hoofs of a police horse. Morris wrote a poem in honour of this victim (MacCarthy). Carpenter and Morris also more commonly intervened in the daily activities of political parties. In 1885, Carpenter helped founding the Sheffield Socialist Society and participated in the drafting of its statement; a year later, he supported a working-class candidate to the local elections, breaking therefore the traditional Lib-Lab alliance. As for Morris, he created in 1884 the Socialist League, a new socialist party offering a more humanistic ideology than the SDF, in which Hyndman’s authoritativeness and orthodoxy alienated Morris’s feelings, independence and beliefs. Of course, Morris and Carpenter also supported each another: Morris came to visit Millthorpe, and commented very highly on Carpenter’s achievement there, while Carpenter was invited by Morris to give lectures to the Socialist League.

16Though they spent much time in these activities, such a traditional political commitment remained the less spectacular and essential aspect of their socialist action. They did not completely accept the dry economic socialism of the SDF, and they wanted to bring into the socialist ideology their own aesthetic and moral revolt, a properly artistic vision. What mattered to them, in a sense, was the way they could, as artists, enrich socialism.

  • 10 For a recent and stimulating history of the Labour Party, see Martin Pugh, Speak for Britain!: A Ne (...)

17This explains why they were somehow at the margins of this emerging political movement. Their intellectual and moral influence was extremely strong, they were widely respected and listened to, but their institutional weight was rather low. The socialist movement, in the last decade of the century, more and more adopted a pragmatic strategy to enter politics through elections in order to act at the core of the British power—making it hardly possible for Carpenter and Morris’s utopianism to fit in.10 Hence George Bernard Shaw’s famous sarcasm, opposing utopians to pragmatists: “One to sit among the dandelions, the other to organise the docks.” (Hardy 214) Let’s see now how Morris and Carpenter collected dandelions…

2.2 Morris’s gift of art

18Morris was drawn to socialism by an aesthetic as well as moral imperative, in the hope of a global transformation of the Victorian world. He did not deny that the prime aim of socialism should be to give bread to the workers, but he could not be contented with such a material future for mankind:

Surely any one who professes to think that the question of art and cultivation must go before that of the knife and fork (and there are some who do propose that) does not understand what art means, or how that its roots must have a soil of a thriving and unanxious life. Yet […], It is the province of art to set the true ideal of a full and reasonable life before him [the workman], a life to which the perception and creation of beauty, the enjoyment of real pleasure that is, shall be felt to be as necessary to man as his daily bread, and that no man, and no set of men, can be deprived of this (Morris, “How I became a socialist”).

  • 11 Morris wrote: “the tendency was towards this freedom of hand and mind subordinated to the co-operat (...)

19Thus, what distinguished Morris’s action from his fellow orthodox socialists was this continuous demand for beauty: mankind would be diminished if beauty were not made accessible to all of its members. In that sense, artistic creation was a socialist practice, if it was destined for the whole population, whose everyday life it should embellish, whose tastes it should refine, whose happiness in this world it should revive by the production of beautiful things. In this belief, Morris clearly followed Ruskin’s thoughts, as they were expressed in the Stones of Venice (1851-1853), and especially in the chapter “The Nature of Gothic” (vol. II). The Middle Ages were seen as an ideal (Delheim), for they were the time when (so they thought), anyone could freely create and surround oneself with a beauty inspired from a unmarred nature.11 Morris’s life would be dedicated to this maxim: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful” (Morris, The Beauty of Life). In that sense, he was one of the founders of Guild Socialism, which offered workers, or more precisely craftsmen, control over their own production.

  • 12 A small workshop at first, it expanded, became known as “Morris & Co.” after 1875, and opened shops (...)

20With this aim in view, nothing was more important than his firm of design “Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., Fine Art Workmen in Painting, Carving, Furniture and Metals”, created as early as 1861:12 there, was the main solution, what he could really bring to socialism; the rest of his action was more common, less singular. I therefore suggest that, for Morris, socialism was only a means to throw down a civilisation that he believed was inherently hostile to beauty—when beauty was, for mankind, the only path to real happiness. In that sense, he differed from Carpenter, who understood socialism as a guide to perfect life.

2.3 The way to the good life for Carpenter

21E.M. Forster, who was deeply influenced by Carpenter (his novel Maurice was written after a visit made to Carpenter), sensibly described him in this way:

The two things he admired most on earth were manual labour and fresh air and he dreamed like William Morris that civilisation would be cured by their union. The Labour movement took another course and advanced by committee meetings and statistics towards a state-owned factory attached to state-supervised recreation grounds. Edward’s heart beat no warmer at such joys. […] What he wanted was News From Nowhere and the place that is still nowhere, wildness, the rapture of unpolluted streams, sunrise and sunset over the moors, and in the midst of these the working people whom he loved, passionately in touch with one another and with the natural glories around them (Beith 78).

  • 13 Robert Blatchford, another socialist who shared Carpenter’s and Morris’s interest in nature preserv (...)

22From 1909 onwards, Carpenter called “larger socialism” this desire to intertwine manual labour, homoeroticism and harmony with nature. Clearly, he did not see it as a mere doctrine, but as a way of life, even as a sort of religion.13 In an article entitled “A thought for May Day”, Carpenter asserted that the purpose of socialism was to help people see again what was beautiful and sacred in every aspect of their lives, therefore restoring their happiness and their love for mankind (Carpenter, “A Thought for May Day”). Sexual liberation and Comradeship were once again central in Carpenter’s brand of socialism (Carpenter, Love’s Coming of Age). But, as Forster rightly understood, this conception had little to do with the scientific approach favoured by Marxist socialists. Neither the Independent Labour Party (1893) nor its emanation, the Labour Party itself (1906), really cared for sexual equality, aesthetic fulfilment or environmental preservation, all topics which were marginalised in favour of social and economic battles on wages and working hours. Carpenter’s singularity lay in this tight link between beauty, joy, love and nature, and derived from his artistic and emotional approach to socialism (Pierson).

23Carpenter managed to give weight to his thoughts thanks to his own life in the farm at Millthorpe. When he settled there in 1883 with the Fearnehough family, he managed to live according to his ideals: simplicity, comradeship, and autarchy. He sold fruits and vegetables at the market in Sheffield, and of course the famous sandals that became his most recognizable feature. As time went by, Millthorpe was turned into a sort of lighthouse for all those who felt overwhelmed by the rigidity of the late-Victorian period—homosexuals, marginalised artists, socialists of all sorts, etc. This is why Carpenter occupied such a singular place in the socialist movement: even though he remained, so to speak, on the outskirts of the movement, he was also central to it by his multiple and continuous attempts to unite its various branches and sympathies. His aura grew as the possibility to live according to his principles became obvious for all those who met him and were subjugated by his magnetism and his inner joy.

24What were the consequences of this political involvement on the artistic creation of the two men?

3. The artistic impact

3.1 The aporia of Morris’s ambition

25It is undeniable that Morris’s social and aesthetic ambition failed: he did not manage, by his action, to bring beauty to the poor and to embellish their daily life. Unquestionably, his business was commercially successful, thanks to the excellence of the products (the magnificent wallpapers or the elegant furniture for instance), but it relied on the bourgeois consumers Morris despised, and certainly not on the working class he wanted to help. Indeed, these objects were mostly handmade, and were based on quality raw materials—which therefore made them unaffordable for most of the population. Morris could not escape this paradox: his own care for perfection made it impossible to sell his products to the very people for whom he really wanted to create them. He was naturally fully aware of that, and it deeply stirred him. Once, as he was visiting one of his best customers, the iron maker Sir Lowthian Bell, he is said to have had a burst of anger which he explained thus: “It is only that I spend my life ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich” (MacCarthy, “Morris, William”). One doesn’t know what Lowthian Bell answered to such a pleasant statement…

26However, if Morris was trapped in a commercial paradox he could not escape, he was more successful in the general impact of his artistic commitment: the great interest in design and in the beautifying of objects in the second half of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century, as expressed for instance in the Arts and Crafts movement, owed a lot to Morris’s thoughts and actions (MacCarthy, Anarchy and Beauty). He was indeed central in the growing refusal of a distinction between artists and craftsmen, as he thought that, in a perfect, socialist world, any one could, or even should, be capable of creating beauty in great and small things alike. This is why he attended the first exhibition of the Arts and Crafts society in 1888, and became its president in 1891. Charles Robert Ashbee’s Guild and School of Handicraft, created in London’s East End in 1888, was a key experiment for the Arts and Crafts movement, and mainly inspired from Morris and Carpenter’s ideas.

  • 14 The Kelmscott Press was founded in 1891 by Morris to produce beautiful books.

27On a more literary aspect, his political commitment had a slight influence on his creative process. He multiplied the writings intended for the people and the socialists, like his Chants for Socialists in 1885. Of all these writings, A Dream of John Ball (1888) and News from Nowhere (1890) are naturally the most influenced by Morris’s political views. In both books, one can find the same glorification of the beauties of nature, of medieval life, of the elation drawn from the act of creation as in his previous writings such as The Earthly Paradise (1868-1870); but this time, these features are more explicitly related to a political discourse. Morris justified this in the preface to a new edition of More’s Utopia by the Kelmscott Press:14 his purpose was to quicken the advent of a viable utopia, that he described as “a link between the surviving Communism of the Middle Ages […] and the hopeful practical progressive movement of to-day” (Morris, “Foreword” IV). Morris always refused to be depicted as a dreamer: he was convinced that the people could change their future and better their lot—which was the very reason why he joined the socialist movement. In his two novels, and particularly in News from Nowhere, he therefore tried to show the way to this new and better life. It would be a life where people, living in the countryside, would all be able to produce beauty—in any possible way, whether singing, carving, weaving, dancing, or writing for instance. Happiness would derive from the beautiful surroundings and the shared creativity of these harmonious communities, where everyone would be equal, where meals would be taken in common, and where personal ownership would be scarce.

28For Morris, this future was not a utopia per se, it was the ideal society that could be created. This is, I think, the meaning of the last sentence of the novel, in which he talked about this dream of a new England: “And if others can see it the dream as I have seen it, then it may be called a vision rather than a dream”. A vision refers to a possible future; it does not belong to the wild imaginings of a poet. With Morris, the writing completed the action, and gave it an attainable horizon (Mathis 468-470).

3.2 Carpenter: forgetting art?

29Carpenter’s case was in a sense more complex. As we have seen, his literary career started at the same time as his political commitment. But, after the first edition of Towards Democracy, he mainly published pamphlets or essays, and his way of writing became more analytic, intellectual, than merely poetical or properly artistic. He admittedly completed Towards Democracy, offering new editions in 1885, 1892 and 1902, but the first edition already contained his main ideas and the quintessence of his poetic style. In the following years, most of his work as an author would be a series of essays to try to better understand himself, mankind and the world in general, and to detail the path to salvation, i.e. the way to the “larger socialism”. When he composed a book of poetry, he entitled it Chants of Labour, in 1888. He was totally involved in his political commitment, which could be considered as an existential commitment.

30One can thus highlight a paradox in Carpenter’s life: his purely artistic creation was relatively small, and yet, of all its intellectual productions, it became the most influential. Towards Democracy remained Carpenter’s unique best-seller, the most quoted, commented and read of all his books—far more than any other. Besides, because of the sense of fulfilment he found at Millthorpe, his artistic work seemed to become less necessary; on the contrary, it made his political commitment and the deepening of his thoughts more essential, so that anyone could find, like him, a sort of happiness.

31More or less voluntarily, Carpenter thus became for his contemporaries the sheer embodiment of the socialist and utopian prophet: at the end of the day, his main artistic success, his most politically influential realisation, was himself—his own shaping of a happy, independent, clever and slightly original being. His life-style was first and foremost a personal necessity, not the outcome of a theory of social change; this would come after—as any global upheaval can only derive from individual conversion to different values (Brown).

32And it was indeed through personal contacts and guidance that his artistic legacy was strong. Like Morris, he was central in shaping the Arts and Crafts movement, his influence being particularly significant on Charles Robert Ashbee, who visited Millthorpe several times in the 1880s, or Roger Fry, whose portrait of Carpenter is one of his most admirable ones. Even the Bloomsbury group certainly owed part of its sexual tolerance and its social orientation to Carpenter. E.M. Forster, as we have seen, was a central figure in this story: apart from Maurice, references to Carpenter’s thoughts can be discovered in his early writings, in the ideas of Tony Failing in The Longest Journey (1907) or in those of Mr Emerson in A Room with a view for instance. One should not forget D.H. Lawrence, who was certainly one of the most significant writers influenced by Carpenter, and who created a link between the prophet of Millthorpe and the pioneers of the deep ecology movement (Delavenay).


33To conclude, William Morris and Edward Carpenter perfectly corresponded to those Peter Gould has named “green” socialists, and who can also be called sentimental (Gould 233). Their main feature was first and foremost an aesthetic approach of all the problems encountered by Great Britain in the course of the 19th century. In this, they wholly followed their intellectual guide, John Ruskin. Refusing the growing ugliness of the material civilisation surrounding them, they made an appeal for a return to nature, which they considered as the only way to save Great Britain and its inhabitants from perdition. Their political commitment was a consequence of this principle, in which art and nature were the only remedies to the evils of Victorian times. The choice of socialism was in itself significant. In the last third of the nineteenth century, indeed, there were many who, like Morris and Carpenter, were very critical about the excesses of industrialism and the horrors of urbanisation, and who, therefore, considerably strengthened nature preservation movements. Nonetheless, these movements were not politically affiliated to one party or another: the Liberals were numerous, but they were backed by some prominent conservative figures like Edward Bond, and usually claimed their political neutrality (Mathis 443-444). The fact that Morris and Carpenter chose socialism can arguably be seen as a consequence of their aesthetic involvement: no compromise is possible where beauty is concerned, and therefore they could not accept to bear with the ugliness of their world. Only socialism was radical enough for the complete change demanded by the two artists. For Morris, though, socialism was only a means to reach the rural idyll sung in his artistic creation; for Carpenter, it was more fundamentally a way of life, transgressing some of the most widely accepted moral and social rules of his time. These different perspectives on the meaning of socialism can certainly explain the impact of such a political commitment on their artistic creation: a rather political message for Morris, intertwined with his bucolic and mediaeval inspiration; a certain neglect for the poetic form in favour of a more analytic approach in the case of Carpenter.

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1 The farm was situated near Sheffield and was actually visited by Edward Carpenter, who described its ultimate failure.

2 See Edward Carpenter, “A Minstrel Communist”, Commonweal 9 March 1889, 74-5.

3 We use this word to describe the people who fought to defend some natural places from urban and industrial encroachments and who gathered in associations such as the Commons Preservation Society (1865), the Kyrle Society (1876), the Selborne Society (1886) and naturally the National Trust (1894-1895). For a general presentation of this movement, see Charles-François Mathis. In Nature We Trust. Les paysages anglais à l’ère industrielle. Paris: PUPS, 2010).

4 I have already mentioned Epping Forest in 1874. In the previous years, the Commons Preservation Society managed to prevent the enclosure of Hampstead Heath (1868), Wimbledon Commons (1871), or Berkhamsted Commons (1871). In the 1880s, the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association and the Kyrle Society obtained a Disused Burial Ground Act in 1884 and other laws to favour green and open spaces in London. In 1895 the first donation is made to the National Trust.

5 On these questions, see Jan Marsh, Back to the land. London: Quartet, 1982; Peter Gould, Early Green Politics: Back to nature, back to the land, and socialism in Britain, 1880-1900. Brighton: Harvester, 1988.

6 Created in 1881, the Democratic Federation became the Social Democratic Federation in 1883.

7 For Carpenter’s life, this article relies on Chushichi Tsuzuki, Edward Carpenter, Prophet of Human Fellowship. Cambridge: CUP, 1980; Sheila Rowbotham, Edward Carpenter. A life of liberty and love. London: Verso, 2008. On Carpenter’s general influence and thought, see Tony Brown, ed. Edward Carpenter and late-Victorian Radicalism (London: Frank Cass, 1990).

8 Carpenter said of Whitman that: “He gave you that good sense of newness” (Rowbotham 57).

9 This was the name given to a mass-demonstration of about 10,000 people protesting against unemployment, and which led to violent clashes with the police.

10 For a recent and stimulating history of the Labour Party, see Martin Pugh, Speak for Britain!: A New History of the Labour Party. London: Bodley Head, 2010.

11 Morris wrote: “the tendency was towards this freedom of hand and mind subordinated to the co-operative harmony which made the freedom possible. That is the spirit of Gothic Architecture”, William Morris, “Gothic Architecture [Lecture given to the Arts and Crafts Exhibition London, 1889]”, News from Nowhere and other writings, ed. Clive Wilmer. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1998, 339.

12 A small workshop at first, it expanded, became known as “Morris & Co.” after 1875, and opened shops and workshops in London and its suburbs. See Pamela Todd, William Morris and the Arts & Crafts Home. London: Thames & Hudson, 2012.

13 Robert Blatchford, another socialist who shared Carpenter’s and Morris’s interest in nature preservation, concurred: one of his most famous pamphlets was entitled The New Religion. London: Clarion, 1898.

See also Hugh McLeod, Religion and the Working Class in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1984.

14 The Kelmscott Press was founded in 1891 by Morris to produce beautiful books.

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Charles-François MATHIS, « Ruskin’s heirs: art, nature and socialism »e-Rea [En ligne], 13.2 | 2016, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2016, consulté le 19 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Charles-François MATHIS

Bordeaux Montaigne University
Charles-François Mathis is Senior Lecturer at Bordeaux Montaigne University. He specialises in nineteenth-century British and Environmental History. He has published, with Jean-François Mouhot, Une protection de l’environnement à la française? (Champ Vallon, 2013); “Nation and Nature Preservation in France and England in the Nineteenth Century”, Environment and History 20 (2014).

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