Caroline Arscott

Norwich, July 29, 2021

Grant Watson<Did you have an idea where to start or should I prompt?

Caroline Arscott<Well, I thought that you might ask me about textiles in my life and textiles in my research as two things that kind of meet together. And until you said you were coming to talk to me, it isn’t really something I had thought about, but actually, growing up in the 1960s, it was perfectly normal for us to do a lot of things with textiles—rug-making, tie-dye, dressmaking, knitting, needlepoint, patchwork.

GW< You mean as children?

CA< Yes, as children, but also in the family context. I had two sisters, and my mother and my auntie, everybody would get involved in a new project over the summer that we’d do together. Once a year, my dad used to take us up to a warehouse for fabric remnants at Wisbech, and it was an amazing treasure house where we would buy all the fabrics for our projects. It would be fabrics from Sanderson and Liberty and beautiful printed textiles and we all got to choose what we wanted. And then later in my college days, we hit punk and there was a lot of homemade stuff; we had to alter all our trousers so that there were no flares. And we customized madly, all our clothing came from jumble sales and then were painted with house paint, and all sorts of things like that.

GW< So, you grew up in Norfolk, and what was your family life like?

CA< Well, it was middle-class family. I attended day-school in London and we had holidays in Norfolk. So, we had a strong Norfolk connection. We were all born in Norfolk.

GW< And a big family?

CA< Five children. And you know, along with the customizing for fashion, we also made banners and screen-printed items, posters, political activism with the Socialist Workers’ Party, antifascist work, CND [Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament], and right at the end of my university studies, support for the miners’ strike.[1] I was very, very active on all of those things. I would print and sew items like tea cosies to raise money for campaigns, and do screen printing and make banners, so the making never really went away. And it was just part of the hands-on political culture. Fly-posting in the street one day and jumping on the bus to London for anti-fascist or anti-Thatcher demonstrations the next.

GW< I did the same thing. But where did the political engagement come from? Was that part of your family culture or was it your own?

CA< Well, it was partly the liberal ’60s roots, I suppose, which developed as I got older. I was at Leeds University for postgraduate study and we had great input in terms of feminist theory and we were introduced to Rozsika Parker and The Subversive Stitch.[2]

GW< Was she teaching in Leeds?

CA< Parker wasn’t, but Griselda Pollock was.[3] And so, we became very aware that the status of the decorative arts and in particular women’s arts, and in that context textile art was very important to consider. This came alongside my exposure to the social history of art as it was being developed by T. J. Clark, who taught me in my MA year at Leeds, in what was the first cohort of MA students to study this new approach to art history.[4] He has been widely recognized as the most influential intellectual of his generation in the humanities, so that was a huge privilege for me.[5] There was a kind of a confluence in terms of activist energies and my academic study as an art historian. And I think that’s probably where those things started to come together for me. I was also involved in a thing called The Pavilion,[6] which is a women’s art cooperative. I was not organizing it, but I was on the advisory board. It was a disused pavilion in the park in Leeds where they were putting on shows of women’s work.

GW< Leeds was an interesting context. I don’t know if it still is.

CA< Yes! I mean, it’s tragic really because the garment industries were more or less done by then. They were literally moving the machines into the industrial museum while I was there. And there was very little employment either in the garment industries or heavy engineering. . . by the mid-eighties it was just gone. But Leeds was a rich place in terms of those traditions and the university itself was too. My first teaching job was teaching color chemistry students on a Monday morning. They were studying the science essential to the dyeing industry. I taught them the social history of art, which is what I was studying.

GW< Did you teach them about William Morris?[7]

CA< No. I wasn’t really onto Morris at that point. Anyway, not from the point of view of research; I just taught them the kind of art history that I was learning. Because I’d done an English degree at BA level. I was new to the history of art, and I was learning it alongside all my teaching jobs.

GW< That’s how it’s done best I think!

CA< The art history component of their program wasn’t tailored to them at all. They were very resistant to the social history of art, and I’m sure I learned more than they did at the end of the day. But that’s the way with new teachers. So, then I guess just in terms of the trajectory, I qualified as an art historian, moved down to London to teach at The Courtauld and worked mainly on painting for fifteen years or more, until I developed a project on Morris. And at that point my idea was to work on Morris and Edward Burne-Jones,[8] to think about the decorative in Jones’s painting in terms of some of the parameters of the decorative arts.[9] And to think about Morris’s design work within the parameters of the kind of art history that has been built up around painting. I was using the “wrong” method deliberately in each case, and working the two side-by-side.

GW< So just to recap a little bit, your subject was painting from the Victorian period. You had this connection at Leeds to people, like Pollock, and you were aware of this field, but you weren’t seeing it as your area of study—was it just a peripheral interest?

CA< The decorative arts? Yes; the definition of my institutional remit at The Courtauld was painting, sculpture, and architecture of the western world. I mean, that’s what The Courtauld aimed to do at that time. Not true anymore. With the mushrooming of projects, the determination of myself and other colleagues to move our research into different areas, and more recently with the expansion of the faculty and the curriculum, the art historical focus has shifted quite a lot.

GW< But as a researcher in Leeds doing a PhD what was your focus?

CA< It was on painting. It was really about social themes and so it was very much a political project in terms of methods, where ideological agendas were being brought to the surface by analysis of artworks and their reception. I was looking at the seaside for instance in Frith[10] and looking at the protocols of seaside life, the scandals of naked bathing, the mingling of classes and the way this is all managed in pictorial terms through the artist’s rendition of a scene. So, what I felt I was doing primarily was refuting the idea that this was a mirror of life as it was and showing that these scenes are very carefully structured, to foreground certain elements and suppress other more bothering ones. And yet the edgy issues needed some play because otherwise the thing wouldn’t have a frisson for Victorian viewers. . . so I was involved in that kind of work.

GW< So that process of bringing ideological elements to the surface, is that something that you then applied to the decorative? Was that what you meant by using such a method in another context?

CA< Well, that was part of it. But yet that became, a decade on, I won’t say it became old fashioned, but it became a little tired. I think as an art historian, I was keen to expand the range of references in art historical analysis, so that one could hit upon whatever were the most important effects and intellectual ideas that the artist was working through. That meant that a circumscribed mapping of the visual onto political agendas and social expectations wasn’t enough. That was very much the flavor of the early eighties when I was writing my PhD. But things changed. And art history for me was excavating a lot of things, including that and going beyond it. I got very interested in questions of sexuality and the body in relation to aesthetic pleasure and also in questions of the non-human and the robotic and the mechanized and mechanical in relation to life. And then I was also interested in questions of the substance of being, organisms and physical entities and their make-up in terms of life activity, cellular substance, or inert substances in terms of vectors of force working through them. And these seemed to me themes that artists were alert to—and still are. It’s politics and awareness of materialism taken into a kind of “art and science” set of investigations. I think that really characterized my approach to art history going forward.

GW< Was there a Marxist strand that continued through this as well?

CA< Yes, I think I’ve always had an interest in trying to make Marx talk to Freud. . .

GW< . . . Marcuse, no?

CA< Well, summoning up that imaginary conversation is kind of futile I think, but that doesn’t put me off the conviction that the social and the issue of subjectivity are both equally important. And the emphasis on the substance of the body and the material world seems to me an aspect of Marxism in relation to materialism. Gaining an understanding of the histories of materialism going back to the nineteenth century, but also referencing the investigation of subjectivity, through psychoanalysis and linked topics such as phenomenology—that investigation into subjectivity also has to take account of the organism and its structure and its nature. So, yes, Marx and Freud (or the social and the subjective) are never going to be a neat fit. But there are questions that come from different directions and you can try to integrate them. And I find it fruitful to work that way.

GW< Yesterday I read your text analyzing Morris’s Strawberry Thief print.[11] And what I was amazed by when I read it was this very detailed interest in the technology of the production of the textile and the way that becomes the vector of interpretation and thinking. I mean for example, when I was doing research on the bauhaus and the discussions around textiles that they were very actively involved in, the emphasis was on how a particular textile would be used. How would this fiber reflect the light or shield the light, for example, or how would it muffle sound? So this is a very different entry point for thinking around textiles from what I read in your text, which seems very embedded in the making process.

CA< Yes, because I think very often the process itself is being used as a metaphor. I’m interested in the play of metaphor very generally. And what fascinates me is that big declarative themes can be kind of metaphorically enacted in the very processes that are at play. For example, the idea that the magical drowning of the fairy tale or the rape and bloodshed of the epic narratives are being evoked, the idea that those could actually be enacted in the way the dye goes into the printed textile, that really interests me. There is an illustration, I wanted to show it to you—this is the person Walter Crum, who writes about the structure of cotton fibers, and this is his plate showing how dye goes into cotton fibers.[12] He talks about the shape of the aperture and how much dye can go in. In unripe cotton, the aperture is too small and in riper cotton, it can fill the space. And in the diagrams he supplies, it looks like intestines or something, or bodily orifices, that have been invaded and this whole idea of invasion struck me as one of the things that is important for Morris’s politics, that social transformation isn’t just a sort of saccharine business but will involve violence, and that the violence of current conditions have to be met with violence. As I see it there is this sort of balance in the themes that Morris is approaching, between a kind of mesmerizing magical transformation and a hard-won steel and blood kind of transformation. I think that tracing that dynamic back to the material convinces me that he was actually thinking about the dyeing process in those terms.

GW< But do you think that this was an unconscious approach or rather that Morris was deliberately thinking about those processes in those terms?

CA< I think it was conscious, I actually do.

GW< Does he ever write about that?

CA< Well, no, not as such. But I was finding it in his fictional texts, his romances, you know, in the way, as I was saying that the names and the processes match so closely to the processes of dyeing. For instance, the knights in the story The Water of the Wondrous Isles (1897) are identified as colors: the Black Squire, the Green Knight, the Golden Knight. The virtuous knights all have a lady of matching color: Atra, Viridis, and Aurea.[13] The naked bodies of the heroine and the “color ladies” are white like undyed cotton, the stages of the narrative see the union of the matching color pairs, and the donning of colored apparel over nakedness.

GW< So you think that he was consciously using metaphor in his texts, that he was in fact using textile metaphors?

CA< Yes. That and you know, famously, it’s said of him that he had a textile imagination and I think he did. But I don’t only think that he’s using metaphor in his texts; I think in his printed designs he is also using metaphor.

GW< That’s very subversive in a way. In the sense that there is a tradition of people inserting subversive meaning into cloth, famously Alexander McQueen would embroider or write obscene things into the seams of suits.

CA< Or in Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities (1859), you have Madame Defarge in the French Revolution, working the deaths of the aristocrats into her knitting.

GW< And in your text on Strawberry Thief there’s this thing about the way that the violence is very localized and there’s something about scale. So that the beaks of the birds become the points of aggression against a ground that represents the continuation of life.

CA< Yes, there’s abundance. And the significance of the smallest dot in the pattern is part of what interests me, because every dot has to be achieved by an act of bleaching, otherwise there is just a continuum of color. And so that was my initial question, is something taken away in the act of bleaching? Or is something added in as the pattern is made up? It’s the balance of loss and gain that I was trying to establish, and seeing that as Morris’s own political question really, asking “what is the cost of moving to a new society?”

GW< Could you say a bit more about that? I mean, how did he rehearse that question?

CA< Well, he was telling stories about the transformation. So, in News from Nowhere (1890), we get a story about the revolution effectively as a moment of armed struggle prior to the development of a new way of living. That story is partly about kind of imagining what a new way of living would be like, but also acknowledging very explicitly that this just doesn’t happen by thinking it. He writes for the Commonweal and he comments on current politics and political theory.[14] So, you can see that he’s aware of the violence that’s being done to people’s lives in the current situation and also of the necessity for violence to achieve change. It’s not saying: “and this is what I do in my design work.” But I do think what he’s investigating is balance in the cost of change and the dark side, as well as the bright side of, not just social transformation but also nature and its bounty and violence. I think he’s also interested in all the mighty deeds of history, in the Icelandic sagas and so forth.

GW< My sense is that he came to socialism quite late. Is that right?

CA< Well, I kind of argue against that through the textiles. So E.P. Thompson’s line is that you can divide his career into his political engagements and his messing around with patterns.[15] Whereas my whole view is that there is a political dimension to the design work and the textile production and the wallpaper production. So, I see it starting a lot earlier, in the 1870s.

GW< And when is he typically identified as becoming a socialist?

CA< In the 1880s.

GW< Strawberry Thief is in the early eighties, right?

CA< The experiments continue on the printing of the Strawberry Thief at Merton Abbey works in 1883. And in April 1885 Morris is reading Émile De Laveleye’s book Le Socialisme Contemporain and Morris has already published “Art and Socialism,” the lecture at the Mile End branch on socialism in 1885. I can’t give you the exact details of when precisely he first gets started, but it’s roughly in that early to mid-eighties.

GW< And you said that you argue slightly against that. What is your argument? Do you look back to earlier textiles from the ’70s?

CA< Yes, so my book about Morris and Burne-Jones is about the printed textiles and it’s mainly in the seventies. I’m arguing that in Morris’s design, right from the beginning, really, in the earliest wallpaper and textile designs, had these themes of linkage and social cohesion and the importance of strength and the balance between waste and growth.

GW< It’s interesting the idea of interconnection in textiles. That’s one of the themes—I think intended differently from the way you’re talking about it—of “Folded Life,” the idea that textiles are always implicating in many other things. So, you have a cloth and then you have a history of that cloth, of where the dye comes from, who made it, what were the conditions of its production, what’s the cultural transfer taking place. Is that also part of your research into Morris, in terms of things like indigo?

CA< Yes, not a huge part of my investigation, but in terms of the idea of linkage that is very important. I started with the wallpapers and the early printed textiles and I worked on tapestry and I also worked on hand-knotted rugs, thus thinking about the metaphor of the knot and what that means.[16] Morris taught himself all these craft skills—he would pick up a new one and investigate it and then establish it as a department in his firm Morris & Co.’s production. I became very interested in the knot itself as the locus of a certain kind of metaphor.[17] One of them is absolutely social linkage, but another is cultural linkage in terms of the layering of historical cultures in visual terms or in terms of art and its heritage as it feeds through, from one to another, and geographical linkage. For instance, the Persian, and the Chinese, and the Greek, and the Roman, and whether one culture kind of cancels another, or whether there is an accretion. Morris is very much arguing, I say, for an accretion, and for kind of continuing power of one culture feeding through another, rather than being appropriated or anything of that sort. I think he’s very conscious of the knot as performing that kind of function. I also think he is very conscious of the damage to craft cultures across the world under the terrible impact of colonial incursions. I argue he was somewhat attuned to the politics of the movements of materials such as cotton and indigo, but I think he’s telling so many stories at once. That’s not the top story for him, but I do find, in a print like Brother Rabbit (1881) for example, unmissable commentaries about race and color and slavery and cotton there.

GW< You mentioned that Morris was reading those Br’er Rabbit stories out loud.[18] And when people read those stories at that time, were they thinking in terms of abolition, I mean abolition had happened at that point, or the history of slavery?

CA< But it’s not just a past point in the history of slavery because abolition is a process rather than a single declaration. Also the circumstances of the Civil War in the US and those who were backing the South and justifying slavery versus those who were arguing against it. So, it’s very hot thing right through the 1860s. And then you had Harriet Beecher Stowe’s tours[19] and her Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) being read everywhere. It’s very, very visible in British culture, right through the nineteenth century.

GW< Going back to The Subversive Stitch, I was just thinking also about Morris doing embroidery himself. And I’m wondering whether—I mean, I’m sure it must’ve been at that time also—that embroidery and textiles have this very strongly gendered character, or maybe it didn’t?

CA< Yes, yes, it did. And well, he does some embroidery, but you know, mainly it’s Bessie Burton and Jane Morris and the women of the household.

GW< So, it is gendered. . .

CA< Yes! And you know, you just want to read Anthea Callen on Arts and Crafts[20] to get a kind of coruscating account of the failures of that movement to undo a gender divide. But I think the very fact of investing decorative objects with social meaning in the way that Morris did and making them speak of history, life, and politics was very subversive in terms of expectations about gender division because the gendering of the decorative as feminine was associated with the non-intellectual. And so, in a way when I said that I was trying to use art historical methods to look at design work and design history methods to look at painting, that that’s not really my invention. That’s the subversion that was going on, in my view, already in the 1880s–90s in Arts and Crafts—exhibiting Burne-Jones sketches together with design objects in the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, those kinds of challenges.

GW< And were they understood as challenges of that time?

CA< Well, to an extent. I mean, if you look at someone like Whistler and his experiments with the creation of installations for the exhibition of his own work.[21] Decorating the walls, making his own frames, extending the motif beyond the work, making costumes for the attendants, and all the things that he did, that was sneered at, partly in terms of it being transgressive, in terms of gender roles. I do think that there was a high sensitivity to those trespasses, those moments of trespassing.

GW< Yeah, I guess, in the aesthetic movement, there was also a kind of an element of it that was understood in today’s terms as a queering, for example in a figure like Oscar Wilde, where the decorative and the sexually subversive come together in his practice.

CA< Yes, and that’s why people got shirty about it. . .

GW< Those hierarchies are very hard to break, which is one of the reasons why I am working on this topic. I’ve done a series of projects around textiles in the art world over the years. I have a background in textiles, but I’ve been working in the contemporary art world for the past twenty years or so. Now it’s become something quite accepted, but there was a lot of surprise when I first started bringing textiles into contemporary art exhibitions, as if it was an odd thing to do, or somehow inappropriate. Textiles have always had this character of being a problematic material. It’s amazing to think that this has a centuries long history.

CA< Well, you know it’s probably why dyeing is so interesting because of the gendering of line and color as a male and female. And I think that’s really why it’s been important for me in working on Morris to move from just thinking about the motif—which can be to some extent assimilated to the design operation being separated off—to thinking much more seriously about process and therefore the objects themselves, because then you’re not really talking about design at all. You’re talking about making and that’s where a gender politics becomes more powerful.

GW< In what way, for example?

CA< Because you’re, well, talking about color through dye as a sort of denigrated locus of the sensual, the non-European, and the passionate. And the artist-maker who privileges color takes the risk of toppling the primacy of all the opposites. And only by looking at the object and the process and the way that the intellectual work is invested in the object and the process can you start to undo the binaries and allow those risks to emerge.

GW< And in your research, is it exclusively historical, or do you look at the processes that a contemporary textile maker might engage in, such as the of dyeing cloth?

CA< Well, it’s always very helpful if you can get into a workshop and see someone doing something, or look at it on YouTube if not, just to see how it’s done. I guess there’s a limit to my contacts, but I do absolutely see the value, so I was thrilled to go to Belgium. They have a big tapestry repair workshop in Mechelen, at the De Wit Royal Tapestry Works, one of the biggest in Europe I think, and it really impressive.[22] They have demonstrations for people who are interested. Visiting as a tourist was one of the times where I actually saw hands-on high-warp weaving being done by a skilled practitioner; I was also intrigued to see the colors in their workshop. There’s a warehouse-sized space with an entire wall of the different wools in hundreds of colors for repairing historic tapestries. They also have very advanced steam-cleaning machines and different ways of treating the work to restore it. Fantastic. I mean, I absolutely love to see anything that gives me a hint about the processes and the materials. And speaking to somebody that does it is a very good research method.

GW< When I read your description of the mordant and discharge process in Brother Rabbit I wondered if you had had done either of these processes, there seemed to be knowledge in the description of the method.

CA< No, I haven’t. I had to work it out from technical manuals available to Morris, and it came as a big surprise to me that the different colorways weren’t the made using the same block.

GW< Yes, it’s the opposite.

CA< Yeah. And that they had to recut these blocks and nobody in the standard works on Morris & Co. textiles had emphasized  that at all. And it gave me a whole different idea then about the relationship between those two colors and what might follow if one is somehow the inverse of the other. And so that’s what got me onto the play between the magic and the bloody epic which I discuss in my May 2021 article on indigo-discharge printing.[23]

GW< The magic, is that the indigo?

CA< The indigo, yes.

GW< But why is it magic?

CA< Partly because of the way that Morris talks about it and his marveling at the extraordinary increase in depth of color that can be achieved. But I suppose partly also, as described in the technical handbooks, the way in which when you pull the cloth out, the oxygen changes the green to blue. The way that those transformations take place, that’s part of the magic, I think. But also, thirdly, the actual narratives of enchantment in the romances, which relate to water so much, and to liquids. Even looking at the titles of his last prose romances we realize the key role given to water: they were The Water of the Wondrous Isles (1895), The Well at the World’s End (1896), and The Sundering Flood (1896). We are given a clue in those titles as to the symbolic importance of water and the adventures of the characters seeking the water source, or negotiating the waters, and questing in the context of mysterious forces. Morris sets up fictional scenarios with twin contexts of magical realms and prosaic realms. His questing characters have to make their decisions, their ethical choices, with awareness of both of those realms, which seem to coexist. The stories oscillate between the magical romance context and an earthier realm of human struggle proper to epic and chronicles. My contention is that the relationship of indigo to the other mordanted colors in the printed textiles is referenced by Morris in his stories’ evocation of magical watery realms giving on to flesh-and-blood realms. The stories give us an inkling of the political resonances of the dyeing and printing processes undertaken in these Morris & Co. textiles.

GW< I mean, I think that the Brother Rabbit fabric is my favorite.

CA< Is it?

GW< I love it, I love the title. Could you say a bit more about it?

CA< Oh gosh, I can talk about Brother Rabbit forever. It’s really good with any Morris design to try and work out the logic of the growth and how one thing grows out of another and sometimes it’s impossible and sometimes it’s credible. And also, to think within the design what is the epicenter, what’s the anchor point in the design out of which the growth comes? And it’s quite wonderful the way in which the acorn functions in that design. Let me see if I can get it on the screen for us to look at.

If you look at a big piece of the printed fabric, it starts to be just two horizontal bands, but when you look at a portion of the printed motif as a tree, this is where the role of the acorn becomes so important. It’s at the root of the tree and it’s in the tree canopy. So it’s both the animal food source and the plant germ. It’s the germ for the animal growth and for the vegetable growth. But it’s also the fruit! It is both the beginning and end: a source and the outcome. And I guess in terms of what it’s powering, it’s like a kind of battery, and it’s powering this incredibly powerful wraparound growth around the rabbit and then those shapes within the figured rabbit, you can see how the ear is rendered in the same way as the vein on the leaf. This is telling us about the shared strength. But in the leaf, this is shown as unfolding and in the rabbit it is still in extreme compression, because the rabbit is crouching, with its hind legs right up to its body. There’s this sense that the leaf unfolds and that subsequently, or consequently, the rabbit can unfold. That acorn is like the battery for something, not just happening in the design, but something which can happen beyond the design. And another thing happens in the upper register, which has less to do with this concentration of energy, the fabric’s display of potential energy, if you will, and much more to do with dispersal and idea of broadcast.

GW< The birds?

CA< Yes, and the way that the breaks in the toothed edges of the oak leaves and the breaks in these dianthus flowers (pinks) and the spots on the birds all start to produce spottiness. That relates to what we discussed before, about the point of maximum power in the design being the single spot. And that is because the single spot is the thing that can invade the entirety. And this is where, in political terms, you go from possibility, from “might be,” to benefit, or something of that sort, when you can invade the whole space in an even way. I’m alluding to some of the language of energy, potential energy. In physics, there is an account of the warming up that happens, when the distance between particles expands and produces a faster moving, livelier warmer zone; you can see such a zone in the upper register of the trees, as opposed to the kind of energy storage shown at the bottom.

GW< Incubating.

CA< Yes. So it seems to me that he’s producing a design that doesn’t just look pretty, but that is incredibly logically worked through in the relationship of the parts.

GW< But do you think it’s also kind of strategic in terms of the idea of political potential and what effective action is? Because there’s always this tension between a feeling of the impossibility of revolution and change, and the hope that certain actions might provoke change or could be ultimately powerful as a way to maintain optimism.

CA< Yes, I think it is. So, first of all, I think brotherhood is a really important part of this and that without collectivity, you can’t have any of this engine or this energy. But secondly, if it’s a process of multiplication where you go from 1 unit to 3000 units, it’s extremely hopeful as a message. That’s the same with Strawberry Thief. I see the finished design as much more unified as a field and at the same time hugely various to the point of the most colors you can get using the indigo discharge method. I do think it’s a kind of utopian vision and it’s one where finally every pip on every strawberry has its place in an ongoing, unstoppable process.

GW< Amazing. In your text on Strawberry Thief, you mention communist theory—is that what you mean when you say this was Morris working through a communist theoretical frame?

CA< Yes. Well, he’s reading Marx and Engels and so he’s got all the communist theory in his head. And that is governing his thinking as he looks to try to describe what is the most beautiful and what is the most alive and what is the most sustainable. I really think that that’s what he’s wanting in his art. And so it is theorized because he doesn’t just think, “oh, we’ll have beauty, and that’s over there and we will have sustainability and it’s over there.” He knows that it’s all got to go together in a package.

GW< I was thinking that about the ecological aspect of it. I mean, it’s also quite interesting in terms of contemporary politics. Is it too banal to read this from Morris? To think about it in terms of ecology?

CA< I don’t think so. I mean, he’s very interested in species diversity, for instance. In his writing he complains about the cutting down of ancient trees in the forest at Walthamstow and threatening the hornbeam, and he had a sophisticated understanding of habitats. You know what I was saying about sometimes the growth is credible and sometimes it’s implausible, sometimes the mix of specimens of plants in his designs are credible and sometimes they’re fantastical, but I think he has this idea of a) a system and b) that the system depends on the variety and the coexistence.

GW< And I kind of balance, I suppose, with the pattern.

CA< Yes. And it’s very often with the tiniest as well as the largest and I think his vision was like that. I mean, one of the passages in Morris that I love, from the first volume of his Collected Letters, is when he’s talking about going to Lincoln Cathedral, which is one of his very favorite buildings and the way his attention shifts between the big lines of the architecture and the tiniest detail of the carving. And I think it’s the way his mind and his visual sense worked. He wasn’t geared to one or the other, but he was always able to make both of those come into play.

GW< One question, which is a bit of a change of tack and that’s to do with political practice, and the discussion, which I know from artists really—and I’m sure it’s the same for art historians—which is to do with is it enough to have a political artistic practice? I was wondering how you feel about your research having political implications, in the same way that we talked about the potential of the spot, or do you feel that it has to be augmented with activism, participation in movements, or more mainstream politics?

CA< Well, I think for any individual it varies. I’ve found that it’s varied at different stages in my life. There’ve been times when a kind of street politics and interventionists politics on the ground have sort of shared equally with the book learning and writing and so on. And there’ve been other times when one gets burnt out or defeated, frankly. 1984 was a really big moment for me of pulling back from activist politics with the defeat of the miners’ strike. And then things change in your life as well. And you have different responsibilities; you always have multiple responsibilities, but the sense of priorities shift, for one reason or another. And I think there’s a bigger question, which is: is your contribution ever going to be enough? Not to put a bad spin on this, but I think that the individual has to continually readdress their priorities. And what I do know is that it kind of drives my research along to know that it does have a political dimension, even if no one else notices it. So, it’s not really a question of how effective is it, in terms of changing the world; for me it’s the question of, is there satisfaction in it? Because you know, I feel that I am making discoveries about the politics of the past and that these discoveries are important for the politics of now. So, to me that’s kind of the minimal deal. It’s probably not enough, but then if I were running crazy handing out leaflets that probably wouldn’t be enough either.


[1] The British miners’ strike of 1984–5 was a nationwide industrial dispute over pit closures. The dispute seemed to have been provoked deliberately by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government to take on and defeat one strong union and thereby cripple the trade unions overall. Activists in Leeds supported the miners in surrounding pit villages throughout the long dispute on their picket lines, and by raising money, collecting food, and rallying support, for instance holding regular university meetings and collections, street collections, and house-to-house canvassing.
[2] Rozsika Parker, The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine (London: The Women’s Press, 1984).
[3] Griselda Pollock, who joined the faculty at Leeds University in 1977 and went on to found the Centre for Cultural Analysis, Theory and History at the University of Leeds has been at the forefront of feminist art history since the 1970s. Her work has focused on class, gender, sexuality, postcolonial critique, and representation. Arscott was her first PhD student.
[4] T. J. Clark was Head of Department of Fine Art at Leeds University from 1976. His redefinition of the procedures and concerns of art history away from hermetic formalism to analysis that acknowledges class struggle and offers an engagement with social history has transformed the subject internationally. Arscott studied for the MA in the Social History of Art at Leeds University in 1978–9.
[5] For instance, in the awarding of the Mellon Foundation Distinguished Achievement Award 2005 to Clark.
[6] The Pavilion Women’s Photography Centre was opened in 1983 by University of Leeds graduates. During the next decade it presented a number of exhibitions of emerging artists working at the intersection of feminism and photography (
[7] William Morris (1834–1896) was a polymath thinker whose creative output spanned textile design, and production, stained glass, book design and production, social theory, art theory, poetry, and novels. He was a key figure for the British Arts and Crafts movement as well as being a prominent socialist activist. His interiors company, founded in 1861 and renamed Morris & Company in 1875, prized handcraft and traditional materials and processes in the firm’s printed and woven fabrics, stained glass, wallpapers, and embroideries. In 1881, Morris purchased Merton Abbey Mills in London as a facility for decorative arts production under his supervision. It is there that some of his most famous printed textiles including Brother Rabbit (1882) and Strawberry Thief (1883) were produced.
[8] See Caroline Arscott, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones: Interlacings (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).
[9] For Burne-Jones, see also Caroline Arscott, “Venus as Dominatrix: Nineteenth-century Artists and Their Creations’”(on John Gibson and Edward Burne-Jones), in Manifestations of Venus: Essays on Art and Sexuality, eds. Caroline Arscott and Katie Scott (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), 109–125; Arscott, “The Sculptural Logic of Burne-Jones’s Stained Glass,” in Sculpture and the Pursuit of a Modern Ideal in Britain, c. 1880–1930, ed. David Getsy (Aldershot: Ashgate/Scolar, 2004), 39­–62); Arscott, “Mutability and Deformity: Models of the Body and the Art of Edward Burne-Jones,” Nineteen: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, 7 (October 2008), Special Issue Minds, Bodies, Machines (unpaginated); and “Edward Burne-Jones (1833–98),” in The Cambridge Companion to the Pre-Raphaelites, ed. Elizabeth Prettejohn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 223­–235.
[10] William Powell Frith (1819–1902) was an English painter of the Victorian era, known for his multifigure narrative tableaux. See Caroline Arscott, “Ramsgate Sands, Modern Life and the Shoring-Up of Narrative,” in Towards A Modern Art World, ed. Brian T. Allen (New Haven and London: Paul Mellon Centre and Yale Center for British Art, Yale University Press, 1995), 157–168; Arscott, “Convict Labour: Masking and Interchangeability in Victorian Prison Scenes,” Oxford Art Journal, 23, no. 2 (2000): 119–42 (on Frith’s The Race For Wealth); Arscott, “William Powell Frith’s The Railway Station: Classification and the Crowd,” in William Powell Frith, exh. cat. (London, Guildhall Art Gallery, 2006), 79–93; and “Ramsgate Sands,” in William Powell Frith: The People’s Painter, exh. cat. (Harrogate: Mercer Art Gallery, 2019), 41–55.
[11] A pattern for indigo-discharge and block-printed cotton, Morris’s Strawberry Thief was registered by Morris & Co. in 1883. For an analysis of the political implications of this textile see Caroline Arscott, “William Morris: The Poetics of Indigo Discharge Printing,”, 35 (May 9, 2021),
[12] Walter Crum (1796–1867) was a Scottish chemist specializing in the chemistry of calico printing. See Crum, “On the Manner in Which Cotton Unites With Colouring Matter,” Journal of the Chemical Society 16 (1863): 6.
[13] From the late 1880s, Morris wrote and published a number of works of fiction in prose or mingled verse and prose. A Dream of John Ball (1888), transports his narrator back to the time of the fourteenth-century Peasant’s Revolt, whereas News From Nowhere (1890) takes the narrator forward to an ideal future. Other stories have a medieval saga-like setting such as The House of the Wolfings (1889) and The Roots of the Mountains (1889). The late romances of the 1890s, some published after Morris’s death in 1896, increase the quotient of magic in the tales. These include The Story of the Glittering Plain (1891), The Wood Beyond the World (1894), The Well at the World’s End (1896), The Water of the Wondrous Isles (1897), and The Sundering Flood (1897). See Phillippa Bennett, Wonderlands: The Last Romances of William Morris (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2015).
[14] The Commonweal was the newspaper of the Socialist League, which William Morris founded. He was also editor of the newspaper from 1885–90 and many of his own writings appeared in its pages, including a serialized version of his “utopian socialist science fiction” novel News from Nowhere (1890).
[15] See E.P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (1955) (London: PM Press, 2011).
[16] In addition to references elsewhere in these footnotes on printed textiles, see Caroline Arscott, “William Morris: Decoration and Materialism,” in Marxism and the History of Art: From William Morris to the New Left, ed. Andrew Hemingway (London/Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto Press, 2006), 9–27; Arscott, “Four Walls: Morris and Ornament,” in William Morris, with essays by Caroline Arscott and Steve Edwards, exh. cat., ed. David Mabb (Manchester: Whitworth Art Gallery, 2004), 58–69; Arscott, “William Morris, Ornament and the Coordinates of the Body,” in ReNew Marxist Art History, eds. Warren Carter, Barnaby Haran, and Frederic J. Schwartz (London: Art/Books, 2014), 246–56. On tapestry weaving, see Arscott, “William Morris’s Tapestry: Metamorphosis and Prophecy in ‘The Woodpecker’,” in Art History Special Issue: The Clever Object, eds. Matthew C. Hunter and Francesco Lucchini, 36, no. 3 (June 2013): 608–625.
[17] For extensive discussion of the knot as metaphor, see Arscott, “Morris Carpets,” RIHA Journal 0089, Special Issue When Art History Meets Design History (March 27, 2014),
[18] The Brer Rabbit stories were written by the white American author Joel Chandler Harris, with the first volume of stories Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings, appearing in 1880. The stories were reworkings and elaborations of folk tales of African and Native American origin with animal characters and dialogue in an approximation of the dialect of black plantation workers in America’s South.
[19] Harriet Beecher Stowe undertook a tour throughout Britain in 1853, sitting on anti-slavery panels in public meetings following the publication of her book Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), which sold a million and a half copies in Britain in the first year of publication alone. See Joan D. Hedrick’s 1911 biography Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life (Cambridge: Oxford University Press USA, 1995).
[20] See Anthea Callen, Women Artists of the Arts & Crafts Movement, 1870–1914 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1979).
[21] James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) was an American artist based in London for much of his career. On his exhibition strategies, see Kenneth John Myers, Mr. Whistler’s Gallery: Pictures at an 1884 exhibition, (Washington: Freer, 2003).
[22] The De Wit Royal Manufacturers of Tapestry, Mechelen, Belgium (
[23] See footnote 11. The blue indigo-dyed cloth is printed with bleach on blocks cut to pick out the white areas; these bleached areas of the cloth are rinsed clean to achieve the blue and white pattern. The cloth for red madder is printed with mordant on blocks cut to pick out the (red) colored area of the design. The mordant makes the red madder hold fast to the fiber; the red color is rinsed out of the areas left unmordanted to achieve the red and white pattern. This is why the same design has to be cut in opposite ways on the blocks for blue and for red colorways.