Sunday, 11 June 2017

Gestures in Life

In an earlier entry in this blog I gave some thought to the issue of gestures in utopia (15 April 2010); but of course William Morris himself had many memorable gestures of his own, and his physical presence is vividly recorded in memoirs by contemporaries: Morris plucking single hairs out of his bread in exasperation, or rhythmically rocking backwards and forwards as he spoke in the Kelmscott Coach House, and so on.

 But Val Prinsep in 1857 recorded a Morrisian gesture that I don’t remember being mentioned in the standard biographies.  As the young Morris read out his poems in a sing-song chant to friends in Oxford, ‘all the time, he was jiggling about nervously with his watch chain ... the poet at the table reading and ever fidgetting with his watch chain’.  And Edward Burne-Jones confirms this recurrent behaviour; for No. 3 in the sequence of his satirical Topsy Cartoons ‘represents Topsy in his usual action with his watch chain’ (Memorials, pp.162, 165).

It is a curious image we get here, then, as the man whose utopia so beautifully asserts the benefits of doing things slowly, comes across as a figure almost akin to Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit who compulsively consults his watch and mutters ‘I’m late, I’m late!’

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