On Gentlemen and William Morris

Some of William Morris’s bon mots have not worn well. In the local gift shop they have chalked up the phrase ‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’. But the kind of mid-Victorian industrially-produced highly ornamented objects Morris was aiming at here was believed by its possessors to be beautiful. They simply did not subscribe to the aesthetic that privileged  the beauty of old hand-made tools like rakes. Another is ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’ The intended message of this rhyme—that we were originally democratically equal, and that class distinctions are not God-given—is likely to be lost today, and it is likely to be read as a morally dubious statement in support of the timelessness of traditional gender roles. In any case Morris surely got it wrong in supposing that Adam was into agriculture and Eve into domestic crafts: was he thinking of the post-lapsarian couple? Surely the point of mentioning Adam and Eve is to conjure up an image of them in a state of nature in Paradise picking low-hanging fruit? Besides, the rhyme between ‘span’ and ‘gentleman’ is awful.

And the idea of a gentleman may not be so bad. Morris saw it as a cipher for rank, but in the latest Country Life they make much of it as being concerned primarily with behaviour. Their frontispiece is neither a newly-engaged girl or, as is more common these days, an advertisement for a twenty-something Sloan Ranger’s new business in the fashion or design industries, but a monochrome portrait of Colin Firth with a manly stubble trying not to look wholesome, and failing (Fig. 1). He is Country Life’s Gentleman of the Year for 2017. The editorial makes pointed allusion to the un-gentlemanly nature of many world leaders today (yes, him), not to mention powerful men in the entertainment industry (yes, him) and suggests that the world might be a better place if more men were like Firth, who apparently is more gentlemanly in everyday life than even in his movies. They have a point. The idea of a gentleman is generally traced to Castiglione’s The Courtier (Il Cortegiano), which was an attempt to civilise the behaviour of thuggish Renaissance rulers. Perhaps a new version of The Courtier is being prepared somewhere as I write, and will soon go viral, and politicians will be falling over each other to demonstrate their gentlemanliness, as medieval rulers bent over backwards to prove their piety. Perhaps.

Addendum: Lorenzo Maitani and Orvieto Cathedral

With regard to the references above to William Morrisis’s ‘When Adam delved and Eve span …’ I had always supposed that this visualisation of the original couple as labouring domestically was something Victorian. But on visiting Orvieto the other day and admiring Lorenzo Maitani’s extraordinary reliefs on the cathedral façade dating from the early fourteenth century, I realised that the formulation goes back to the Middle Ages. Here we see Adam delving and Eve spinning after the fall.

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