Bladdersticks and fools: William Nicholson (1872-1949) and the morris.

Author:Jones, Peter
Position:Critical essay

Recently there has been a reappraisal of the work of the artist William Nicholson (1872-1949). (1) Although best known for his landscapes, society portraits and still-lifes, here I shall focus on the paintings produced by Nicholson during 1901-03 on the theme of morris dancing. These distinctive works have been little discussed by critics, perhaps because do not sit easily with the established view of the artist's oeuvre and typically Nicholson appears not to have commented on them. Yet they are among the first pictures by Nicholson after his return to painting after a successful career with his brother-in-law the artist James Pryde as the poster and printmakers the Beggarstaff Brothers. Why did Nicholson choose to restart his career with such an anachronistic subject? It will be argued that it was no errant move and that the artist was exploiting a folk custom very much in vogue. Moreover, the works relate to an influential discourse about cultural values and the nature of Englishness. They also offer insights into late Victorian and Edwardian attitudes to modernity, the countryside and the revival of folk traditions in which the morris played a conspicuous part.

Modernity and folk traditions

A salient aspect of the reaction to the unbridled industrialisation and urbanisation of Britain during the nineteenth century was a turning to and idealisation of the past and the countryside. Historian Martin J Wiener observes: As the century wore on, however, shapers of middle--and upper-class opinion, in disenchantment with continual change, turned more and more to the past, and to the elements of the past surviving in the present as a source of alternative values.' (2) The past also acted as a refuge from the present. For example, William Morris wrote in the prologue to his epic poem from 1868-1870, The Earthly Paradise:

Forget six centuries overhung with smoke Forget the snorting steam and piston smoke Forget the spreading of the hideous town; Think rather of the pack horse on the down And dream of London, small, and white, and clean, The clear Thames bordered by gardens green. (3) By the 20th century anxieties about 'the monster modernity', (4) as Nicholson's friend the painter William Rothenstein put it, were compounded by tensions at home and abroad such as calls for universal suffrage, the Boer War and the growing strength of imperial rival Germany. Consequently, along with the past:

... the land, 'peasant proprietorship', even country life itself, were coming to represent order, stability and naturalness. In contrast to the towns, and London in particular, the countryside and country people were seen as the essence of England, uncontaminated by racial degeneration and the false values of cosmopolitan urban life. (5) One manifestation of this historicism and concern with the countryside was an interest in rural traditions. The recourse to tradition was a desire for stability and perpetuity in the face of the rapid social and economic change. Moreover, rural traditions were viewed as the locus and embodiment of alternative values. This concern with countryside customs had an important influence over the cultural life of the late Victorian and Edwardian era. Composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams felt that folk music could be the basis of a national music. The rural novel gained popularity as with the work of Thomas Hardy. The period saw the founding of institutions such as the Folk-Song Society in 1898 concerned with saving England's heritage disappearing fast in the face of modernity. The Director of the Royal College of Music Sir Hubert Parry in an inaugural address to the Folk-Song Society pronounced:

If one thinks of the outer circumference of our terrible overgrown towns, where the jerry builder holds sway; where one sees all around the tawdriness of sham jewellery and shoddy clothes, pawnshops and flaming gin-palaces ... It is for the people who live in these unhealthy regions people who, for the most part have false ideals or none at all ... that the modern popular music is made ... And this product it is which will drive out folk-music if we do not save it. (6) [FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

The collection and preservation of folk traditions was viewed by many as an imperative to be conducted with missionary zeal. Indeed, it has been suggested that the endeavour was informed by colonial anthropology. (7) The task was to save an indigenous culture from the indifferent 'natives' who had been seduced by a modernity that was also undermining the 'natural' social order. Folklore collector and antiquarian the Reverend PH Ditchfield in his popular 1901 book Old English Customs Extant at the Present Time declared of the countryman:

Railways and cheap excursions have made him despise the old games and pastimes which once pleased his unenlightened soul. The old labourer has died, and his successor is a very "up-to-date" person, who reads the newspapers and has his ideas upon politics and social questions that would have startled his less cultivated sire. (8) [FIGURE 2 OMITTED]


Yet the interest in country customs represented more than just sentimental historicism. Across the political spectrum from old-guard conservatives to socialist reformers, English folk traditions and the countryside were seen as the basis for a redeeming, hegemonic national culture and an antidote to contemporary ills such as a perceived cultural decline epitomised by a depraved urban working-class, sprawling cities and mass culture. By the end of the first decade of the 20th century, these ideas had coalesced into a full-blown folk revival informed by anti-urban sentiments and a concern for authenticity. For folk-dance revivalist Mary Neal the enthusiasm for folk traditions represented 'a great national revival, a going back from the town to the countryside, a reaction against all that is demoralising in city life. It is a re-awakening of that part of our national consciousness which makes for wholeness, saneness and healthy merriment'. (9) Moreover, a concern about apparently pure autochthonous traditions, especially their origins and authenticity, represented a kind of cultural eugenics that dovetailed into contemporary anxieties about racial degeneration. The interest in folk traditions then, represented a discursive and potent cultural and political discourse. As folk revival historian Georgina Boyes notes: 'For all its contrived rusticity, the Revival's existence as the expression of the perceived culture and social cohesiveness of the pre-industrial village had a power beyond the fashionable and the quaint.' (10)

The morris revival

Among the traditions investigated was morris dancing. By the late 19th century, the practice had declined and was extinct in many areas, owing to agricultural depressions, censure from moral reformers and rural de-population. Folk historian John Forrest notes: 'Once the traditional performers left the places that gave the dances meaning, however, as many were forced to under severe economic pressures, the game was over.' (11) Indeed, the morris revival indicated its moribund state. 'Where old ways are alive', it has been observed, 'traditions need be neither revived or invented.' (12) The few extant teams or 'sides' put on occasional performances during local festivals and public holidays, especially Whitsun. Even so regular performances were uncommon. Morris scholar Keith Chandler concludes: 'The history of morris dancing may, in fact, be one of bursts of activity interspersed with dormant periods.' (13)

What was revived or often recreated in respectable forms by variously...

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