11th July 2017
On this day in 1873, William Morris’ second trip to Iceland began.
In past blogs, we’ve discussed William Morris’ Icelandic adventures and how he fell in love with Iceland, even returning for a second trip. It was on his second trip that he met John Henry Middleton, who already knew his companion Faulkner, the only traveling companion Morris had on this trip. The meeting between Morris and Middleton sparked the beginning of a life long friendship.
During Morris’ pioneering experiments in developing the Indigo-Dye technique, Middleton proved invaluable due to his expertise of Eastern art, meaning he could give Morris help and advice.
In 1879, Middleton was elected fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and contributed to their publications, becoming vice-president of the society in 1894. He was so well travelled and educated he even contributed to the 9th edition of Encyclopaedia Britannia! He was Slade professor at Cambridge between 1886 to 1892- his topic? Fine Art of course! Given an honorary MA from Cambridge in 1886 and then one from Oxford the following year. This was followed by a Litt.D at Cambridge in 1893 and then the following year, a DCL from Oxford. Honored by a Doctor’s degree from the University of Bologna and then in 1888 he was elected a fellow of King’s College, Cambridge. A huge list of accalades for a man who never stopped in his love for travel and his lust for knowledge.
Following these achievements, in 1889, he was then named Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Given this platform, he was able to show and share his knowledge, producing multiple catalogues. Additionally, he was also a lecturer at the Royal Academy. Stunningly, he didn’t stop there! Similar to Morris, his life story seems unbelievable to think he did and achieved so much! In 1892, he became Director of the art collections at South Kensington Museum (today the Victoria and Albert Museum.) The work here in reforming the department is said to have led to the accumulation of lifelong depression and drug use which increased until his death in 1896 when he accidentally overdosed on morphia at the untimely age of 49.
Reading letters Morris wrote at the time, on the return of his trip is a wonderful thing to do – whilst we know lots about his life, it’s different to read his own account in his own personal letters, we can get such a better insight into who he was! From “The Collected Letters of William Morris, Volume I: 1848-1880” by William Morris, we love the letter written to Aglaia Ionides Coronio dated September 4th, 1873 upon his return from his second Icelandic journey. (Found on page 197)
“The journey was very successful, & has deepened (my) the impression I had of Iceland, & increased my love for it, though I don’t suppose I shall ever see it again: nevertheless I was very full of longing to be back, and to say the truth was more unhappy on the voyage out and before I got into the safe than I like to confess in my letters from Reykjavik, but the glorious simplicity of the terrible & tragic, but beautiful land with its well remembered stories of brave men, killed all querulous feeling in me, and have made all the dear faces of wife & children, and love, & friends dearer than ever to me: I hope I shall not miss your face from among them for long. (I hope) please write and tell me when I shall see you.
You wrote a very kind letter to me at Reykjavik: you won’t want to be thanked for it I know, but you will like to hear that it answered (the) its kind purpose & made me happier – What a terrible thing it is to bear that moment before one gets letters after those weeks of absence & longing!
Do you know I feel as if if a definite space of my life had passed away now I have seen Iceland for the last time: as I looked up at Charles’ Wain tonight all my travel there seemed to come back on me, made solemn and elevated, in one moment, till my heart
swelled with the wonder of it: surely I have gained a great deal and it was no idle whim that drew me there, but a true instinct for what I needed. So goodbye for the present, & let us see a great deal of each other these coming days, and believe me ever to be.
Whilst we can go over his itinerary on the trip, there’s nothing quite like knowing how he felt on the trip right from the source. To read how beautifully he wrote to his closest friends and family is truly a treat – we’d really recommend going to read the book if you want more of these letters and to learn more about the man behind the designs!