Protest and survive: Reclaiming William Morris from Britain’s nuclear fleet

By David Mabb | September 20, 2016

The HMS Courageous is a 285-foot, nuclear-powered submarine that saw service in the British Royal Navy for about two decades starting in the early 1970s. Decommissioned in 1992 after, among other things, participating in the Falklands War of 1982, it now resides at the Devonport naval dockyard in Plymouth, on the southwest coast of England, where visitors can tour its inner workings free of charge—provided they book in advance and bring their passports for “security” purposes. I took the tour myself in the autumn of 2014 to see something very specific. As an artist I’ve worked with the designs of William Morris for more than 15 years, and I’d been told that a fabric of his, known as Rose, appeared onboard the ship. It seemed like an odd contrast, the work of a 19th-century socialist on a nuclear-powered submarine, and it led me to create A Provisional Memorial to Nuclear Disarmament, part of a new exhibition about experiences of the nuclear age.

Although I expected to see Morris’s fabrics on my tour of the Courageous, it still came as something of a shock. After climbing down a steep ladder from the outside of the submarine, we went straight into the officers’ wardroom, where Rose covers every upholstered surface—seats, chairs, even beer barrels. I told the guide that I had come to see the Morris fabrics and, unperturbed, he showed me other places where they appeared—curtains in the officers’ bunk spaces, covers on some of their mattresses. They were even used to cover one of the seats used to “drive” the ship. In this part of the sub, the fabric was everywhere.

For three decades starting in the 1960s, Britain’s Ministry of Defence commissioned Sanderson, the firm that owns the Morris & Co. brand, to supply Rose for its nuclear submarines. The fabrics have even been used in Vanguard-class subs, which carry nuclear-armed Trident missiles. The bearers of both nuclear weapons and nuclear power, these vessels embody all the fears of atomic apocalypse, catastrophic accidents, and radioactive contamination associated with the nuclear age. They are not where one expects to find fabrics created by a famous socialist.

The garden in the machine. Anyone even remotely familiar with Morris’s life and work will understand why it’s a little shocking that the Royal Navy has used his prints in nuclear submarines. A well-known leftist, Morris became highly critical of Britain’s imperialist ambitions during the 1880s and actively campaigned as a communist, speaking at demonstrations and rallies across the country. He participated in the founding of Britain’s first socialist organizations, wrote many socialist pamphlets, and authored the utopian novel News from Nowhere, which was first serialized in Commonweal, a revolutionary communist newspaper of which Morris was a financial backer, editor, and contributor. In his pamphlet Art and Socialism, he equated capitalism with war and gambling, calling it a system of “waste and destruction” in which “whatever a man gains he gains at the expense of some other man’s loss” and adding that it “is of its very nature destructive of Art, that is to say of the happiness of life.”

Morris thought that interior design had a fundamental role to play in the transformation of everyday life. This essentially political motivation, a commitment to the radical potential of design, is behind much of his work as a designer and craftsman, and was also behind the founding, in the early 1860s, of the firm which became Morris & Co. Morris’s designs for fabric and wallpaper are highly schematized representations of nature. They are something of a utopian vision as well—the plants are always in leaf, often flowering, with their fruits available in abundance, ripe for picking. There’s no human labor in sight.

This make for quite a contrast with the innards of a submarine, a highly compact metal environment designed for a strictly regimented and hierarchical existence. In this context, Morris’s designs are the only place where nature, however stylized, is represented on any significant scale. Used to soften the experience of living inside a machine, the fabric offers a respite, introducing domesticity, normality, and more than a hint of Britishness—right down to the fact that it only appears in areas used by officers and other senior personnel. Only they get to experience this cozy touch of home.

Interestingly, this last issue was a problem Morris was very aware of himself. His insistence on quality and beauty meant that the cost of Morris & Co. products were way beyond the means of 19th-century workers. Morris was acutely aware of this, hence his well-known tirade (after dealing with a difficult customer) about “ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich.” As one of the most sophisticated theorists of the aesthetic impoverishment of the working class, he recognized that there was no solution to this dilemma within capitalism. The only remedy was to dismantle the existing system and develop a communist society to replace it.

The yellow and the black. In response to all of this, A Provisional Memorial to Nuclear Disarmament places Morris’s fabric in another nuclear context, one prompted by the work of the British Marxist historian E. P. Thompson, who published the political biography William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary in 1955 then updated and republished it in the 1970s, when Thompson was a leading intellectual in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

The installation features 15 old projection screens—not unlike the ones found in officers’ wardrooms on nuclear submarines. The fronts are plain William Morris fabrics, but most have been painted black or occasionally yellow, colors often appropriated by protestors from radiation warning signs. The painted black surfaces dominate, reminiscent of an anarchist protest or Modernist black paintings. It is only on the backs of the screens that the Morris prints come to life and mingle with signs, slogans, and symbols of the anti-nuclear movement.

At first it seems clear what the viewer is looking at from this side: The protest images look didactic, like a group of projected lectures or placards. But Morris’s designs surface through the painted anti-nuclear images, producing an unstable picture space where the pattern and the painted image neither merge nor separate. On the screen, where images would normally be ephemeral, requiring projected light, they are now painted, fixed, stuck in time. The slogans and symbols carry with them a history of struggle, but might now appear to be clichés. Perhaps the Morris fabrics, too, in their contemporary mass-produced form, can seem overly familiar and drained of meaning. But “interlaced” with the Morris fabrics, the painted slogans and signs can be read afresh. And the dialogue works both ways—the slogans and symbols cry out, revivifying the political content of the Morris fabrics.

The work is called A Provisional Memorial to Nuclear Disarmament.” “Provisional” because Britain’s Conservative government has—despite considerable opposition—decided to go ahead with the commissioning of a new generation of Trident nuclear submarines armed with nuclear missiles. And just last week, it confirmed that it is going to proceed with Hinkley Point, the first nuclear power station to be built in Britain for two decades.

As a group, the screens of this “provisional memorial” look like a protest march, with placards jostling or clustering in solidarity—a reminder of art’s ability to recast a reality as part of a political struggle for a nuclear free world. Yet this memorial is only provisional, and I anticipate having to add to it in the future.

Editor's note: The artwork A Provisional Memorial to Nuclear Disarmament will be on display at Bildmuseet, in Umea, Sweden, starting in October. It is part of the exhibition Perpetual Uncertainty: Contemporary Art in the Nuclear Anthropocene, which brings together artists from across the world to investigate experiences of nuclear power, nuclear weapons, radioactive waste, and the relationship between knowledge and the deep time of radiation. The exhibition explores how nuclear technology has influenced the interpretation of concepts such as archives, memory, knowledge, and time in art. The artwork is commissioned by Arts Catalyst and is also featured in The Nuclear Culture Source Book, edited by Ele Carpenter, published by Black Dog Publishing in partnership with Bildmuseet and Arts Catalyst, and launched in association with Perpetual Uncertainty.

Author’s note: This article is based on a paper to be published in the Journal of William Morris Studies in 2017.

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