An Afternoon with Lord Tom Sawyer

It was a delight to meet the new President of the UK William Morris Society during a recent visit to London.  Lord Sawyer of Darlington (Tom Sawyer) is the new President as of May 12,2018.   The press release announcing Lord Sawyer’s presidency outlines his impressive career and longstanding interest in William Morris:
“Lord Tom Sawyer Standing in front of the House of Lords,”

Tom Sawyer began his working life at the age of 15 on the factory floor of a County Durham engineering works. He went on to have a distinguished career in the labour movement, including serving as deputy general secretary of NUPE [National Union of Public Employees] and later UNISON [one of the UK’s largest trade unions], before becoming General Secretary of the Labour Party from 1994-98. He recently stepped down as Chancellor of Teeside University after serving a twelve-year term.
Tom first encountered William Morris’s writing at the age of 21, when he read Morris’ classic Utopian work News from Nowhere. He says of his relationship with Morris:
‘Throughout my years as a union official I would often turn to Morris for inspiration and incorporate ideas from his work, particularly signs of change, into my speeches…His message and his principles are timeless. He has enriched many lives – mine included.’
            (retrieved from, August 6, 2018) 
The meeting with Lord Sawyer was made all the more exceptional because it included a personal tour for me and my daughter of the Houses of Parliament, as designed by Charles Barry with interiors by Augustus Pugin.  The two Houses, the House of Commons and the House of Lords, differ significantly in style.  The House of Lords is very grand and opulent while the House of Commons is more understated in keeping with the population it represents.  We were treated to a visit to the Queen’s Robing Room, the Royal Gallery, both the Lords and Commons Chambers, as well as the House of Lords Library, which features a series of riverside rooms with wonderful views of the Thames.  Along the way we learned a few behind-the-scenes facts including, for example, that each Lord has a special locker and peg for their robes.  It was evident as we toured the House of Commons that Lord Sawyer is a highly esteemed Peer.  It certainly bodes well for the William Morris Society, which will benefit from having such a well-respected and genuinely interested leader.
Lord Sawyer is an avid book collector who has devoted time and energy to building up a fine collection of books on socialism.  He documented his collection in a book published in 2012, Radicalism, A Passion for Books.  

As he shares in the Introduction:   

Book collecting is a very private affair; books slip on and off shelves and in and out of houses, most often unseen and unknown by any person other than the book collection.  Very few collectors have left a record of why they chose particular books. So I decided I would leave a short story that others, including my family and friends, but particularly my grandchildren might enjoy or at least understand the reasons for my passion. (x)
The book is divided into thirty-one sections, showcasing a wide range of topics, with the twenty-third section devoted to William Morris. Of Morris, Sawyer writes, “Morris is the man.  The greatest ever British Socialist.  Morris the writer, Morris the agitator, Morris the thinker, Morris the activist” (91). His collection of Morris materials is incredibly diverse and includes published books, pamphlets and ephemera, along with items from the collection of Arthur Halcrow Verstage, an architect with a lifelong love of William Morris and a founding member of the UK William Morris Society.  Some of treasures in this collection include a letter from May Morris to Agnes Larkin (eldest daughter to Dr. Robert Steele, a well-known scholar and friend of Morris), a photograph of May in old age at Kelmscott House, a proof copy of The Sundering Flood, and numerous pamphlets published by the Socialist League and the Hammersmith Socialist Society.
Lord Sawyer also has a particular interest in the art and craft of bookbinding. In 2008 he commissioned a number of designer bindings of seminal texts in the history of British socialism, including Morris’s News from Nowhere, for an exhibition which he organized at the House of Lords.  He worked closely with the Designer Bookbinders of the United Kingdom, a long-established society devoted to the craft of fine bookbinding and commissioned unique and beautiful bindings that celebrated their craft and creativity as well as the history of socialism in Britain. Master bookbinder Lester Capon bound News from Nowhere.  Capon studied at the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts and has been a Fellow of Designer Bookbinders since 1986.  His work is represented in libraries across the United Kingdom and United States.  As described in the catalogue, 
The theme is taken from Morris’ trip up the Thames during which he experiences and portrays his vision for the future.  The layout is based on the format of journey maps that were prevalent in the 19th century.  The gold work and colored underlays running across the book represent his vision. I felt it suitable to use vellum for this binding as Morris often used it for the Kelmscott Press.  Also the ‘pierced vellum’ technique is an early style of binding here revived and adapted – I hope Morris would have approved. (17)  

News from Nowhere, binding by Lester Capon
(Catalogue 16)
News from Nowhere was an important book and, as shared by Lord Sawyer, 
Many people consider it to be Morris’s best work and that great as he was, he was greatest as a revolutionary.  I feel certain that News from Nowhere was read extensively by the early socialist activists. Although it did not feature in a list of books read by the intake of Labour members of Parliament in 1906, it was included as recommended reading by Robert Blatchford at the end of his book, Merrie England. (16)
Also included in the 2008 exhibition was William Morris – Artist Writer Socialist by May Morris, as bound by Stephen Conway.  Conway currently runs a small bindery in Halifax, West Yorkshire, working mainly on private press editions, presentation work, commissions and design binding. In 1998 he won the Designer Bookbinders Silver medal and in 2000 was elected Fellow of Designer Bookbinders.  The book was selected as part of the exhibition as an homage to William Morris.  Volume 1 is focused on Morris’s artistic and literary output, while Volume 2 focuses on Morris as a socialist and is supplemented by an essay by George Bernard Shaw.  Conway’s new binding depicts a stained-glass window and is loosely based on a Morris window designed for Bradford Cathedral.  An image of Morris is found on one of the panels and the overall design reflects his interest in the medieval.  

William Morris by May Morris, binding by Stephen Conway
(Catalogue 38, 39)
The legacy of William Morris is made all the stronger by the committed leadership of Lord Tom Sawyer.  The William Morris Society U.S. congratulates him on his appointment as President of the Society and looks forward to years of collaboration.
~~Jane Carlin, University of Puget Sound

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