William Morris

William Morris

Artist: William Morris
Born: 24 March 1834, Essex, England
Nationality: English
Movement: Pre-Raphaelite
Died: 3 October 1896, Middlesex, UK

William Morris was a textile designer, poet, novelist, translator, and social activist. Associated with the British Arts and Crafts Movement he was a major contributor to the revival of traditional textile arts and methods of production. His poetic work and novels formed part of the then new genre of fantasy and he played a significant role in the early socialist movement in Britain.

La belle Iseult 1858, oil on canvas. Currently housed in the Tate Collection

Born in Walthamstow, Essex to a wealthy middle-class family Morris became strongly influenced by medievalism while reading Classics at Oxford University where he joined the Birmingham Set. After university he trained as an architect and married Jane Burden. He developed close friendships with Pre-Raphaelite artists Bure-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Neo-Gothic architect Phillip Webb. He founded the firm Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co with Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Webb and others in 1861. The firm profoundly influenced interior décor with its tapestries, wallpaper, fabrics, furniture and stained glass throughout the Victorian era. The company was renamed Morris & Co in 1875 when Morris took control of the firm.

From 1871 Morris was greatly influenced by visits to Iceland and produced a series of English translations of Icelandic Sagas. He also founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings which campaigned against the damage caused by architectural restoration. He was a Marxist and greatly influenced by anarchism and became a committed socialist activist and founded the Socialist League in 1884.

Design for Windrush, 1883, printed textile

As one of the most significant cultural figures of Victorian Britain, Morris was best known for his poetry during in his lifetime. His contribution to design was only fully recognised after his death in 1896 with the founding of the William Morris Society in 1955 and multiple biographies and studies of his work being published.

Morris was born into a wealthy middle-class family. He was home educated until the age of 9 when he was sent to preparatory school as a boarder. An experience Morris intensely disliked. His father died in 1847 leaving the family reliant on the income of the copper mines at Devon Great Consols. Nonetheless, the young Morris began his studies at Marlborough College in 1948 where he became fascinated by the prehistoric sites of Wiltshire, such as Avebury and Silbury Hill. He was removed from Marlborough and privately tutored at Forest School. He entered Exeter College, Oxford University in 1852 to read Classics. It was whilst at Oxford he developed an interest in Medieval history and architecture.

The Vision of the Holy Grail, 1890, tapestry. Currently housed in the Birmingham Museums and Art Galleries Collection

Morris’ interest in Medieval history tied in with the growing Medievalist movement in the UK, a form of Romanticism that rejected many of the values of Victorian capitalist industrialism. The Middle Ages represented strong chivalric values and a pre-capitalist sense of community which were perceived as corrective to the social problems of Victorian Britain. It was whilst at university Morris met Edward Burne-Jones, both being interested in Anglo-Catholicism and Arthurianism they became lifelong friends and collaborators. It was through Burne-Jones that Morris became a member of the Birmingham Set.

Heavily influenced by the writings of the art critic John Ruskin Morris adopted philosophy of rejecting the tawdry industrial manufacture of decorative arts and architecture in favour of a return to hand-craftmanship and raising the status of artisans to artists without hierarchy of artistic mediums.

In 1856, Morris graduated with a BA and took an apprenticeship with the Oxford based Neo-Gothic architect George Edmund Street. He was focused on architectural drawing, under the supervision of Philip Webb, and was rapidly relocated to Street’s London office.

Morris became increasingly enthralled by the Medievalist depictions of idyllic rural that appeared in the Pre-Raphaelite paintings, artworks he spent large sums of money in acquiring. Burne-Jones, now an apprentice under the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, shared his interest. The trio became close friends and it is through Rossetti that Morris was introduced to the poet Robert Browning and the artists Arthur Hughes, Thomas Woolner and Ford Madox Brown.

Panel of Ceramic Tiles, 1883

In 1861, Morris founded the decorative arts company Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. The other partners included Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Webb, and Ford Madox-Brown. Referred to as the Firm they were intent on adopting Ruskin’s ideas of reforming British attitudes to production while reinstating decoration as a fine art. Although within the remit of Neo-Gothic design, the Firm differed from the Neo-Gothic architects that only included element of Gothic features in their modern style of building; instead the Firm’s intent was to return to Medieval methods completely. Despite the Firm’s ethos of anti-elitism, it soon became popular with the bourgeoisie. Morris abandoned painting, recognising his work lacked movement; none of his paintings are dated later than 1862. Instead he focused on design.

Peacock and Dragon, 1878, woven wool furnishing fabrics

In the early 1890s Morris’s health began to fail and he became increasingly ill. By 1896 he was almost completely invalid, and he died of tuberculosis on 4 October 1896 and he is buried in the churchyard of St. Georges Church, Kelmscott, Oxfordshire, UK.

©JG Farmer 2019

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