William Morris; His Life and Work
30th December 2018
We’ve written quite a few blogs about William Morris over the years. We’re aware though that in the eternal filing cabinet of our blog, older blogs can get lost in the noise of the internet. We therefore thought it was time to do another blog about William Morris. Though we of course focus on his life in terms of his designs, there’s so much more to him. Focusing on his life, work and passions, here’s everything you need to know about a man that never seemed to slow down. Achieving so much in his life, it’s no wonder that when he died, his physician gave the cause of death. “Simply being William Morris, and having done more work than most ten men.”
A multifaceted man
Today, many of us know Morris as a designer – but actually, during his lifetime, he was best known as a poet. With beautiful work such as our favourite, ‘Love is Enough,’ it’s not hard to see why. He is recognised as one of the most significant and important cultural figures of Victorian England. He was pioneering in his thoughts, attitude and actions.
A few of his passions can be summarised. He either took an interest in one or more of these things and though some lasted for only a chapter of his life, many were important to him throughout his life. A designer, he had multiple talents including the design of textiles, wallpapers, tapestries, chintzes. He could weave, he could create stained glass and manufacture furniture. Also, he was a keen socialist, social reformer, preservationist and had a huge interest in the politics of the time. As mentioned, Morris was a wonderful poet and wrote novels, even creating his own press as the founder of the Kelmscott Press. Morris also started two businesses; The Firm came first, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. before being disbanded and reformed as Morris & Co.
Morris, 24 March 1834 – 3 October 1896, was born in Walthamstow, Essex. He attended Oxford University where he studied at Exeter College at Oxford University. Here, he met characters that shaped him forever. Edward Burne-Jones and Morris became friends here which would be a friendship which would last their life and they would also work collaboratively on projects throughout the years.
Morris and Burne-Jones were hugely influenced by the Oxford movement within the Church of England – it was even assumed that both would go into the Church as Clergymen. However, it was the work and ideas of John Ruskin that truly shaped them as they read his work on the social and moral basis of architecture. Morris went on to take a position in the office of G.E.Street – an architect of Gothic Revivalist. It’s known that being in Oxford hugely influenced Morris – he didn’t want to see the beautiful gothic architecture be replaced with more modern buildings.
Morris met Jane Burden in October 1857. She attended a performance of the Drury Lane Theatre Company in Oxford. Spotted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Burne-Jones in the audience along with her sister Bessie. They wanted her to model for their art because she was the ideal of Pre-Raphaelite beauty. She initially was wary of the group and didn’t turn up for the painting but eventually, she was featured in many of the groups work and is immortalised forever in paintings such as Rossetti’s famous Queen Guinevere and Morris’ La Belle Iseult which today is featured in the Tate Gallery.
Morris fell in love with Burden and asked for her hand in marriage. From a poor working class background, it’s claimed she said yes because of the status of Morris. By her own admission, she wasn’t in love with Morris and in fact, has a long and documented affair with Rossetti.
Morris and Burden had two children together, May (born in March 1862) and Jane Alice – known as Jenny (born in January 1861.) May later worked for Morris & Co. you can read more about her in our post here.
Socialism and the Arts and Crafts Movement
“…I do not want art for a few; any more than education for a few; or freedom for a few… ” – William Morris.
This summarises the views of Morris in terms of his ideals. Art, for Morris, was a necessity for a fulfilling life. The conditions of Victorian life including the poverty, pollution and working conditions angered Morris.
As industrialisation occurred, he also campaigned against the destruction of the world’s natural resources. He was quoted saying, “there is no square mile of earth’s inhabitable surface that is not beautiful in its own way, if we men will only abstain from wilfully destroying that beauty.” That view is worryingly still important today and something we will always keep in mind when licensing and printing his designs. You can read our environmental policy on how we print and manufacture our products here.
William Morris was also a leader within the Arts and Crafts movement. The group of artists were passionate in preserving the traditional crafts. They resisted the mass production that came hand in hand with industrialisation. Morris actually started printing his own textiles at Merton Abbey in 1881. With workshops on site, Merton Abbey was used for weaving, dyeing, creating stained glass. Methods such as the Indigo Dye technique were achieved here after much trial and error to achieve the perfect print. Within three years, 100 craftsmen were employed at Merton Abbey. You can read our blog on the Indigo Dye Technique here.
A stunning Arts & Crafts property in Bexleyheath, London, Red House was to be a family home for Morris and Jane. The house was complete in 1860 after being co-designed by William Morris and his friend and colleague Philip Webb. The interior was mostly designed by Morris and the exterior by architect Webb. The home was named after the red bricks and tiles which it was built from. The home itself influenced by contemporary Neo-Gothic architecture. It was described by Burne-Jones as ”the beautifulest place on Earth.”
In April 1861, after being disappointed with the quality of items to furnish his new home, Morris was inspired to create a decorative arts company. With six other partners; Burne-Jones, Webb, Rossetti, Charles Faulkner, Peter Paul Marshall and Ford Madox Brown. They called it Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. and was often referred to as ”The Firm.” They focused on Ruskin’s ideals of how the British producers should reform their ideas on how arts are produced and enjoyed.
Morris & Co.
The Firm was dissolved and then reorganised under Morris’ sole ownership on the 31st March 1875. Becoming Morris & Co. It continued as a furnishing and decorative arts manufacturer. Along with friends from the Pre-Raphaelite movement, they were all passionate about hand crafting, hand printing and using traditional methods of production. The designs Morris created during this time are so beautiful. We licence many of these designs today according to our own specifications. Both in terms of size and colour to meet our own requirements for our products.
There’s so much more to Morris and his life, we hope you do go back within our blogs to learn more about him. Including travels, work, art and his life’s work. We can’t fit it all in one blog but we hope this is enough of an introduction to Morris and his life. We blog weekly all about William Morris and his work so make sure to keep checking back. You can also follow us on social media on Instagram and Twitter so we can let you know when the next blog is live!