William Morris, The Oxford Years. It’s ‘memory has been an abiding influence and pleasure in my life.’

13th August 2017

By his own admission, Morris’ university years were the happiest of his life. Studying at Oxford University, he went to Exeter College to study theology. He passed the degree, though as stated in our last blog, he didn’t rave about the academic tuition at university, but the opportunities he took advantage of here were the real asset of his university education.

Oxford in the early 1950s when Morris was living there was a true medieval city. The beautiful buildings we see today would have been even more so as they weren’t restored in any way. Morris despised when beautiful architecture was ruined by modernity, in his letter to the Daily News dated the 20th November 1885, he wrote a letter pleading that, ‘the few specimens of ancient town architecture which they have not yet had the time to destroy… Oxford thirty years ago, when I first knew it, was full of these treasures.’ This letter was written at a time where he was petitioning for the conservation of the city churches, Westminster Abbey, Rouen and Chichester and Peterborough Cathedrals.

He described the lasting impression Oxford had on him as it’s, ‘memory has been an abiding influence and pleasure in my life.’ Perhaps this best of all describes his feelings towards the time in one sentence. He met lifelong friends here – one of the most notable was one of his best friends Edward Burne-Jones. They met at the entrance exam when Burne-Jones noticed Morris had handed in his exam paper early. Some of his most incredible work was done in collaboration with Burne-Jones, as was some of his favourite travels. He was also a key figure to Morris’ career – introducing him to a number of is friends – one of which was Charles Faulkner who would be his business partner in Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. Also part of their university friendship group was William Fulford, Cormell Price (Crom) and R.W.Dixon who officiated at Morris’ wedding to Jane.

During this time, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood really comes into the spotlight for the first time in Morris’ story. Learning of the group through the Brotherhoods magazine, ‘The Germ’ and also via John Ruskin’s Modern Painters and his Edinburgh Lectures (1854.) It was Ruskin’s writings that fascinated Morris and his friendship group, his ideas influencing them. According to the book ‘William Morris’ by Helen Dore, “Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice (1853) with its view that medieval buildings reflected the freedom of the workman, later to be dispelled by the Renaissance with its ultimately destructive division between architect and craftsman, made a substantial contribution towards Morris’s later artistic vision: the medieval workman deriving genuine please from his work remained the prototype for Morris’s concept of the modern craftsman/designer. Forty years later he acknowledged his debt to Ruskin in this respect.” (Page 25) In Kelmscott Press’s reprint of ‘On the Nature of Gothic’  from The Stones of Venice, he wrote, ‘it seemed to point out a new road on which the world should travel. The lesson that Ruskin here teaches is that art is the expression of man’s pleasure in his labour.’

As an undergraduate, Morris was already writing poetry, to an enthusiastic and supportive response from his friends. He actually published a selection of his early poetry in The Defence of Guinevere in 1858. After his 21st birthday, he came into £900 annuity which was an incredible amount of money at this time, which gave him the opportunity to provide financial support for a monthly student review. This was called The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine which allowed Morris and his friends to get published and hone their writing skills.

His apprenticeship, following the completion of his degree was with G.E. Street, an architect and leading figure in the Gothic Revival. Whilst here, though he only stayed a few months (due to his restless nature in an office environment) and didn’t finish his training, he met Philip Webb who was the senior clerk. True to the form of his university years then, it wasn’t all about what he learnt, but who he met, and Webb became a life long friend with whom he collaborated with on many projects. Morris moved to London when Street moved his practice there, moving in with Burne-Jones and when they were unable to find furnishings that suited their tastes in Red Lions Square. They were inspired to create their own, something that would ultimately lead to the creation of ‘The Firm,’ after this continued when Morris moved to his next home, Red House. The pair at this time formed friendships with both Ruskin and Rossetti.

There’s an account of Morris during the time of his apprenticeship, from him to May (Morris’ daughter), “I was told… in the office to help your Father, and this was done pleasantly and easily as we understood each other at once. When a difficult point arose your Father would beat his head with his fists, till I thought it would stun him.”

Morris remained passionate about architecture all his life, considering the art to be the ‘supreme master craftsman’ and the decorative arts he became famous for, to have meaning only in relation and response to the architecture. This is true when we take a look at his work with Philip Webb – working closely together, Morris appears to have a deep respect for Webb and his craft.