“It was my good luck only of being born respectable and rich, that has put me this side of the window among delightful books and lovely works of art.” – William Morris
We’ve covered most aspects of William Morris’ life in this blog. A man who gave us such beautiful designs and has a lasting legacy which influences bloggers, artists and fashionistas of today (Marc Jacobs included) we can’t help but be fascinated by his life. What inspired him? How did he get to be in such a position that he managed to leave us such beautiful work that’s somehow still relevant and fitting today – not only in his textile designs but visit many churches around the UK or even St James’ Palace and you’ll see his work. His reach is much farer and wider than you’d ever imagine – you’ve just got to keep your eye out for it.
We’ve been reading a lot recently about Morris’ childhood and teenage years. It’s unsurprising to learn that both his literary and his artistic tastes emerged at an early age. An avid reader, he formed passions he would carry on with him throughout his life – romance, architecture and the natural world – which was clearly his biggest inspiration, look at his designs and you’ll see wildlife galore!
Of Welsh descent, his grandfather left Wales in the later half of the 18th Century to Worcester. His mother and father, William and Emma moved to Walthamstow in 1833 with their two children, Emma and Henrietta, and here had their third child – William on 24th March 1834. It was here one of his strongest social beliefs was born at a young age – it was the year of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. The whole of his childhood coincided with the working man’s struggle with the affects of industrialisation. He despised this throughout his life and it pushed him to many of his later achievements. His parents had two more girls and four more boys and though he was close to his sister Emma during their childhoods, historians have found little evidence of a sustained relationship during adulthood. It was only his youngest brother Edgar that would join him in his work at Merton Abbey.
From Morris’ birthplace in Elm House, they moved to Woodford Hall and later to Water House in Walthamstow in 1849 after his father’s death. It’s this mid 18th century property that today houses the William Morris Gallery and has done since 1950. If you visit you’ll find an unbelievable – and permanent – collection of a full range of his work throughout his life and examples/ explanations of his influence on the famous Arts & Crafts movement.
His father left the family with a substantial sum of money – due to very successful speculation in copper shares. His father bought shares at West Country copper mine at £1 a share for 272 and these soared to a whopping £800 per share – please remember how much £800 would have been worth in that time! With over £200,000, his childhood was undoubtably carefree of money troubles and very comfortable – which continued into his early adulthood and allowed him to be free of the restraints of working for just money and concentrate on his own passions – free of money worries. He’d be the first to have agreed to his privileged status in life saying, “it was my good luck only of being born respectable and rich, that has put me this side of the window among delightful books and lovely works of art.”
Ironically then – and historians have noted it was a source of embarrassment for Morris – the very thing he hated most, industrialisation, allowed him to be immersed in the world of decorative arts which was based on a very conscious reaction against the mechanisation of the Victorian Industrial Age.
His schooldays began in 1848 – the year of the foundation of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood, Morris began school at Marlborough College. The school was a new one and seemed lax in it’s approach, meaning he had little formal education and appears to be largely self taught, visiting the well equipped library here. Many credit Morris throughout his working life to be largely self taught, perhaps it was here at school he learnt this skill as the library had a bias towards books on ecclesiastical architecture and archaeology – meaning he took an avid interest in the subjects.
Many know how he attended Oxford University, however we must remember that when we’re speaking about his experience here, Oxford wasn’t like we know it today, it was still a medieval city in 1853. The years he spent here were, as described by himself, the happiest of his life. Formative in terms not only of his art but also learning his surroundings and forming lifelong friendships with like minded people who would inspire him and work with him throughout his career. He studied Theology at Exeter College and though he passed, he never appeared to be over enthusiastic in his opinion of the academic teaching of Oxford but instead, again, the ability for him to be self taught and receive opportunities outside of academia that were the real highlights for him.
He was incredibly happy at Oxford, forming lifelong friendships and making both artistic and literary discoveries which would shape his career. Many of his ideals were born here. An opinionated man, he passionately believed in everything he wrote or spoke about. The fact remains that he did alter many peoples views on the issues of the time, not only through his art but also through his writing.
Make sure to check the blog next week for the next instalment on his later years at Oxford and his apprenticeship following the completion of his degree.