William Morris; His Life and Work

28th May 2018

We’ve done a few blogs about William Morris now and a roundup of his life, but since we post weekly blogs, we thought it was time to recap! He had such a fascinating life so of course we can’t fit it all into one blog so here’s an introduction! 

The 19th Century designer is perhaps the best known and best remembered of his time. He continues to influence interior design and catwalk fashion today including designs from Marc Jacobs and Topshop having recently used his designs in their collections. 

Not just a designer, he was a poet, writer, socialist activist – the list goes on. He was a major player in the Arts & Crafts movement and dedicated his life to creating and reviving handmade production techniques that didn’t just go with the Victorian era’s focus on industrialisation. Moving away from the advancements in the printing techniques for example, he created processes such as the Indigo dye technique he perfected to create designs such as Brother Rabbit and Strawberry Thief. 

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves! Born in 1834 in Walthamstow, East London, he led a privileged childhood and his inheritance actually meant that he didn’t need to earn an income – something that with socialist principles does seem a bit of a contradiction that he was aware of. Principled by a young age, on a family trip to London when he was sixteen, he refused to enter the “Great Exhibition” which championed Machine Age Design and went against his craft principles. 

He studied at Oxford University and there met Edward Burne-Jones who became his lifelong friend (and he himself went on to become one of the era’s most well known painters in his own right.) It was actually Burne-Jones that introduced Morris to The Brotherhood, who had the same ideals and ideas as Morris who seemed to fit right in. It was the group who seemed to fuel Morris’ ideas and passions and cemented his belief that industrialisation was dehumanising production systems and resulted in poor-quality products. He was also made aware of the deep divisions in contemporary society by the group. 

Though he went to Oxford to learn to become a member of the church, he soon realised, especially after a trip to France with Burne-Jones, that he was much more committed to art and The Brotherhood than the Church. He made the decision to study architecture and did so in the office of George Edmund Street who was the leading Neo-Gothic architect. He lasted eight months in the office before realising that whilst he loved and appreciated architecture – and campaigned for buildings to not be modernised, he didn’t himself have a talent for architecture, though it did lead him to meet a long time friend Philip Webb, who he worked with and collaborated with many times throughout their careers. After he left this apprenticeship, he began full time with his art and that’s really where his story begins! Working with Rossetti, a central and leading figure in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, he was soon on his way to making waves in the art works, painting murals at the Oxford Union which led to bigger projects. 

In his personal life, he met and married Jane Burden, a Pre-Raphaelite ideal of womanly beauty, who became a model for many of the notable artists of the time over the course of the next thirty years. Little is known of her childhood, but what is known is that it was poor and deprived. They met at a theatre performance of the Drury Lane Theatre Company in Oxford. It was initially Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones who noticed Jane and who approached her to model for them. She modelled for Rossetti for a painting for Queen Guinevere and afterwards sat for Morris. During this time he fell in love with Jane and they were soon engaged to be married, but from her own admission, she wasn’t in love with him. Within the first few years of their marriage, she began an affair with Rossetti which lasted a number of years and was a hard blow to Morris as Rossetti was an idol and then a close friend. 

In 1860, Morris commissioned close friend Philip Webb to design his home in South London; the beautiful Red House. Morris and his friends decorated the house and from this, realising that there wasn’t the furnishings he longed to buy for his home, they set up The Firm; Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. The founding members of this included William Morris, Ford Madox Brown, Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Philip Webb. The year following the set up of The Firm, in 1862, Morris designed their first wallpapers and over the following years saw him producing not only beautiful designs, but poetry too. 

After 1870, the socialist movement became more and more Morris’ focus and it seemed to him to be the only way to solve problems at the time; poverty, unemployment, the dying arts, the growing divide between the upper and lower classes which he saw as a result of the industrial revolution. Always an advocate for these issues, his works after this point reflect this. 

In 1871 – despite the ongoing affair between Jane and Rossetti, Morris and Rossetti became join tenants of Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire. From this time, Morris began to make trips to Iceland which produced wonderful letters and stories (including ‘Love is Enough’ by Morris) and it’s reported he began this due to the tension in the house he wished to escape from. 

1875 saw Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. dissolved and reconstituted as Morris & Co. with Morris as sole proprietor. From this company, we know the designs he produced and the beautiful art and processes he created. These live on to be his main legacy today. We license many of his designs from this period and print these on various household textiles here in the United Kingdom. 

He founded the Kelmscott Press in 1891 and published limited edition, illuminated style printed books, which he spent the last of his years creating. 

Morris died on October 3rd 1896 aged 62, and remains known as one of the most significant cultural figures of Victorian Britain, well known as a poet, designer and socialist activist. His physician gave the fitting cause of death of, “simply being William Morris, and having done more work than most ten men.”