6th July 2022
By now, you’re probably familiar with William Morris designs. From the runway to high profile designers latest work, we seem to be able to point out his designs everywhere. We even noticed Brother Rabbit wallpaper featured in “The Flight Attendant” – so they’re even in places you wouldn’t expect! But, who was William Morris? We thought we’d write about the man behind the designs. The man we can thank for so many beautiful timeless designs.
“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
Morris grew up privileged, over the years developing his social beliefs which he would go on to campaign for and push for throughout his life. He grew up during the time of industrialisation and the affect that had on the workers which helped shaped his ideals.
Due to his fathers successful investments in copper shares, Morris and his siblings grew up financially comfortable, Morris spoke of his childhood in the quote above, historians have since noted that his upbringing was a potential source of embarrassment for him, the thing he hated, industrialisation, bringing his family their fortune.
Morris attended Oxford University from 1853, he is known to have said that these years were the happiest of his life. Studying theology at Exeter College, he met Edward Burne-Jones and the lifelong friends initially wanted to be clergymen. It’s easy to see if you’ve visited Oxford how easily it is to fall in love with the beautiful buildings, back then when it was still a medieval city, it heavily influenced Morris and he ended up training to be an architect.
Morris during the time at university started a lot of his ideas about not wanting modern buildings and wanting to preserve the beautiful existing buildings, an idea that would last him a lifetime.
Following Oxford, Morris went on to his apprenticeship in the office of G.E.Street. He was an architect and leading figure in the Gothic Revival. He only lasted a few months at the apprenticeship due to his hatred of an office environment. However, it was a vital chapter in the story of Morris as it was here he met Philip Webb. A lifelong friend and colleague, Webb and Morris worked together a lot throughout the years, notably Webb drew the birds within the famous Strawberry Thief design. Have you seen our licensed William Morris Strawberry Thief? We print it in both blue and red, so make sure to check it out!
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.
William Morris married Jane Burden in 1859. She was a famous Pre-Raphaelite model, an unconventional beauty, if you’ve seen Pre-Raphaelite art, you will probably have seen her in their works. It includes Morris’s famous La Belle Iseult and many of Rossetti’s works.
The two met in 1857 when she visited the Drury Lane Theatre Company in Oxford with her sister Elizabeth. It was Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti who noticed her for her beauty and wanted her to model for them. After initially not turning up for the modelling, but later bumped into Burne-Jones and agreed then. It changed her life – from growing up poor, she went on to be educated fit to be a gentleman’s wife when marrying Morris and became immortalised forever in some of histories most famous artworks.
They had two daughters together, Jenny and May, and although it’s well known she didn’t love Morris, going on to have an affair with his friend Rossetti, it’s known Morris loved her very much.
Found in rural Kent, Bexleyheath, lies Red House. If you’re lucky enough to visit, you’ll see why Rossetti wrote it was, “more of a poem than a house.” A beautiful home Morris commissioned Philip Webb to build the house. It’s important to link this back to where we wrote of his early ideals here – the servant’s quarters were larger than contemporary buildings. A clear indication of what both Webb and Morris believed surrounding working class conditions and their socialist beliefs.
When furnishing the house, Morris couldn’t find any furnishings he felt fit the house, with the level of artistry he wanted. It led to the creation of “the Firm.” In collaboration with his artistic friends, this was of course, “Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co.” – which in a few years would dissolve and lead to his famous company, Morris & Co.
This is potentially his most long lasting legacy. His poetry, beliefs and writings remain, but his designs have stood the test of time to still be iconic and popular today. During his years leading the company, he created stunning designs and created jobs that were forward thinking in their ideals.
He also opened Merton Abbey prints, where he printed his own fabric using traditional methods. He hit back against industrialisation, perfecting the indigo dye technique which he used to print incredible designs such as Brother Rabbit. J.W. Mackail wrote Morris became, “a manufacturer not because he wished to make money, but because he wished to make the things he manufactured.”
We still print all our licensed William Morris designs here in the UK, as he did all those years ago, to keep the heritage of the designs and to retain the artistry that he was so passionate to keep. We could write for days about Morris’s life, he had so many fascets to his interests that there’s so much to talk about, but we don’t want to keep you reading all day! Check our other blogs to keep reading about Morris and his designs for a more in depth chat about all of his interesting facts! We’re always over on our Instagram too and would love to know your favourite designs and Morris facts.
“If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” – William Morris.