24th March 2020
William Morris: Birthday Edition blog! Born on this day in 1834, there are very few artists that have had the impact, both for art and socialism, than William Morris. His contribution to British arts and design remains huge. His legacy spans not just design but also, literature, poetry, and a socialist legacy which really changed a lot about society at the time.
Today, you’ll have seen his designs in multiple places, from the walls of indie cafes to the catwalk with Marc Jacobs and H&M. We even went into Ikea the other day and his Willow Bough fabric was on the wall of one of the set ups! Today on the anniversary of his birth, we’re taking a look at the man behind the legacy.
Born in Walthamstow, Morris was educated at Oxford. Initially training as an architect, he went on to pursue his interest in the arts. Highly influenced by some of they key players in the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood, including Rossetti, he became more influenced within the movement and arts in general.
Not only in textile design, Morris also worked in a number of crafts, including stained glass. Morris & Co. (Morris’s company) was commissioned for so many of the stained glass in stunning churches around England and other influential buildings such as St. James’s Palace in London.
In his personal life, he married Jane Burden in 1859. She was a very popular Pre-Raphaelite model, an unconventional beauty, you’ll have seen her in many of the Brotherhood’s work. This includes Morris’s La Belle Iseult and many of Rossetti’s pieces. One of Rossetti’s best known works Proserpine, portrays Roman goddess as the Empress of Hades following an abduction by Pluto.
She was condemned to be his wife – which, has been over the years alledged to be an allegory for Jane’s unhappy marriage with Morris. Indeed on Rossetti’s painting La Pia de’Tolomei, Rossetti left a Latin inscription. This translates to, “Famous for her poet husband, and famous for her face, may my picture add to her fame.” Of course the model within this work was Jane Burden.
Back to her relationship with Morris – they met in 1857 when she visited the Drury Lane Theatre Company in Oxford with her sister Elizabeth. It was actually Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti who noticed her and asked if she would sit and model for them. She initially didn’t turn up and only when she bumped into Edward Burne-Jones again that she agreed. This was a turning point in her life; not only because she met her husband and lover (Rossetti.) But also, because it meant she’s memorialised forever in some of histories most famous art.
When Morris bought Red House, it was to become his families haven in the countryside. Located in rural Kent, Bexleyheath, he commissioned lifelong friend Philip Webb to build the house. If you’re lucky enough to be able to visit Red House, you’ll see what a beautiful job Webb did here. Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote that it was, “more of a poem than a house.”
It was a unique design – an L shape with two stories and a high pitched roof of red tile. Interestingly, the servant’s quarters were larger than contemporary buildings. This is a clear and early indication of both Webb and Morris and their ideas regarding working class conditions and their socialist beliefs.
When furnishing the house, Morris couldn’t find home furnishings that he felt fit the house, it was this thought that led to the creation of ‘The Firm’ with his talented artistic friends, this company of course was, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. which after a few years dissolved and Morris set up Morris & Co. The Firm produced a range of domestic furniture and wallpaper.
His work at Morris & Co. is perhaps how his legacy remains most, which is interesting since during his life he was best known as a poet. But during his years leading the company, he created beautiful textiles, created jobs that were forward thinking at the time in terms of how fair they were.
He opened Merton Abbey where he printed his own fabric in traditional methods. He back against Industrialisation, learning and perfecting the Indigo Dye Technique. 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.”
Influential as an interior designer, poet, writer, textile designer, translator and socialist activist. His life story is incredible and one that you wonder how he did it all in one lifetime! With adventures along the Seine and to Iceland, his life story spans so much. We’re forever grateful for the arts that he created such beautiful work.
We always keep one of his quotes in mind. “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.