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William Morris; The Oxford Years

26th August 2019

It’s ‘memory has been an abiding influence and pleasure in my life.’ – William Morris

Our last blog focused on Morris’ childhood. In this instalment, we wanted to focus on Morris’ Oxford Years. The years are known to have been the happiest of his life. He studied Theology at Exeter College and though he completed and passed the course, it’s clear he didn’t think much to the academic tuition he received. The opportunities and inspirations he discovered whilst at the university are the things that really set him up to discovering the rest of his life.

Oxford

During the period Morris was living in Oxford, it was truly a medieval city. The buildings sparked his love for architecture and his passion to faithfully upkeep and restore the buildings instead of the ‘modern’ buildings that were becoming popular. Dated the 20th November 1885, Morris wrote to the Daily News, ‘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. Including Westminster Abbey, Rouen and Chichester and Peterborough Cathedrals.

The quote at the top of our blog was written about his time in Oxford. It’s the best way he summarised his time at university. He met Edward Burne-Jones here, who became a life long friend and colleague. They met early on in their university years. It was at the entrance exam when Burne-Jones saw Morris had handed in his exam paper early. The pair that became iconic for their designs and work. They also travelled together over the years and it was actually Burne-Jones that introduced him to a number of their mutual friends. Charles Faulkner was one such friend and he became part of their eventual business; Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co.

His art at Oxford

As an undergraduate, he was already discovering and refining his talent as a poet. His friends were supportive and enthusiastic when he published poetry in The Defence of Guinevere in 1858. Following his 21st birthday, he inherited £900 annuity which during this time was an incredible amount of money, some of which he invested back into his craft and provided financial support for a monthly student review. It was called The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine which allowed himself and friends to get published and practice their writing and editing skills.

During Morris’ Oxford years, it was the first introduction Morris received to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The Germ was the publication by the Brotherhood and it was through this that Morris learnt about them, coupled with John Ruskin’s Modern Painters and his Edinburgh Lectures (1854.) Ruskin remained a really huge influence for Morris as both an artist and his political views.

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.’

After Oxford

Following Morris’ Oxford years, Morris went on to an apprenticeships in the offices of G.E. Street, an architect and leading figure in the Gothic Revival. He lasted a few months in this role mainly due to his hatred of an office environment and a want to be more artistic than it is assumed he was able to be in this role. But, this job played a pivotal role in his story as it was here he met Philip Webb. Webb became a lifelong friend and colleague, he drew the birds in Morris’ famous Strawberry Thief design for example amongst many others.

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.

What else do you want to read about William Morris? Let us know!

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