William Morris (24 March 1834 – 3 October 1896) was an English architect, furniture and textile designer, artist, writer, and socialist associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the English Arts and Crafts Movement.
Born at Walthamstow near London, Morris was educated at Marlborough and Oxford. In 1856, Morris became an apprentice to Gothic revival architect G. E. Street. That same year he founded the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, an outlet for his poetry and a forum for development of his theories of hand-craftsmanship in the decorative arts. In 1861, Morris founded a design firm in partnership with Edward Burne-Jones, the painter and the poet and artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti which had a profound impact on the decoration of churches and houses into the early 20th century. Morris's chief contribution was as a designer of repeating patterns for wallpapers and textiles, many based on a close observation of nature. Morris was also a major contributor to the resurgence of traditional textile arts and methods of production.
Morris wrote and published poetry, fiction, and translations of ancient and medieval texts throughout his life. His best-known works include The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems (1858), The Earthly Paradise (1868–1870), A Dream of John Ball and the utopian News from Nowhere.
Morris was an important figure in the emergence of socialism in Great Britain, founding the Socialist League in 1884, but breaking with the movement over goals and methods by the end of that decade. Morris devoted much of the rest of his life to the Kelmscott Press which he founded in 1891. The 1896 Kelmscott edition of the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer is considered a masterpiece of book design.
At the same time he continued to read whatever came in his way and was particularly attracted by the stories in the Arabian Nights and by the designs in Gerard's Herbal. He studied with his sisters' governess until he was nine, when he was sent to a school at Walthamstow. In his thirteenth year his father died, leaving the family well-to-do. The home at Woodford was broken up, as being unnecessarily large, and in 1848 the family relocated to Water House and William Morris entered Marlborough School, where his father had bought him a nomination. Morris was at the school three years, but got gained little from attending it beyond a taste for architecture, fostered by the school library, and an attraction towards the Anglo-Catholic movement. He made but slow progress in school work and at Christmas 1851 was removed and sent to a private tutor, the Rev. F. B. Guy, later Canon of St. Alban's, for a year to prepare him for University.
In June 1852 Morris entered Exeter College, Oxford, though since the college was full, he was unable to go into residence until January 1853. At Exeter, Morris met Edward Burne-Jones, also a first year undergraduate, who would become his life-long friend and collaborator. Morris also joined a Birmingham group at Pembroke College known among themselves as the "Brotherhood" and to historians as the "Pembroke set". Together, they read theology, ecclesiastical history, and medieval poetry; studied art, and fostered their study in the long vacations by visiting English churches and the Continental cathedrals. They became strongly influenced by the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, John Ruskin's essay "The Nature of Gothic" from the second volume of The Stones of Venice, Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur and the poetry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Morris began to develop his philosophy of rejecting the tawdry industrial manufacture of decorative arts and architecture in favour of a return to hand-craftsmanship, raising artisans to the status of artists, creating art that should be affordable and hand-made, with no hierarchy of artistic mediums.
Moreover, Morris began at this time to write poetry and many of his first pieces, afterwards destroyed, were held by sound judges to be equal to anything else he ever worked on. Both Morris and Burne-Jones had come to Oxford with the intention of taking holy orders, but as they felt their way, they both came to the conclusion that there was more to be done in the direction of social reform than of ecclesiastical work and that their energies would be best employed outside the priesthood. Morris decided to become an architect and for the better propagation of the views of the new brotherhood a magazine was at the same time projected, which was to make a specialty of social articles, besides poems and short stories. At the beginning of 1856 the two schemes came to a head together. Morris, having passed his finals in the previous term, was entered as a pupil at the office of George Edmund Street, one of the leading English Gothic revival architects who had his headquarters in Oxford as architect to the diocese; and on New Year's Day the first issue of the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine appeared. The expenses of publishing were borne entirely by Morris, but he resigned the formal editorship after the first issue. Many distinguished compositions appeared in its pages, but it gradually languished and was given up after a year's experiment. The chief immediate result was the friendship between Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, which sprang up from a successful attempt to secure Rossetti as a contributor.
In Street’s office Morris formed an intimate and lifelong friendship with the senior clerk, Philip Webb, which had an important influence over the development taken by English domestic architecture during the next generation. He worked in Street’s office for the rest of that year, first at Oxford and afterwards in London when Street removed there in the autumn. Morris worked very hard both in and out of office hours at architecture and painting, and he studied architectural drawing under Webb. Rossetti, however, persuaded him that he was better suited for a painter, and after a while he devoted himself exclusively to that branch of art. That summer the two friends visited Oxford and finding the new Oxford Union debating-hall under construction, pursued a commission to paint the upper walls with scenes from Le Morte d'Arthur and to decorate the roof between the open timbers. Seven artists were recruited, among them Valentine Prinsep and Arthur Hughes, and the work was hastily begun. Morris worked with feverish energy and on finishing the portion assigned to him, proceeded to decorate the roof. The frescoes, done too soon and too fast, began to fade at once and are now barely decipherable; but the broken designs, so long as any vestige remains, will always be interesting as a relic of an important aesthetic movement and as the first attempt on Morris's part towards the decorative arts.
Rossetti had recruited two sisters, Bessie and Jane Burden, as models for the Oxford Union murals, and Morris was smitten with Jane from the start. They became engaged in 1858 and married at St Michael at the Northgate, Oxford, on 26 April 1859, settling temporarily at 41 Great Ormond Street, London. Morris's only surviving painting in oils is of Jane Burden as La Belle Iseult.
William and Jane had two daughters, Jane Alice (Jenny), born January 1861, who developed epilepsy in her teens, and Mary (May) (March 1862–1938), who became the editor of her father's works, a prominent socialist, and an accomplished designer and craftswoman.
Although of very humble origins and unschooled in her youth, Jane Morris underwent a remarkable self-education after her marriage. A striking beauty, she mixed freely with the Pre-Raphaelites and posed many times for Rossetti, who became passionately attached to her. The Morrises' initial happiness together did not survive the first ten years of their marriage, but divorce was unthinkable, and they remained together until Morris's death.
For several years after his marriage Morris was absorbed in two intimately connected occupations: the building and decoration of a house for himself and Jane, and the foundation of a firm of decorators who were also artists, with the view of reinstating decoration, down to its smallest details, as one of the fine arts. Meanwhile he was slowly abandoning painting; none of his paintings are dated later than 1862.
Red House at Bexleyheath in Kent, so named when the use of red brick without stucco was a startling novelty in domestic architecture, was built by Phillip Webb to designs by Webb and Morris. It was Webb's first building as an independent architect and the first serious attempt made in Victorian England to apply art throughout to the practical objects of common life. Red House featured ceiling paintings by Morris, wall-hangings designed by Morris and worked by himself and Jane; furniture painted by Morris and Rossetti, and wall-paintings and stained- and painted glass designed by Burne-Jones.
The work shown by the firm at the 1862 International Exhibition attracted much notice, and within a few years it was flourishing. In the autumn of 1864 a severe illness obliged Morris to choose between giving up his home at Red House in Kent and giving up his work in London. With great reluctance he gave up Red House, and in 1865 established himself under the same roof with his workshops, now relocated to Queen Square, Bloomsbury.
An important commission of 1867 was the "green dining room" at the South Kensington Museum (now the Morris Room of the Victoria and Albert), featuring stained glass windows and panel figures by Burne-Jones, panels with branches of fruit or flowers by Morris, and olive branches and a frieze by Philip Webb.
In 1874 Morris proposed a reorganization, and Rossetti and Ford Madox Brown decided to leave the firm, requiring a return on their shares which proved to be a costly business. Throughout his life, Morris continued as principle owner and design director, although the company changed names. Its most famous incarnation was as Morris & Co. The firm's designs are still sold today under licenses given to Sanderson and Sons (which markets the "Morris & Co." brand) and Liberty of London.
In the 1870s, Morris had begun to take an active interest in politics. He became treasurer of the National Liberal League in 1879, but after the Irish coercive measures of 1881 he finally abandoned the Liberal party and drifted further into socialism. For ten or twelve years this movement had been gaining ground in England, and the Social Democratic Federation was formed in 1881. In January 1883, within a week of his election to an honorary fellowship at his old Oxford college, Exeter, Morris was enrolled among the SDF's members. Thenceforward for two years his advocacy of the cause of socialism absorbed not only his spare time, but the thought and energy of all his working hours. For it he even neglected literature and art. In March 1883 he gave an address at Manchester on "Art, Wealth and Riches"; in May he was elected upon the executive of the federation. In September he wrote the first of his Chants for Socialists. About the same time he shocked the authorities by pleading in University Hall for the wholesale support of socialism among the undergraduates at Oxford. Nevertheless, the federation began to weaken. At the franchise meeting in Hyde Park in 1884 it was unable to get a hearing. Morris, however, had not yet lost heart. Internal dissensions in 1884 led to the Morris's foundation of the breakaway Socialist League, and in February 1885 a new organ, Commonweal, began to print Morris's rallying-songs. Still, differences of opinion and degree prevented concerted action; and when, after the Trafalgar Square riots in February 1886, Morris remonstrated with the anarchic section he was denounced by the advanced party and ever afterwards was regarded with suspicion. In 1889 he was deposed from the management of Commonweal and gradually lost all confidence in the movement as an active force.
This side of Morris's work is well-discussed in the biography by E. P. Thompson (subtitled Romantic to Revolutionary). It was during this period that Morris wrote his best-known prose works, A Dream of John Ball and the utopian News from Nowhere.
Long before his break with the socialists, Morris had returned to the paramount interests of his life, art and literature. When his business was enlarged in 1881 by the establishment of a tapestry industry at Merton Abbey Mills, in Surrey, Morris found yet another means for expressing the medievalism that inspired all his work, whether on paper or at the loom. He then added another to his many activities; he assumed a direct interest in typography. In the early seventies he had devoted much attention to the arts of manuscript illumination and calligraphy. He himself wrote several manuscripts, with illuminations of his own devising. From this to attempts to beautify the art of modern printing was but a short step. The House of the Wolfings, printed in 1889 at the Chiswick Press, was the first essay in this direction; and in the same year, in The Roots of the Mountains, he carried his theory a step further. Some fifteen months later he added a private printing-press to his multifarious occupations and started upon the first volume issued from the Kelmscott Press. For the last few years of his life this new interest remained the absorbing one.
After his departure from the Socialist League, Morris divided his time between the Firm, then relocated to Merton Abbey, Kelmscott House in Hammersmith, the Kelmscott Press, and Kelmscott Manor. At his death at Kelmscott House in 1896 he was interred in the Kelmscott village churchyard.
When he returned to poetry in the late 1860s it was with The Life and Death of Jason, which was published with great success in 1867. Jason was followed by The Earthly Paradise, a huge collection of poems loosely bound together in what he called a leather strapbound book. The theme was of a group of medieval wanderers who set out to search for a land of everlasting life; after much disillusion, they discover a surviving colony of Greeks with whom they exchange stories. The collection brought him almost immediate fame and popularity (all of his books thereafter were published as "by the author of The Earthly Paradise"). The last-written stories in the collection are retellings of Icelandic sagas. From then until his Socialist period Morris's fascination with the ancient Germanic and Norse peoples dominated his writing. Together with his Icelandic friend Eiríkr Magnússon he was the first to translate many of the Icelandic sagas into English, and his own epic retelling of the story of Sigurd the Volsung was his favourite among his poems. Due to his wide poetic acclaim, Morris was quietly approached with an offer of the Poet Laureateship after the death of Tennyson in 1892, but declined.
Morris had met Eirikr Magnússon in 1868, and together they began to learn the Icelandic language. Morris published translations of The Saga of Gunnlagg Worm-Tongue and Grettis Saga in 1869, and the Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs in 1870. An additional volume was published under the title of Three Northern Love Stories in 1873.
In the mid-1870s, Morris's leisure was mainly occupied by work as a scribe and illuminator; to this period belong, among other works, two manuscripts of Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam with illustrations by Burne-Jones. He was for some time engaged in the production of a magnificent folio manuscript of Virgil's Aeneid, and in the course of that work had begun to translate the poem into English verse. The manuscript was finally laid aside for the translation, and the Eneids of Virgil was published in November 1875. Morris also translated large numbers of medieval and classical works, including Homer's Odyssey in 1887.
These were attempts to revive the genre of medieval romance, and not wholly successful, partly because he eschewed many literary techniques from later eras. In particular, the plots of the novels are heavily driven by coincidence; while many things just happened in the romances, the novels are still weakened by the dependence on it. Nevertheless, large subgenres of the field of fantasy have sprung from the romance genre, but indirectly, through their writers' imitation of William Morris. The Wood Beyond the World is considered to have heavily influenced C. S. Lewis' Narnia series, while J. R. R. Tolkien was inspired by Morris's reconstructions of early Germanic life in The House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains. (The young Tolkien attempted a retelling of the story of Kulervo from the Kalevala in the style of The House of the Wolfings.) James Joyce also drew inspiration from his work.
Morris's preference for flat use of line and colour and abhorrence of "realistic" three-dimensional shading was marked; in this he followed medieval conventions. Writing on tapestry weaving, Morris said:
As in all wall-decoration, the first thing to be considered in the designing of Tapestry is the force, purity, and elegance of the silhouette of the objects represented, and nothing vague or indeterminate is admissible. But special excellences can be expected from it. Depth of tone, richness of colour, and exquisite gradation of tints are easily to be obtained in Tapestry; and it also demands that crispness and abundance of beautiful detail which was the especial characteristic of fully developed Mediæval Art. - Of the Revival of Design and Handicraft
It is likely that much of Morris's preference for medieval textiles was formed — or crystallised — during his brief apprenticeship with G. E. Street. Street had co-written a book on Ecclesiastical Embroidery in 1848, and was a staunch advocate of abandoning faddish woolen work on canvas in favour of more expressive embroidery techniques based on Opus Anglicanum, a surface embroidery technique popular in medieval England.
Morris was producing repeating patterns for wallpaper as early as 1862, and some six years later he designed his first pattern specifically for fabric printing. As in so many other areas that interested him, Morris chose to work with the ancient technique of hand woodblock printing in preference to the roller printing which had almost completely replaced it for commercial uses.
Morris took up the practical art of dyeing as a necessary adjunct of his manufacturing business. He spent much of his time at Staffordshire dye works mastering the processes of that art and making experiments in the revival of old or discovery of new methods. One result of these experiments was to reinstate indigo dyeing as a practical industry and generally to renew the use of those vegetable dyes, like madder, which had been driven almost out of use by the anilines. Dyeing of wools, silks, and cottons was the necessary preliminary to what he had much at heart, the production of woven and printed fabrics of the highest excellence; and the period of incessant work at the dye-vat (1875–76) was followed by a period during which he was absorbed in the production of textiles (1877–78), and more especially in the revival of carpet-weaving as a fine art.
Morris's patterns for woven textiles included intricate double-woven furnishing fabrics in which two sets of warps and wefts are interlinked to create complex gradations of colour and texture. His textile designs are still popular today, sometimes recoloured for modern sensibilities, but also in the original colourways.
In January 1891, Morris founded the Kelmscott Press at Hammersmith, London, in order to produce examples of improved printing and book design. The books were designed to make reference to the methods and techniques he used, which he saw as traditional methods of printing and craftsmanship, in line with the Arts and Crafts movement as a whole, and in response to the prevalence of lithography, particularly those lithographic prints designed to look like woodcut prints. He designed clear typefaces, such as his Roman "Golden" type, which was inspired by that of the early Venetian printer Nicolaus Jenson, and medievalizing decorative borders for books that drew their inspiration from the incunabula of the 15th century and their woodcut illustrations. Selection of paper and ink, and concerns for the overall integration of type and decorations on the page made the Kelmscott Press the most famous of the private presses of the Arts and Crafts movement. It operated until 1898, producing 18,234 books of 53 works, comprising 69 volumes, and inspired other private presses, notably the Doves Press.
Among book lovers, the Kelmscott Press edition of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, with decorations and typefaces by Morris and illustrations by Burne-Jones, is considered one of the most beautiful books ever produced. A fine edition facsimile of the Kelmscott Chaucer was published in 2002 by the Folio Society.
The fame of Morris during his life was probably somewhat obscured by the variety of his accomplishments. In all his work after he reached mature life there is a marked absence of extravagance, of display, of superficial cleverness or effectiveness, and an equally marked sense of composition and subordination. Thus his poetry is singularly devoid of striking lines or phrases, and his wall-papers and chintzes only reveal their full excellence by the lastingness of the satisfaction they give. His genius as a pattern-designer is allowed by all qualified judges to have been unequalled. This, if anything, he himself regarded as his specific profession; it was under the designation of "designer" that he enrolled himself in the socialist ranks and claimed a position as one of the working class. And it is the quality of design which, together with a certain fluent ease, distinguishes his work in literature as well as in industrial art. It is yet too early to forecast what permanent place he may hold among English poets. "The Defence of Guenevere" had a deep influence on a very limited audience. With "Jason" and the "Earthly Paradise" he attained a wide popularity: and these poems, appearing as they did at a time when the poetic art in England seemed narrowing into mere labour on a thrice-ploughed field, not only gave a new scope, range, and flexibility to English rhymed verse, but recovered for narrative poetry a place among the foremost kinds of the art. A certain diffuseness of style may seem to be against their permanent life, so far as it is not compensated by a uniform wholesomeness and sweetness which indeed marks all Morris’s work. In "Sigurd the Volsung" Morris appears to have aimed higher than in his other poems, but not to have reached his aim with the same certainty; and his own return afterwards from epic to romance may indicate that the latter was the ground on which he was most at home. The prose romances of his later years have so far proved less popular in themselves than in the dilutions they have suggested to other writers. Here as elsewhere Morris’s great effect was to stimulate the artistic sense and initiate movements. So likewise it was with his political and social work. Much of it was not practical in the ordinary sense; but it was based on principles and directed towards ideals which have had a wide and profound influence over thought and practice.
From a later perspective, Stansky concludes that:
Morris's views on the environment, on preserving what is of value in both the natural and "built" worlds, on decentralising bloated government, are as significant now as they were in Morris's own time, or even more so. Earlier in the twentieth century, much of his thinking, particularly its political side, was dismissed as sheer romanticism. After the Second World War, it appeared that modernisation, centralisation, industrialism, rationalism – all the faceless movements of the time – were in control and would take care of the world. Today, when we have a keen sense of the shambles of their efforts, the suggestions which Morris made in his designs, his writings, his actions and his politics have new power and relevance.
Today, Morris's poetry is little-read. His fantasy romances languished out of print for decades until their rediscovery amid the great fantasy revival of the late 1960s following the phenomenal success of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. But his textile and wallpaper designs remain a staple of the Arts and Crafts Revival of the turn of the 21st century, and the reproduction of Morris designs as fabric, wrapping paper, and craft kits of all sorts is testament to the enduring appeal of his work. The William Morris Societies in Britain, the US, and Canada are active in preserving Morris's work and ideas.
A number of galleries and museums house important collections of Morris's work and decorative items commissioned from Morris & Co. The William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, England, is a public museum devoted to Morris' life, work and influence. There are permanent displays of printed, woven and embroidered fabrics, rugs, carpets, wallpapers, furniture, stained glass and painted tiles by Morris and his associates. In April 2007, The Guardian newspaper reported that funding for the Gallery was threatened by cost cutting by the London borough of Waltham Forest. A campaign to avoid the reduction in opening times and dismissal of key staff is underway. The former "green dining room" at the Victoria and Albert Museum is now its "Morris Room". The V&A's British Galleries house other decorative works by Morris and his associates.
Wightwick Manor in the West Midlands, England, is a notable example of the Morris & Co. style, with original Morris wallpapers and fabrics, De Morgan tiles, and Pre-Raphaelite works of art, managed by the National Trust. Standen in West Sussex, England, was designed by Webb between 1892 and 1894 and decorated with Morris carpets, fabrics and wallpapers. Morris's homes Red House and Kelmscott Manor have been preserved. Red House was acquired by the National Trust in 2003 and is open to the public by advanced reservation. Kelmscott Manor is owned by the Society of Antiquaries of London and is open to the public.
The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California acquired the collection of Morris materials amassed by Sanford and Helen Berger in 1999. The collection includes stained glass, wallpaper, textiles, embroidery, drawings, ceramics, more than 2000 books, original woodblocks, and the complete archives of both Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. and Morris & Co. These materials formed the foundation for the 2002 exhibition William Morris: Creating the Useful and the Beautiful.