Artistic Influencers: William Morris
‘What drove him into revolutionary activism was his anger and shame at the injustices within society. He burned with guilt at the fact that his "good fortune only" allowed him to live in beautiful surroundings and to pursue the work he adored. […] in his time, Morris was "as extreme as any modern artist"– Fiona MacCarthy
“We owe it to William Morris that an ordinary man’s dwelling house has once more become a worthy object of the architects thought, and a chair, wallpaper, or a vase a worthy object of the artists imagination.” -Nicholas Pevsner
Tree of Life Tapestry, designed by William Morris.
How much we retain of William Morris in our ethos and attitudes towards art is reflected in the cultural imagination. When most of us think of William Morris, we think of his wallpaper designs reimagined in furniture stores. But Morris was much more than just a textile designer of bespoke wallpapers, he was an incredibly multifaceted artist, poet and political campaigner. His artistic skills were vast: stained glass, ceramics, weaving, painting, decorating, calligraphy, typesetting, book binding, printing and furniture making were all within his repertoire.
His story began with a comfortable background: born in Walthamstow he grew up in a middle-class household and studied at Exeter College, Oxford. He found himself disliking his course, but found friends in the form of painters Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rosetti. Soon Morris deigned to be an artist like them rather than take up Holy orders as anticipated. In their university years trips abroad shaped Morris’ early tastes in architecture and design. Medieval French cathedrals like Bayeux and Coutances captured his interest and he found his first passion in architecture. He later came to regard this as the solid foundation from which all his future artistic sensibilities were honed. In the 1850’s, gothic revival architecture became a fashionable national building style, as symbolised by Pugin’s design of the Houses of Parliament. It was in this era too that the artistic sensibilities of the Pre-Raphaelites came into their own, a movement fronted by Morris’s friend Rossetti as well as William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais. Their work was inspired by the medieval: Arthurian legends, the poems of Dante, and divine feminine beauty epitomised the thematic narratives of their paintings.
In 1859 Morris married Jane Burden, the subject many of Rosetti’s paintings. Unlike Morris, she had a poor upbringing, but like Morris, she too came to romanticise the medieval style. This was so much so that the young couple were known for the beauty of their first home, ‘The Red House’, deemed by Rosetti to be “More poem than house”.Nestled In the countryside in the village of Bexleyheath, Kent, the Red House was designed by Philip Webb in collaboration with Morris. Webb knew Morris from his time as an architect in the offices and the two continued a close relationship as the design of the entire house influenced the founding of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co in 1861. Burne-Jones, Morris, Webb and Rossetti all played key roles. The firm designed a wide range for the home: tapestries, wall-papers, metalwork, furniture, stained glass and homewares. Morris’ socialist views came into play here. Morris himself disapproved of fanciful elitism when it came to the aesthetic. His vision was to bring high-quality craftsmanship to the reach of everyone, and he became more prominently regarded for his lectures critiquing these pitfalls of the design style of his contemporaries. He believed in establishing the decorative, domestic sphere as a curatorial art on an equal footing with the typically viewed as more skilled or elite pursuits of painting, sculpture and architecture. They hired unskilled boys and trained them up as craftsmen. These ideals however didn’t mean that they didn’t achieve high prestige amongst the wealthy: it was Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. that redecorated the armoury and tapestry room of St James’ Palace in 1866. The firm was not the only artistic pursuit Morris was undertaking during this period: Published in 1868 was his poetic work The Earthly Paradise, which led to his consideration for poet laureate. By the end of his life he had amassed over 20 collections of poetry and was well known for his verse.
By 1874 however, despite practically living at his workshop Morris was struggling financially. With the firm his only source of income and working such long hours he felt he wanted to take on external manufacture of some textiles produced: his partners disagreed which led to the dissolution of the company and the reinvention of the company as Morris and Co, which traded from 1875-1940, and whose designs are still sold today under Sanderson & Sons licencing. As a result of restructuring the firm, Morris threw himself into learning new techniques and mastered dying, reinstating indigo dying and old methods of crafting. By 1879 Morris had taught himself to weave tapestries in the traditional medieval style. He set up a tapestry workshop with his apprentice John Henry Dearle, who then took over training all tapestry apprentices at Merton Abbey. Their designs, based on Arthurian legends, became a signature mark of Morris and Co. It was Dearle who took over the firm upon Morris’ death in 1896.
Political campaigning was an important part of Morris’ life. In 1881 he was involved in establishing the Radical Union, which aimed to unite diverse radical working-class activist groups, but he soon found himself moving towards socialism, a new, fledgling political viewpoint in this era. He joined the democratic party in 1883 soon after its founding, and read widely and earnestly predominantly socialist texts. Using his prominence as an artist he was invited to speak at Oxford on Democracy and Art and earned national press coverage when he chose to discuss socialism. He also lent his artistic and literary talents to the movement, designing their membership card and contributing to their manifesto, Socialism Made Plain, where they demanded improved housing for workers, free and compulsory education for all children, free school meals, an 8 hour work day, the abolition of national debt, nationalisation of land, banks, and railways, and the organisation of agriculture and industry under state control and co-operative principles. In 1884 he founded the Socialist League, composing a second manifesto and describing their position as “Revolutionary International Socialism”, advocating for world revolution and not just socialism within a country. He devoted himself to educating, organising and agitating for socialist betterment. Though predominantly Marxist, he also befriended Stepniak and Kropotkin, prominent anarchists.
At the time of his death Morris was known internationally as a poet, and his company’s products were known across the world. Not only did he inspire and change the way we consider design, interiors and ‘domestic’ crafts, his ethos influenced later arts movements as well as whole industries of the textile arts, book making, weaving, metalwork, furniture craft and their methods of production. I’ve chosen to write a brief overview of his life in the hope of conveying a more rounded picture of this influential individual who reminds us to create art with conscience. I’ve chosen to rework his famed textile designs in my own signature style not only as homage to his originals but in response to his methods of production, focusing on the handmade, the time-consuming aspects of craftsmanship and the creation of art for the home as an important curatorial space. You can find my designs, Full Bloom I, II and III in my Shop.
The Pitkin Guide William Morris: An Illustrated Life
Robin Spencer, The Aesthetic Movement, Studio Vista Dutton
Fiona MacCarthy, ‘William Morris: Beauty and anarchy in the UK’ The Guardian. 2014