Many people might recognise William Morris as a name associated with a mediaevalesque floral pattern, often adorning curtains or sofas.
However, William Morris was a major figure of Victorian society. He was a pioneer in the Arts and Crafts Movement, a celebrated innovator in the British textile industry, and an important political activist in the early days of the British Socialist League.
So how did Morris become such a noteworthy figure?
An idyllic childhood
Morris was born in Walthamstow, London, in 1834. His father earnt huge sums of money as a broker, blessing his son with an inheritance so large he was never troubled about earning an income.
From 1848 to 1856, in his teenage years, Morris lived in Water House (now the William Morris Gallery), spending school holidays boating and fishing in the moat. His lifelong love of landscape, buildings and historical romance was inspired by these idyllic surroundings.
From his youth, Morris had a strong moral compass and social awareness. He was disgusted by the industrialism of the Victorian age, believing society based on mass production created alienation and division. When he visited the 1851 Great Exhibition at the age of 16 he refused to enter, repelled by the ‘ugliness’ of what he expected to find there.
Oxford University and ‘The Set’
When Morris was at Oxford University he met Edward Burne-Jones, who shared his views about the decline of the modern world. Burne-Jones introduced him to a group who were known as ‘The Set’ or ‘The Brotherhood’. They enjoyed reading medieval history, chronicles, and poetry, which celebrated themes of romantic chivalry and self-sacrifice.
Perhaps inspired by the beauty of Oxford’s honey-coloured architecture and the late night discussions with this new group of friends, Morris developed a lifelong love of medieval history and art.
Combined with his hatred of modern industrialisation, Morris sought to return to a medieval system that supported craft through artisan guilds, thereby raising the status of the artist or manufacturer. His vision was a world away from Victorian Britain, where the status of the individual maker had been relegated to just another cog in a machine.
His ideas were greatly influenced by John Ruskin, a prominent social critic, who also disapproved of the dehumanisation of mass production. Industrialisation, he believed, would eventually be the ruin of art and culture, and by this logic, it would lead to a destruction of civilisation.
Morris believed nature was not to be conquered, but respected. The beauty of objects did not lie only in the visual aesthetic, but also in the skill of the craftsman. The Arts and Crafts style which developed in art, furniture design and architecture drew upon several key principles.
These principles specified only natural and local materials should be used, vernacular styles should be created from domestic, traditional techniques, simple forms should expose the construction processes, extravagant decoration was unnecessary, and natural motifs (such as the flora and fauna of the British countryside) were a favourable theme.
Morris’ ideas materialised in Red House, a new family home designed by Phillip Webb in Kent. The design aimed to be true to its materials and expressive of the site and local culture. When Rossetti saw it for the first time, he declared it
‘more a poem than a house’
Along with several friends, who thrived in the ‘joy in collective labour’, huge murals and hand-embroidered fabrics adorned the walls, creating a sense of an ancient manor house.
Every detail was taken into account – Morris custom-designed furniture, glassware, candle-sticks, chairs, picture-hooks and finger-plates. It was ‘very medieval in spirit’ – more a simple design harking back to the houses of the ordinary man, rather than the fussy mid-Victorian architecture then in fashion.
Morris & Company
In 1861, Morris founded the Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co decorative arts firm with Burne-Jones, Rossetti and Webb. They brought together craftsmen of all kinds under one studio, and sought to apply Ruskin’s philosophy to business. For Morris, this meant striving to achieve beautiful designs which remained functional. He wrote,
‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.’
The medieval style of Morris’s work was incredibly successful and became considered quintessentially English. His principled approach to craftsmanship and labour became a model for a number of craft guilds and art societies.
In 1875, Morris & Company was founded as Morris took control of the company. It sold printed and woven fabrics, wallpapers, designs for carpets, rugs, embroidery and tapestry. They were sold in his shop on Oxford Street, which offered an innovative ‘all under one roof’ retail experience.
Despite his privileged background allowing him to thrive off a generous inheritance, Morris became increasingly frustrated with politics, and founded the Socialist League in 1884. Protected against the disapproving establishment by his fame and success, Morris went on socialist marches and made numerous street-corner speeches.
At Morris’ death in 1896, he was a household name, and his designs have enjoyed popular success to the modern day.