All this creative energy was apparent from an early age, but as a young man, Morris envisaged himself in the church, rather than the arts. The eldest surviving son of a wealthy London businessman, he entered Exeter College, Oxford, with the intention of taking holy orders. He spent his first terms immersed in religious works, and even considered becoming a monk.
But university was an awakening – socially, politically, and aesthetically. Through his friend, Edward Burne-Jones, Morris was introduced to a group of free-thinking students, known to historians as the “Birmingham Set”. With them, he discussed literature, aesthetics, secularism and social reform, developing ideas that would become foundational to the Arts & Crafts movement. Bored by his Classics degree, Morris immersed himself in medieval architecture, Arthurian legends, John Ruskin, and the emerging Pre-Raphaelite group, co-founded by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
In 1857, Morris worked with Rossetti and Burne-Jones on the decoration of the Oxford Union. Two years later, he embarked, with architect Philip Webb, on building and decorating Red House, a neo-Gothic family home for him and his new wife, Jane Burden. Having abandoned an architectural apprenticeship after university, both these projects were key to Morris’ development as a designer, while deepening his faith in (predominantly male) creative teamwork.
In April 1861, this spirit of artistic fraternity inspired the founding of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. “The Firm”, which originally consisted of seven partners, set out to revive decorative arts and medieval craftsmanship. They designed furniture, architecture, chintzes, carpets, murals, and stained glass, with a particularly booming trade in the building and refitting of churches.
Much of the company’s creative impetus and financial backing was Morris’s. In August 1874, he announced his intention to restructure the firm under his sole ownership. After a long and acrimonious dispute, the partnership was dissolved, and the business reconstituted as Morris & Co.