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The life of William Morris: An inexhaustible search for beauty

Posted on 03 Feb 2023

The Arts and Crafts designer created such iconic patterns as Strawberry Thief – but William Morris’s abilities ranged far beyond textiles. In a kaleidoscopic life, he turned his hand to poetry, book design, environmentalism and more, dreaming of socialist utopias and even once considering life as a monk.

William Morris, photographed by Frederick Hollyer, 1886. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

For William Morris, art was everywhere. It was not only a matter of painting, sculpture, and architecture. Art was in the “shapes and colours of all household goods”. It was in the “arrangement of the fields” and “the management of towns and highways”.

This comprehensive view did not mean that the art was always good. Indeed, Morris loathed the laissez-faire industrialism of his mid-Victorian age. He railed against ugly building, environmental degradation, cheap mass production, and the evils of class inequity. He held a deep conviction that there must be a better, less wasteful, and more beautiful way to make and live.

Morris’ ideas were not unique. By the mid-1850s, there was growing interest in the relationship between art, craft, and societal health. The work of John Ruskin, a leading critic of the Industrial Revolution and key influence on Morris, made a powerful case for the dignity of handwork and the centrality of architecture and material quality on social wellbeing.

What made Morris so exceptional was the effort he made to evolve these ideas in practice. Over the course of his career, he was a visual artist, poet, storyteller, socialist campaigner, successful businessperson, craftsman, and decorator. He also applied himself to almost every field of design including embroidery, furniture, stained glass, wallpapers, murals, wood engravings, calligraphy, printed and woven textiles, tapestry, and book design.

The Hammersmith branch of the Socialist. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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.

Exterior of the showroom at Oxford Street. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The decade that followed was one of great commercial and creative momentum. Morris opened showrooms in Oxford and Manchester, appointed agents in Europe and North America, and expanded his product range to include varying grades and prices. He also launched a full interior decoration service.

In the same period, he focused his energies on textiles, creating some of his best-loved patterns including Honeysuckle, Peacock and Dragon, and Strawberry Thief. In style, he strove to balance “clearness of form and firmness of structure with the mystery that comes of abundance and richness of detail”. His inspirations were most often found in the flowers, plants, and animals of English gardens and meadows. His dyes and colours were natural, and his approach tactile and hands-on.

Strawberry Thief. Designed by William Morris, registered 11 May 1883. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

As the patterns and business flourished, Morris was increasingly disillusioned in his political engagement. He’d long been a campaigner for a fairer, greener future – including founding the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877 – but his experiences gradually convinced him that piecemeal reform was inadequate.

In the mid 1880s, he embraced socialism and threw himself into revolutionary speaking and writing engagements. In his final decade, he created a remarkable body of socialist literature, including News from Nowhere, a utopian prose romance in which there is no private property, no industrialization, no money, no capitalist system — and no division between art, life, and work.

News from Nowhere by William Morris, Kelmscott Press edition. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

At the time of his death, mainstream obituaries trivialized this turn to revolutionary politics, but for the movement he remained a pivotal figure, with his name and portrait adorning socialist halls, Labour churches and clubrooms. For his lifelong friend and collaborator Edward Burne-Jones, the final flurry of political activism was another example of a uniquely energetic and engaged life. Months before Morris’ death, he summed up his career with exasperation, fondness, and awe:

“When I first knew Morris nothing would content him but being a monk, and getting to Rome, and then he must be an architect … but when I came to London and began to paint he threw it all up, and must paint too, and then he must give it up and make poems, and then he must give it up and make window hangings and pretty things, and when he had achieved that, he must be a poet again, and then after two or three years … lived in a vat, and learned weaving, and knew all about looms, and then made more books, and learned tapestry, and then wanted to smash everything up and begin the world anew, and now it is printing he cares for, and to make wonderful rich-looking books and all things he does splendidly– and if he lives the printing will have an end … and then he’ll do I don’t know what, but every minute will be alive.”

Words by Eliza Apperly

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