‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful’
William Morris; his artistic vision shaped British attitudes to fashion and design.
‘COMMON’ WALLPAPER BY WILLIAM MORRIS // SOURCE: WILLIAM MORRIS GALLERY
William Morris was one of the most important figures in the Victorian period. With many pursuits to his name, ranging from poet and novelist to socialist pioneer, Morris had an incredible impact upon nineteenth-century society. His influence on the British Arts & Crafts
Movement, which quickly spread across Europe and to the United States, would greatly affect the production of textiles and handicrafts well into the twentieth century.
Read on to find out why William Morris left such a lasting impression on the arts.
Life & Work
The renowned textile designer and literary expert celebrates his 184th birthday this year. Born in the east of London in 1834, Morris enjoyed a privileged childhood in Essex surrounded by beautiful natural landscapes and religious architecture. His father, being a successful financier, left him a hefty inheritance when he came of age. In 1853, Morris left for the University of Oxford, where he met close friend and pre-raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones, as well as his future wife Jane Burden, who he married in 1859. They had two children, Jenny and May, three years later.
Morris dedicated much of his life to his interior designs, which have never gone out of fashion. He started a design business with friends nicknamed ‘The Firm’, becoming the sole director in 1875 and reaching such financial heights that the company could afford a factory in 1881, affording greater control and an increase in manufacturing. From the mid-1880s onwards, however, Morris was seen to be more engaged in other pursuits, notably in politics and literature. In 1884, he helped to found the Socialist League and campaigned against vast divisions in class and later, in the 1890s, returned to his writing. Inspired by John Ruskin’s ideas as to the vital relationship between art and beauty, Morris’ literary texts craft utopian worlds in which all people have the time and sensibility to find pleasure in their surroundings.
‘Unless people care about carrying on their business without making the world hideous, how can they care about Art?’
PORTRAIT OF WILLIAM MORRIS BY FREDERICK HOLLYER (1887) // SOURCE: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
Morris is credited with more than 50 intricate, illustrative designs, which at the time (and still today) became wallpapers, textiles and carpets. His textiles are intrinsically associated with a strong fascination for the natural form, working primarily with simple British flora and fauna, as well as some representations of common woodland creatures. This was contrary to the popular French style of the time, which emphasised exotic flowers and over-complicated stylistic designs. His work has been displayed in museums and galleries all over the world.
La Belle Iseult (1858)
Inspired by Thomas Malory’s ‘Morte d’Arthur’ (1485), Morris’ wife, Jane, takes centre stage as the model in this medieval style painting. Morris’ only finished oil painting, his wife is emblematic of pre-raphaelite perfection, being slim and pale-faced with wild dark hair. Jane also stood for Morris’ fellow artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti for one of his most famous works as Proserpine, a Roman goddess who spent her winters in the underworld. At the time, he and Jane were engaged torrid affair; his passion for this particular painting bordered on obsession, spanning seven years and eight different canvases.
OIL PAINTING ‘LA BELLE ISEULT’ BY WILLIAM MORRIS (1858) // SOURCE: TATE
Strawberry Thief (1883)
One of Morris’ better known designs, the rural print of this decor was inspired by the thrushes that frequented the strawberry patches in the garden of his family’s countryside manor in Oxfordshire. It also served as a personal achievement: Morris had been trying to print with the ancient indigo discharge method since 1875 and finally succeeded in his new factory at Merton Abbey. This technique provided greater depth of colour in the work, which beautifully paired natural opulence with the simplicity of domestic life. At the time, this was one of Morris’ most popular designs, despite being from the more expensive end of his collection.
TEXTILE ‘STRAWBERRY THIEF’ BY WILLIAM MORRIS (1883) // SOURCE: MAGNOLIA BOX
A print with clear roots to Indian textiles, very fashionable during the 1870s and easily available, this design detracts from Morris’ usual fascination with medieval European art and pastoral landscapes. However, Morris was appreciative of the Indian custom to hand-print their textiles with natural dyes, claiming that this additional natural element added further richness to the piece, particularly in the face of industrial advance. With bold, vivid reds and blues at the forefront, Morris also experimented with two- and three-dimensional shapes.
TEXTILE ‘SNAKESHEAD’ BY WILLIAM MORRIS (1876) // SOURCE: PINTEREST
Morris is better known for his legendary designs but the popularity of his poetry has also been on the rise in recent years. He wrote for most of his life, from his time at university through to his twilight years. His poetry, in particular, depicts the complications of attributing his simple and romantic vision of Medieval life to his nineteenth-century industrialised reality full of poverty and distinct class barriers. This thematic difficulty was softened by his underlying belief at the prospect of positive change.
‘The Defence of Guenevere’ (1858), his first poetry collection, was inspired by Thomas Malory’s ‘Morte d’Arthur’. It was denounced by critics as too medievalist, with Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s influences far too obvious (morbid themes such as adultery and sexual desire) for Victorian sensibilities. Morris therefore decided to dedicate this collection to his good friend Rossetti.
Morris’ most distinguished work of poetry was his classical epic ‘The Earthly Paradise’ (1868-70). Drawing on myths from Ancient Greece and Scandinavia, Morris follows Chaucer by crafting his own group of Norseman wanderers who exchange stories with a colony of Greeks. Morris includes two of his favourite literary themes, medieval and norse myths, in this text – he was a great admirer of Scandinavian culture, being a frequent visitor to Iceland. Following this collection, Morris continued to write, publishing poems such as the popular ‘Love is Enough’, but no other poetic work reached quite such acclaim as this.
PAINTING ‘PSYCHE’S WEDDING’ BY EDWARD BURNE-JONES (1895) // SOURCE: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
Fantasy is another area of literature that Morris explored: his novels, predominantly ‘The Wood Beyond the World’ (1894) and ‘The Well at the World’s End’ (1896), were some of the first to interact not only with a fantasy or dream land but to invent a totally new fictional world, greatly influencing writers like C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien who would establish the fantasy genre.
Morris was also unafraid of writing with political emphasis. In ‘News from Nowhere’ (1890), Morris engages fully with utopian possibilities by placing his Victorian character in a future where there exists no imperial or parliamentary control, questioning the key issues associated with socialism. In this text, nobody goes to prison, money doesn’t exist and the class system was never established; society functions because its citizens find pleasure in their pastoral surroundings. Morris wrote ‘News from Nowhere’ to purposefully influence intellectual debates regarding socialism at the time.
In 1892, following the death of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Morris was offered the lauded position of Poet Laureate. He rejected this for political and anti-imperialist reasons.
BOOK EXCERPT ‘NEWS FROM NOWHERE’ (1890) BY WILLIAM MORRIS // SOURCE: WILLIAM MORRIS GALLERY
British Arts & Crafts Movement
Perhaps the most important decorative movement in history, the Arts & Craft Movement was a worldwide campaign against the negative potential and effects of growing industrialisation. In Britain, it’s considered to have begun during the 1880s, spreading without pause throughout Europe and into the United States, before culminating in Japan. It was inspired by the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society, first recorded in 1887. This movement highlighted the problems associated with industrialisation not only upon the loss of trade seen through new forms of mass productions, but due to the detrimental effect upon society itself. The loss of the human connection evident in the exchange of handmade goods was at the forefront of their campaign.
Morris and renowned fellow critic John Ruskin are the two most memorable figures associated with the movement, with Ruskin examining socialist theory (with strong emphasis upon its relationship with art) and Morris acting upon more practical pursuits. His work at Morris & Co. in traditional decorative items, predominantly featuring medieval and romantic elements, was of supreme influence during and following his lifetime.
SEASON TICKET TO ‘THE ARTS & CRAFTS EXHIBITION SOCIETY (1890) // SOURCE: VICTORIA & ALBERT MUSEUM
Establishment of Morris & Co.
Since its establishment by Morris and his contemporaries in 1861, the Morris & Co. brand has been at the forefront of decorative design. For more than 150 years, the company has produced beautiful, pastoral wallpaper and fabric designs that charmingly enhance any home.
First called Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. the affectionately nicknamed ‘The Firm’ was founded jointly by Morris, Charles Faulkner, P. P. Marshall and others, including Morris’ close friends Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, as a manufacturer of small handicrafts inspired by medieval and romantic themes. They situated themselves at 8 Red Lion Square in Holborn before relocating to larger premises in Bloomsbury.
Morris & Co., so named from 1875, gained significant notoriety from royal projects, helping them to establish their reputation. In 1867, they redesigned ‘the green dining room’ at the South Kensington Museum, now the Victoria & Albert Museum; in 1880, the company redecorated rooms in St. James’ palace with a special wallpaper, designed by Morris himself; and, finally, in 1887, Morris & Co. was commissioned to design a specialist wallpaper design for Balmoral Castle featuring Queen Victoria’s initial.
In the late 1880s, Morris’ daughter May took over his responsibilities as he became more involved in socialism and his role at Kelmscott Press. This new publishing pursuit, set up in Hammersmith, would go on to print texts by Keats, Shelley and Ruskin, as well as Morris himself, focussing firmly upon books that he considered to be beautiful.
After Morris’ death in 1896, British designer J. H. Dearle, responsible for the popular Morris & Co. ‘Golden Lily’ design, became the company’s art director.
The original Morris & Co. company went into liquidation in 1940. The textiles, prints and archives were purchased by Arthur Sanderson & Sons, who still own the brand today.
PHOTOGRAPH OF MORRIS & CO. FACTORY AT MERTON ABBEY (1890) // SOURCE: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
The impact of Morris’ contributions to art, design, literature and politics has not been forgotten - there are many places where his work can be seen firsthand, and his textile ideas have recently been incorporated into contemporary fashion. With intricate designs that still inspire and amaze, they’ve walked down catwalks and been featured in high-end fashion magazines.
Aficionados include young designer Joe Richards and acclaimed label Marques ‘ Almeida. Richards, based in Bath, was inspired by the textiles and wallpapers found at the Morris & Co. archives found in Buckinghamshire. One of the key elements of Morris’ work that he wanted to preserve in his own was that same evidence of human imperfection that comes from handicrafts. Not only is the product important, but the process.
Marques ‘ Almeida have also brought vintage classics into their eclectic contemporary design. With an attitude-filled collection described as punk meet coquette, the garments presented at the Spring 2017 fashion show in London featured tulle, boiler-suits and lots of denim. Morris’ patterns took centre stage and, paired with contrasting fashion elements, highlighted the timelessness of his designs.
MARQUES ‘ ALMEIDA SS17 COLLECTION // SOURCE: VOGUE
In 1860, Morris and his new wife moved to their new home in Kent, where they lived for five years. The Red House was designed by Philip Webb, who would soon become a lifelong friend. The interior of the house was Morris’ pride and joy, to be filled with tapestries and embroidery, wallpaper and art - some of these details are still evident. The Red House was an incredibly social home, with Morris’ close circle of friends always visiting to discuss artistic or political pursuits; they would often also be roped into making some kind of aesthetic contribution.
A selection of Morris’ textile works can also be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington and the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow. The gallery is hosted in a Georgian House from the 1740s that was the Morris family home during William Morris’ teenage years. Set within the beautiful Lloyd Park, Morris was further immersed in nature at this time, which inspired some of his early pastoral poetry.
WILLIAM MORRIS GALLERY IN WALTHAMSTOW // SOURCE: TIME OUT
Morris & Co. continue to faithfully produce Morris’ original designs on products of use and beauty, staying true to his philosophical ideals. The bespoke brand has found its perfect home at Heathcote & Ivory, where we share the same love for stunning pastoral prints and products crafted with care. With a range of all-natural creams and lotions (always paraffin-free) and luxury accessories featuring Morris’ classic designs, there’s bound to be something elegantly vintage for you. Browse the full collection for something truly spectacular.
William Morris was a pioneer of intricate natural textiles, an unforgettable writer and a man that ultimately revolutionised the design industry. He is one of the most recognisable figures of the Arts & Crafts Movement, the most significant of its kind, and fought deftly for social equality. Morris’ legacy is secured by a society and gallery in his name, showcasing the power of his influence and works that have changed the way we think on art today.
‘History has remembered the kings and warriors, because they destroyed;
art has remembered the people, because they created.’