William Morris

William Morris – Textile Designer, Artist, Writer and Socialist

William Morris was born at Elm House in Walthamstow, Essex, on 24 March 1834. He was born into a wealthy middle-class family, and was named after his father who was a financier who worked as a partner in the Sanderson & Co. firm, bill brokers in the City of London. His mother was Emma Morris (née Shelton), who descended from a wealthy family from Worcester. Morris was the third of his parents’ surviving children. The Morris family were evangelical Protestants and William was baptised four months after his birth at St. Mary’s Church, Walthamstow.

As a child, Morris was kept largely at home at Elm House by his mother; there, he spent much time reading, he particularly enjoyed the novels of Walter Scott. At the age of 6, Morris moved with his family to the Georgian Italianate mansion at Woodford Hall, Woodford, Essex, which was surrounded by 50 acres of land adjacent to Epping Forest. He took an interest in fishing with his brothers as well as gardening in the Hall’s grounds, and spent much time exploring the forest, where he was fascinated both by the Iron Age earthworks at Loughton Camp and Ambresbury Banks and by the Early Modern Hunting Lodge at Chingford.
He rode through Epping Forest regularly on his pony, and developed an interest in architecture whilst visiting various churches and cathedrals throughout the country.

In 1847, Morris’s father died unexpectedly and was buried at St Mary’s church in Woodford next to Woodford Memorial Hall shortly after the death of William Morris’s father the family sold Woodford Hall to move into the smaller Water House.

In February 1848 Morris began his studies at Marlborough College in Marlborough, Wiltshire, where he gained a reputation as an eccentric nicknamed “Crab”. He disliked his time at the College where he was bullied, bored, and suffered with homesickness.

William Morris came under the strong influence of medievalism while studying Classics at Oxford University. After university he trained as an architect, married Jane Burden, and developed close friendships with the Pre-Raphaelite artists Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti and with the Neo-Gothic architect Philip Webb.

Webb and Morris spent severally years designing a family home at Red House in Kent, where Morris lived from 1859 to 1865, before relocating to Bloomsbury, central London.

In 1861, Morris founded a decorative arts firm with Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Webb, and others called Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. The art work created by the firm became highly fashionable and influenced interior decoration throughout the Victorian period, with Morris designing tapestries, wallpaper, fabrics, furniture, and stained glass windows. In 1875, Morris assumed total control of the company, which was renamed Morris & Co.

Although retaining a main home in London, from 1871 Morris rented the rural retreat of Kelmscott Manor, Oxfordshire. Greatly influenced by visits to Iceland, with Eiríkr Magnússon he produced a series of English-language translations of Icelandic Sagas. He also achieved success with the publication of his epic poems and novels, to include The Earthly Paradise (1868–1870), and A Dream of John Ball (1888).

In 1877 he founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings to campaign against the damage caused by architectural restoration.

In the 1880s Morris became a committed socialist activist and after joining the Social Democratic Federation he later founded the Socialist League in 1884 but left that organization in 1890. In 1891 he founded the Kelmscott Press to publish limited-edition, illuminated-style print books.

Interview With William Morris

Below is an interview with William Morris conducted by the Gloucester Journal on Saturday 19th April 1879

9th October 1896 Dover Express
Death of William Morris Press Cutting
william morris obituary press cutting

MR WILLIAM MORRIS – IN THE LATEST OF THE SERIES OF SKETCHES APPEARING IN THE “WORLD” under the heading of “Celebrities at Home” the writer interviews Mr William Morris artist and poet, in his studio in Queen’s Square, London. Mr Morris who is described as a “middle aged” thickset man, broad and deep of chest, and with head, curly as to hair and beard decidely handsome, and barely silvered by time is found “engaged in sketching a cartoon for decorative tile-work. The hand he holds out to his visitor and the wristband from which it protudes are both dark blue, a portrait which he at once explains,

“You see I dye all my patterns myself, and worked a long time at a dyers in order to qualify myself practically for this important part of our work” Has he also mastered the art of staining glass? “No we leave our glass-work entirely to Mr Burne-Jones. He knows so much more about it than anyone else; but I make not only designs, but actual drawings for upholstery, paperhangings, and tile work and am very proud of my my technial knowledge. I think the only way to get your designs carried out is to know the work yourself…… It takes times of course ; but it is now 16 years since we first began – in a very small way – and I have. Does Mr Morris study from nature, and then adapt his work to the conventional forms he prefers for decorative purposes?

He tells me that during one period he studied closely from nature; but being endowed with a remarkably good memory for colour form, and landscape , he finds it unnecessary in the general way to proceed beyond its stores. Nevertheless, the instinct of truth is strong within him…… For writing poetry or painting pictures he thinks the close study of nature indispensible; but for decorative work, depending upon the variety of other considerations then the imitation of natural objects, he holds it far less necessary.

The son of a city man, educated first at Marlborough School and then Exeter College, Oxford. Mr Morris after trying for the Newdigate and failing took a pass and drifted into Philiatia. Before this he had prepared himself for an active life by entering Mr Street’s office to study architecture as a profession. Following up his life plans, he came to town, and devoted himself eagerly to architecture, decoration, and painting …………” and for five years published no line of poetry. His first volumne had not been successful, and he worked at plans, pictures, and designs until he found, as he thought, his vocation in decorative work. To this he had been faithful for the last sixteen years, so far as the five working days of the week are concerned, Saturday and Sunday having been set aside for verse.

Did you know...
  1. William Morris was an English artist, poet and politician. He was incredibly creative and he produced decorative art in a range of different forms, including: textiles, furniture, wallpaper, stained glass windows, book design and tapestry and is thought to be one of the greatest artists in the Art and Craft period. Woodford Memorial Hall is also an example of Arts and Craft Architecture which became very popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
  2. He lived at Woodford Hall which was just at the back of Woodford Memorial Hall from the age of 7 to 14 between 1840 and 1847.
  3. At that time which was surrounded by 50 acres of land and was next to Epping Forest. He took an interest in fishing with his brothers as well as gardening in the Hall’s grounds, and spent a lot of time exploring the Forest, and would notice, the different kind of trees, leaves, birds and flowers. You can see the influence of what he saw in his work when he became an artist. He was fascinated by the Iron Age earthworks at Loughton Camp.
  4. He took rides through the Essex countryside on his pony, and visited the various churches and cathedrals throughout the country. He was fascinated at their architecture.
  5. His family were quite wealthy and he had a happy childhood and was a bit spoilt.
  6. He earned a degree from Exeter College, Oxford. After his graduation he started to work as an architect where he met and became friends with the painters Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, soon after meeting them he stopped studying to be an architect so he could become a painter.
  7. In 1859 William Morris married Jane Burden. Soon after they had a house built for them on Bexley Heath. The house was called Red House and was designed by Philip Webb. William and Jane designed all of the interiors and decoration themselves. They spent about two years getting the house just right, doing much of the work themselves. They were so happy with the results that they decided to start their own fine art craft work company.
  8. In 1861 their company, called Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co., started to make furniture, tableware, soft furnishings and wallpaper. All of the items produced were handcrafted.
  9. By the mid-1860s, William Morris concentrated on designing wallpaper. His patterns were inspired by the natural world, and these are some his best-known works of art.
  10. In 1875 William Morris started a new company, Morris and Co which still exists today.
  11. William Morris wrote many poems during his lifetime.
  12. In the 1880’s he became interested in the Socialist movement. Although he was rich and owned his own property he believed that as a Socialist it was important for everyone in the country to be able to share the property and wealth of the country they lived in and that it was not necessary for anyone to have privately owned property. He joined a political party called the Social Democratic Federation and later he also helped to start a new party called the Socialist League.
  13. He set up the Kelmscott Press in the early 1890s. This company published books which contained beautiful illustrations.
  14. He also became very active in preserving old buildings many of which we can still see today.
  15. When William Morris died in 1896, his doctor said that Morris had carried out the work of ten men during his lifetime.
  16. A famous William Morris quote is: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”