Biography of William Morris, Leader of the Arts and Crafts Movement

William Morris (1834-1896), English Socialist, Artist, Craftsman, and Poet
Photo by Rischgitz / Hulton Archive / Getty Images (cropped)

William Morris (March 24, 1834—Oct. 3, 1896) was an artist, designer, poet, craftsman, and political writer who had a major impact on the fashions and ideologies of Victorian Britain and the English Arts and Crafts Movement. He also had a profound influence on building design, but he's better known today for his textile designs, which have been repurposed as wallpaper and wrapping paper.

Fast Facts: William Morris

Known For: Leader of Arts and Crafts Movement

Born: March 24, 1834, in Walthamstow, England

Parents: William Morris Sr., Emma Shelton Morris

Died: Oct. 3, 1896 in Hammersmith, England

Education: Marlborough and Exeter colleges

Published Works: "The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems," "The Life and Death of Jason," "The Earthly Paradise"

Spouse: Jane Burden Morris

Children: Jenny Morris, May Morris

Notable Quote: "If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful."

Early Life

William Morris was born on March 24, 1834, in Waltamstow, England. He was the third child of William Morris Sr. and Emma Shelton Morris, though his two older siblings died in infancy, leaving him the eldest. Eight survived into adulthood. William Sr. was a successful senior partner at brokers firm. 

He enjoyed an idyllic childhood in the countryside, playing with his siblings, reading books, writing, and showing early interest in nature and storytelling. His love of the natural world would have a growing influence on his later work.

At an early age he was attracted to all the trappings of the medieval period. At 4 he began reading Sir Walter Scott's Waverley novels, which he finished by the time he was 9. His father gave him a pony and a miniature suit of armor, and, dressed as a tiny knight, he went off on long quests into the nearby forest.

College

Morris attended Marlborough and Exeter colleges, where he met painter Edward Burne-Jones and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti , forming a group known as the Brotherhood, or the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. They shared a love of poetry, the Middle Ages, and Gothic architecture and read the works of philosopher John Ruskin, They also developed an interest in the Gothic Revival architectural style.

This wasn't entirely an academic or social brotherhood; they were inspired by Ruskin's writings. The Industrial Revolution that began in Britain had turned the country into something unrecognizable to the young men. Ruskin wrote about society's ills in books such as "The Seven Lamps of Architecture" and "The Stones of Venice." The group discussed Ruskin's themes about the impacts of industrialization: how machines dehumanize, how industrialization ruins the environment, and how mass production creates shoddy, unnatural objects.

The group believed that the artistry and honesty in handcrafted materials were missing in British machine-made goods. They longed for an earlier time.

Painting

Visits to the continent spent touring cathedrals and museums solidified Morris' love of medieval art. Rossetti persuaded him to give up architecture for painting, and they joined a band of friends decorating the walls of the Oxford Union with scenes from the Arthurian legend based on "Le Morte d'Arthur" by 15th century English writer Sir Thomas Malory Morris also wrote much poetry during this time.

For a painting of Guinevere, he used as his model Jane Burden, the daughter of an Oxford groom. They married in 1859.

Architecture and Design

After receiving his degree in 1856, Morris took a job in the Oxford office of G.E. Street, a Gothic Revivalist architect. That year he financed the first 12 monthly issues of The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, where a number of his poems were printed. Two years later, many of these poems were reprinted in his first published work "The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems."

Morris commissioned Philip Webb, an architect he had met in Street’s office, to build a home for him and his wife. It was called the Red House because it was to be built of red brick instead of the more fashionable stucco. They lived there from 1860 to 1865.

The house, a grand yet simple structure, exemplified the Arts and Crafts philosophy inside and out, with craftsman-like workmanship and traditional, unornamented design. Other notable interiors by Morris include the 1866 Armoury and Tapestry Room at St. James' Palace and the 1867 Green Dining Room at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

'Fine Art Workmen'

As Morris and his friends were furnishing and decorating the house, they decided to start an association of “fine art workmen,” which in April 1861 became the firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. Other members of the firm were painter Ford Madox Brown, Rossetti, Webb, and Burne-Jones.

The group of like-minded artists and craftsmen responding to the shoddy practices of Victorian manufacturing became highly fashionable and much in demand, profoundly influencing interior decoration throughout the Victorian period.

At the International Exhibition of 1862, the group exhibited stained glass, furniture, and embroideries, leading to commissions to decorate several new churches. The pinnacle of the firm’s decorative work was a series of stained-glass windows designed by Burne-Jones for Jesus College Chapel, Cambridge, with the ceiling painted by Morris and Webb. Morris designed many other windows, for domestic and ecclesiastical use, as well as tapestries, wallpaper, fabrics, and furniture.

Other Pursuits

He hadn't given up on poetry. Morris' first fame as a poet came with the romantic narrative "The Life and Death of Jason" (1867), followed by "The Earthly Paradise" (1868-1870), a series of narrative poems based on classical and medieval sources. 

In 1875, Morris assumed total control of the "fine art workmen" company, which was renamed Morris & Co. It remained in business until 1940, its longevity a testament to the success of Morris’ designs.

By 1877, Morris and Webb had also established the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), a historic preservation organization. Morris explained its purposes in the SPAB Manifesto: "to put Protection in the place of Restoration ... to treat our ancient buildings as monuments of a bygone art."

One of the most exquisite tapestries produced by Morris' company was The Woodpecker, designed entirely by Morris. The tapestry, woven by William Knight and William Sleath, was shown at the Arts and Crafts Society Exhibition in 1888. Other patterns by Morris include Tulip and Willow Pattern, 1873, and Acanthus Pattern, 1879-81.

Later in his life, Morris poured his energies into political writing. Initially, he was against the aggressive foreign policy of Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, supporting Liberal Party leader William Gladstone. However, Morris became disillusioned after the 1880 election. He began writing for the Socialist Party and participated in socialist demonstrations.

Death

Morris and his wife were happiest together during the first 10 years of their marriage, but since a divorce was inconceivable at the time, they lived together until his death.

Exhausted by his many activities, Morris bean to feel his energy waning. A voyage to Norway in the summer of 1896 failed to revive him, and he died shortly after returning home, in Hammersmith, England, on Oct. 3, 1896. He was buried under a simple gravestone designed by Webb.

Legacy

Morris is now regarded as a modern visionary thinker, though he turned from what he called “the dull squalor of civilization” to historical romance, myth, and epic. Following Ruskin, Morris defined beauty in art as the result of man’s pleasure in his work. To Morris, art included the whole man-made environment.

In his own time he was best known as the author of "The Earthly Paradise" and for his designs for wallpapers, textiles, and carpets. Since the mid-20th century Morris has been celebrated as a designer and craftsman. Future generations may esteem him more as a social and moral critic, a pioneer of the society of equality.

Sources

Morris, William. "The Collected Works of William Morris: Volume 5. The Earthly Paradise: a Poem (Part 3)." Paperback, Adamant Media Corporation, November 28, 2000.

Morris, William. "The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems." Kindle Edition, Amazon Digital Services LLC, May 11, 2012.

Ruskin, John. "The Seven Lamps of Architecture." Kindle Edition, Amazon Digital Services LLC, April 18, 2011.

Ruskin, John. "The Stones of Venice." J. G. Links, Kindle Edition, Neeland Media LLC, July 1, 2004.

"William Morris: British Artist and Author." Encyclopaedia Britannica.

"William Morris Biography." Thefamouspeople.com.

"About William Morris."The William Morris Society.

"William Morris: A Brief Biography." Victorianweb.org.