Biography of William Morris

Pioneer of the Arts & Crafts Movement (1834-1896)

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

William Morris (born March 24, 1834 in Walthamstow, England) spearheaded the British Arts and Crafts Movement, along with his friend and colleague architect Philip Webb (1831-1915). William Morris the architect had a profound influence on building design, although he was not trained as an architect. He is best-known today for his textile designs that have been repackaged as wallpaper and wrapping paper. As an influential leader and promoter of the Arts & Crafts Movement, William Morris the designer became famous for his hand-crafted wall coverings, stained glass, carpets, and tapestries. William Morris was also a painter, poet, political publisher, typeface designer, and furniture-maker.

Morris attended Marlborough and Exeter College, at Oxford University. While in college, Morris met Edward Burne-Jones, the painter, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the poet. The young men formed a group known as the Brotherhood, or the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. They shared a love of poetry, the Middle Ages, and Gothic architecture. Members of the Brotherhood read the writings of John Ruskin (1819-1900) and developed an interest in the Gothic Revival style. The three friends painted frescoes together at the Oxford Union in 1857.

But this was not entirely an academic or social brotherhood. They were inspired by the themes presented in Ruskin's writings. The Industrial Revolution begun in Britain had turned the country into something unrecognizable to the young men. Ruskin was writing about society's ills in books such as The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and The Stones of Venice (1851). The group would study and discuss the impact of industrialization and John Ruskin's themes—how machines dehumanize, how industrialization ruins the environment, how mass production creates shoddy, unnatural objects. The artistry and honesty in hand-crafted material—not machine-made material—was missing in British goods. The group sought to return to an earlier time.

In 1861, William Morris established "the Firm," which would later become Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. Although Morris, Burne-Jones, and Rossetti were the most important designers and decorators, most of the Pre-Raphaelites were involved in designing for the company. The talents of the firm were rounded out with the skills of architect Philip Webb and painter Ford Madox Brown who designed furniture and stained glass. The partnership came to an end in 1875 and Morris formed a new business called Morris & Company. By 1877, Morris and Webb had also established the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), an organized historic preservation organization. Morris wrote the SPAB Manifesto to explain its purposes—"to put Protection in the place of treat our ancient buildings as monuments of a bygone art."

William Morris and his partners specialized in stained glass, carving, furniture, wallpaper, carpets, and tapestries. One of the most exquisite tapestries produced by Morris's company was The Woodpecker, designed entirely by William Morris. The tapestry was woven by William Knight and William Sleath and shown at the Arts & Crafts Society Exhibition in 1888. Other patterns by Morris include Tulip and Willow Pattern, 1873 and Acanthus Pattern, 1879-81.

Architectural commissions by William Morris and his Company included the Red House, designed with Philip Webb, built between 1859 and 1860, and occupied by Morris between 1860 and 1865. This house, a grand and simple domestic structure, was influential in its design and construction. It 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 & Tapestry Room at St. James' Palace and the 1867 Dining Room at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Later in his life, William Morris poured his energies into political writing. Initially, Morris was against the aggressive foreign policy of Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and he supported 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. Morris died October 3, 1896 in Hammersmith, England.

Writings by William Morris:

William Morris was a poet, and activist, and a prolific writer. The most famous quotations of Morris include these:

  • "If I were asked to say what is at once the most important production of Art and the thing most to be longed for, I should answer, A beautiful House; and if I were further asked to name the production next in importance and the thing next to be longed for, I should answer, a beautiful Book."
    From Some Thoughts on the Ornamented Mss. of the Middle Ages
  • "Have nothing in your houses which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful."
    From Hopes and Fears for Art
  • "Remember that a pattern is either right or wrong. It cannot be forgiven for blundering, as a picture may be which has otherwise great qualities in it. It is with a pattern as with a fortress, it is no stronger than its weakest point. A failure for ever recurring torments the eye too much to allow the mind to take any pleasure in suggestion and intention."
    From Hopes and Fears for Art
  • "No pattern should be without some sort of meaning."
    From "Making the Best of It," Hopes and Fears for Art

Learn More:

  • Hopes and Fears for Art by William Morris
  • William Morris: and the Arts & Crafts Home by Pamela Todd, 2012
  • News from Nowhere and Other Writings by William Morris
  • William Morris by Linda Parry, 1996
  • William Morris: Decor and Design by Elizabeth Wilhide, 1991
  • William Morris: A Life for Our Time by Fiona MacCarthy, 1995
  • Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris & His Legacy, 1860-1960 by Fiona MacCarthy, Yale University Press, 2014