William Morris (1834 - 1896)

His influence has been immense, not only upon the crafts which he practised, painting, fabric and wall-paper design, tapestry, weaving, pottery, stained glass, furniture design, printing and book production, but also as a poet and writer, a political figure, and a pioneer in the conservation of ancient buildings.

Born at Walthamstow, the son of a wealthy business man, he first thought of ordination, but at Exeter College, Oxford he met Burne-Jones and they turned to art. He was deeply influenced by Rossetti and Ruskin and became one of the Pre-Raphaelite circle. At Oxford he met Jane Burden, a woman of humble parentage but striking looks, who came to exemplify the Pre-Raphaelite ideal of womanhood, and married her. They were married by a friend and poet-parson, Richard Watson Dixon, who later in his career was vicar of Hayton. Philip Webb designed his first house, the Red House, and he and his friends set about decorating it, which included providing fittings, chairs, even glassware and cutlery. From this 'the idea came to him of beginning a manufactory of all things necessary for the decoration of a house', and with the help of his friends, the 'Firm', later known as Morris and Co., was born, and with it 'the beginning of a new era in Western art'. Much of its work was for churches and its stained glass was the finest produced in the 19th Century.

William Morris

Many of his friends contributed designs, with Burne-Jones providing the lion's share and Morris a few. A number of men were employed, but it was Morris who supervised the design work and technical side, and he master-minded the whole enterprise.

His poetry has not worn as well as his other work, but in his time 'The Earthly Paradise' achieved great fame, and his later interest in the Icelandic sagas was expressed in 'Sigurd the Volsung'. Always idealising the Middle Ages and in revolt against the cash values and philistinism of 19th century capitalist society, he later in life found hope in revolutionary socialism, and threw all his energies into the beginning of the Socialist movement. Many of his prose works on art and politics are of importance. Another of his loves was the study and care of ancient buildings. Early in life he trained as an architect and met Philip Webb in the office of G.E.Street. He lived in a lovely Cotswold House, Kelmscott Manor, and in 1877, in reaction against ruthless restoration, which was the fashion, he founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.

Literature on Morris includes Philip Henderson's life, E.P. Thompson's work on his socialism. Paul Thompson's on his craft and writing, and Asa Briggs' Pelican on his selected writings and designs.


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