William Morris (1834-1896) is considered to be one of the most prominent designers of the 19th century (Upchurch, 2005). Morris was involved in decorative arts, including wallpapers, textiles, tapestries, tiles, stained glass windows, furniture, and book design among others (Arscott, 2008). Besides decorative arts, Morris was also an environmental campaigner, a publisher, and a writer. He is also considered to be one of the founders of the social movement that emerged in the course of the 19th century (Bennett & Miles, 2010). The current paper explores the life and work of William Morris, including his biography, famous artworks, companies, movements that he was involved in, contributions to other movements, and influences.
William Morris Biography
William Morris was born on March 24, 1834, at Walthamstow, Essex. Morris came from a middle-class family, with his father working as a financier and his mother being a descendant from a wealthy family. His father died unexpectedly in 1847 (Clutton-Brock, 2012). Following the death of his father, his family relied on income gained from copper mines that his father had earlier purchased and moved to a smaller house. Morris commenced his studies at Marlborough College in February 1848 (Donovon, 2007). Morris hated his time at Marlborough College because of being homesick, bored, and subjected to bullying. In June 1852, Morris gained admission into Exeter College of Oxford University. Morris did not like the way in which the college taught him classical studies; as a result, he became interested in medieval architecture and medieval history, which was mainly inspired by the presence of medieval buildings at the university. In addition, his interest in medieval architecture and history was associated with the emerging medievalist movement at the time, which was a kind of Romanticism that was opposed to values advocated by Victorian Industrial Capitalism (Waggoner, 2003). While at Oxford University, Morris bumped into Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones and established a group referred to as the Brotherhood comprised of three artists. While at Oxford University (1852-1856), work of the Brotherhood was primarily influenced by architecture, rituals, and history of Medieval times (Petts, 2008). Burne-Jones and Morris were Anglicans by faith and usually talked about initiating a “holy warfare and crusade” against the culture and art of their time. The Brotherhood members drew their influence from writings of John Ruskin who was a critic of art at the time. John Ruskin was known for praising the artwork of medieval sculptors, carvers, and craftsmen who, according to Ruskin, were free in articulating their creative individualism. In addition, Ruskin was overly critical of the 19th century artists who were servants of industrial capitalism associated with the industrial age (Freudenheim, 2005).
In 1857, Morris teamed with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones with the main aim of painting frescoes commissioned by the Oxford Union. Morris also commenced writing poetry in the same year, which culminated in the publication of his book titled The Defense of Guenevere and Other Poems (Donovon, 2007). Together with his Pre-Raphaelite friends, he established a company comprising decorators and designers. The Pre-Raphaelites included English critics, poets, and painters. The group had the main objective of reforming art through opposing the art of their time that they perceived to be mechanistic. Together with Rossetti and Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown, and architect Phillip Webb, they formed the Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co, which specialized in the production of tapestries, wallpapers, furniture, carving, and stained glass (Goodway, 2012). Designs produced by the company resulted in a complete revolution with regard to the taste of artistic designs. Some of the commissions for the company included the Upton in 1859; the Armory and Tapestry Room found in the St. James Palace in 1866; and the Dining Room found in the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1867 (Freudenheim, 2005). The partnership ended in 1875, which saw Morrison establish a new company known as Morris and Company. Despite the fact that William Morris received numerous commissions, he continued to write prose and poetry. Some of his literal works included The Life and Death of Jason (1867), The Volksunga Saga (1970), and The Earthly Paradise (1868) (Fahey & Frickman, 2000). William Morris was of the view that arts would continually degrade provided that competition in exchange and production of commodities did not stop. As a result, Morris predicted that art was doomed if industrial capitalism was to last forever, which would cause the death of civilization. According to Fahey and Frickman (2000), John Ruskin’s writings inspired various artists, including Edward Burke-Jones and Morris. In this regard, Ruskin was perceived to be a source of inspiration for Burke-Jones and Morris whose enthusiasm resulted in the transfer of Pre-Raphaelite principles into various aspects of decorative arts. Fahey and Frickman (2000) further assert that Burke-Jones and Morris were hostile to Renaissance and classical culture, which is something that they inherited from John Ruskin. Followers of Ruskin, including Morris, were of the view that the 19th century was obsessed with the need for mass production; as a result, they opposed the use of mechanized production (Menz, 2003).
During the 1870s, William Morris was not pleased with aggressive foreign policy adopted by Benjamin Disraeli who was the Conservative Prime Minister (Hemingway, 2006). As a result, he started publishing newspapers and articles in newspapers attacking the Conservative Prime Minister and supporting anti-imperialism stance adopted by the leader of the Liberal Party, William Gladstone (LeMire, 2006). Nevertheless, after Liberal Party gained power following the 1880 General Election, Morris became disappointed with the Gladstone’s government. As of 1883, Morris became a socialist. According to Morris, socialism ought to create a society where people should neither be rich or poor and where all people could to live in equality. Morris became a member of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), after which he started making contributions in terms of articles to the journal owned by the organization Justice (Miele, 2005). Nevertheless, Morris disagreed with the leader of the SDF, which can be attributed to the fact that Morris agreed with the leader’s Marxist beliefs, but was however opposed to the leader’s dictatorial and nationalism methods that he deployed when running the party. In December 1884, Morris stopped his SDF membership and established the Socialist League, which was mainly influenced by Morris’ ideas (Kirk, 2005). As a result, the Socialist League promoted establishment of a revolutionary international socialism. In addition, Morris was the primary contributor to the journal of Socialist League Commonweal. During the next few years, William Morris published socialist pamphlets, engaged in the sale of socialist literature, took part in speaking tours, and participated in strikes as well as political demonstrations. He was arrested in July 1887 following a demonstration that took place in London. In November of the same year, Morris took part in a political demonstration that was later referred to as Bloody Sunday, which resulted in the death of 3 people and injuries of 200 people (Le Bourgeois, 2006).
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Morris dedicated a significant proportion of his time to writing political materials such as The Chants for Socialists published in 1883, The Pilgrims of Hope published in 1885, and The Dream of John Ball published in 1888 (Marsh & Sharp, 2013). According to Mackail (2001), Morris was not successful in politics and was not talented in politicking. As a matter of fact, Parry (2005) asserts that narrow-mindedness associated with the Socialist League played a significant role in diminishing its participation in parliamentary politics. Morris inspired a number of young socialists during his time, including Margaret MacMillan and Henry Snell, who were impressed with writings of Morris (Menz, 2003). Morris suffered critically from kidney disease in 1891; nevertheless, he did not stop writing socialist literature and occasionally gave speeches at public gatherings. Political views of Morrison were mainly influenced by Peter Kropotkin’s anarchist theories. Despite the fact that Morris supported a number of socialist politicians like Keir Hardie and George Lansbury, he was of the belief that the best way to achieve socialism was via trade union activity instead of electing socialists into the House of Commons. Morris died on October 4, 1896, in the result of tuberculosis (McDonald, 2004).
Morris gained fame through his pattern designs, especially on wallpapers and fabrics. According to Mackail (2001), Morris’ vision of connecting art with industry through the application of principles of fine art to commercial design production was a crucial stage with regard to the evolution of design. Morris is considered to be one of the greatest pattern designers to ever live. This is evident by the fact that his classic designs are currently available commercially on textiles and wallpapers (Margolin, 2009). Pattern designs of Morris were mainly inspired by his vast knowledge of nature and were further stylized through his vast knowledge about historical styles. There are numerous artworks produced by William Morrison, including Windrush, The Vision of the Holy Grail, Acanthus, The Strawberry Thief, Peacock and Dragon, La belle Iseult, Worship of the Shepherd, saint Cecilia, David’s Charge to Solomon, and his self-portrait. One of the most popular artworks by Morris is the Strawberry Thief, which is one of the most well-known designs by Morris in the form of repeating patterns (Petts, 2008). The Strawberry Thief was designed for textiles. The subject of the design is thrushes, which Morris found to be stealing fruits from his kitchen garden in his home in Oxfordshire. In order to print the pattern design, Morris utilized the medieval and painstaking in indigo-discharge technique, which is one of the printing techniques most admired by Morris. Morris had first unsuccessfully tried to print using this technique in 1875; however, it was not until 1881 that he transferred this printing technique into his factory situated at Merton Abbey Mills that the technique turned out to be successful (Mackail, 2001). Morris was happy with the success of printing his design, which resulted in Morris registering the design with the Patents Office. In addition, the Strawberry Thief was the first design to make use of the technique characterized by yellow and red being added into the basic background comprised of blue and white (Mackail, 2001). The entire process of printing the Strawberry Thief could have lasted days; as a result, this design was one of the most expensive cottons produced by Morris & Co. Nevertheless, customers were not discouraged by a high price of the design. This led to the Strawberry Thief becoming one of the most commercially successful pattern designs developed by Morris (Waggoner, 2003). The design was envisioned for use in curtains, as well as being wrapped around walls as a type of interior decoration encouraged by Morris. The Strawberry Thief was also designed for use in loose covers placed on furniture (Goodway, 2012). The figure below shows the Strawberry Thief.
William Morris was associated with two companies, which included Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. that was established in 1861 as a decorative arts company co-owned by Peter Paul Marshall, Charles Faulkner, Ford Madox Brown, Phillip Webb, Rossetti, Burne-Jones, and Morris (Bennett & Miles, 2010). The company was established with the main objective of restoring decorative arts as a form of fine art and it adopted the principles of anti-elitism and affordability. The partnership ended in 1875, which saw Morrison establish a new company known as Morris & Co., which was in operation during 1875-1940. Morris & Co was involved in the manufacture and distribution of decorative arts and furnishings (Donovon, 2007). According to Freudenheim (2005), the company’s medieval-inspired aesthetic as well as its regard to traditional textile arts and hand-craftsmanship significantly impacted decoration of churches and houses in the course of the early 20th century. Despite the fact that the company was influential at the time when the Arts and Crafts Movement was flourishing in the 1880s and 1890s, the company continued operating, although in a limited capacity, after the First World War until it was closed in 1940 (McDonald, 2004). Designs produced by the company are still on sale presently under Liberty of London and Sanderson and Sons, which were given licenses to market designs produced by Morris and Co. After 1875, Morris embarked on taking up the art of dyeing as a crucial component of his manufacturing business. As a result, Morris spent a significant proportion of his time at Staffordshire in order to master the process of dyeing and performing experiments aimed at reviving old dying methods and discovering new dyeing techniques (Le Bourgeois, 2006). As a result of these experiments, Morris was able to revise indigo dyeing as a printing technique. Morris learned medieval tapestry weaving; as a result, he established a tapestry workshop at Queen Square together with his apprentice. Some of the important commissions that the company received included a royal project commissioned by St. James Palace and the project involving design of a dining room at Victoria and Albert Museum, which was then called South Kensington Museum. The latter involved panel figures and stained glass windows designed by Burne-Jones, with panels having branches designed by Morris William and a decoration and olive branches designed by architecture Phillip Webb (Parry, 2005). The commission by St. James involved using decorative schemes for the Tapestry Room and the Armory, as well as panels with stylized floral design patterns painted on doors, windows, and ceiling. In addition, in 1871, Morris & Co. was commissioned to design windows at All Saints Church, Wilden. The last commission for Morris & Co. was decoration of the Stanmore Hall prior to the death of Morris. This commission involved using Holy Grail tapestries for the dining room. With Morris pursuing other interests, especially the Kelmscott Press and socialism, he delegated his daily work at the company to his daughter May Morris (Fahey & Frickman, 2000).
Movements that William Morrison Was Involved In
Morris was actively involved in the Arts and Crafts Movement, whereby he played a crucial role in the revival of medieval British textile arts as well as production methods. Morris was also involved in the early socialist movement, especially in Britain. The Arts and Crafts Movement referred to an international design movement that thrived during the period of 1880-1910 and particularly during 1900-1910. The influence of the movement was evident even during the 1930s. William Morris is considered to be the leader of the Arts and Crafts Movement from 1860 onwards. In addition, the Arts and Crafts Movement drew its inspirations from the critical writings of Augustin Pugin and John Ruskin (Fahey & Frickman, 2000). According to Le Bourgeois (2006), the movement was first developed on the British Isles prior to spreading across the British Empire as well as other parts of Europe and North America. The Arts and Crafts Movement developed as s response against a declining state of decorative arts at the time, including mass production of decorative arts. As a result, the movement advocated for traditional craftsmanship that utilized simple, medieval, romantic decoration systole. In addition, the movement supported both social and economic reforms, which can be attributed to the fact that it was against industrial capitalism (Donovon, 2007).
With regard to the socialist movement, it is evident that Morris developed an interest in socialist activism. According to Donovon (2007), from a political point of view, Morris was a dedicated anti-imperialist and revolutionary. For Morris, socialism was characterized by a society characterized by people being neither poor nor rich, neither overworked nor idle and by a world characterized by equality. In addition, Morris contributed to the socialist movement through his political publications promoting socialist literature (Upchurch, 2005).
Contributions to Other Movements around the World
Apart from the Arts and Crafts Movement and the Socialist Movement, Morris also made significant contributions to the Aesthetic Movement and the Green Movement. The Aesthetic Movement commenced in the 1860s and Morris was one of radical designers and young reformers who embarked on exploring new design standards (Fahey & Frickman, 2000). As a matter of fact, Morris is usually credited with burgeoning of aestheticism together with other architects, philosophers, critics, and craft workers who were committed to pure beauty. With respect to Morris’ contributions to the Green Movement, he was working and living in an industrial environment and expressed concerns with regard to how production affected lives of people. In addition, he expressed disgust for poor living conditions of workers and pollution as a result of industrial activities, which played a crucial role in influencing his political views. In addition, Morris had a desire to save the natural environment from industrialism and pollution, which resulted in some Green Movement historians considering Morris as a crucial forerunner of contemporary environmentalism (Donovon, 2007).
The work of Morris influenced a number of people, including John Henry Dearle who was Morris’ apprentice at his tapestry shop. Dearle produced the first tapestry by Morris & Co. in 1883. He developed his skills and later entered into partnership with Morris in designing details like floral backgrounds and fabric patterns (Donovon, 2007). Besides his artwork, there were young socialists who were impressed with Morris’ work, including Henry Snell and Margaret McMillan (Clutton-Brock, 2012).
This paper has explored the life of Morris William, including his biography, movements, famous artworks, companies, contribution to other movements, and people he influenced. From the discussion, it is evident that William Morris is one of the best-known cultural figures of the Victorian era. Despite the fact that he received little recognition for his literal works, his art works and his involvement in the Arts and Crafts Movement helped in the revitalization of medieval British textile arts and production methods. In addition, he is credited with promoting the socialist movement in Britain.