William Morris


It’s only that I spend my life in ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich.
William Morris

Portrait of William Morris by Charles Fairfax MurrayWilliam Morris was a man of great and varied talents. He was born in 1834 in Walthamstow, Essex to a successful businessman and. was educated at Marlborough and Exeter College, Oxford.

He originally intended to take holy orders, but his reading of the social criticism of Carlyle, Kingsley and Ruskin led him to reconsider the Church and devote his life to art. At university Morris met Edward Burne-Jones with whom he formed an intimate and lifelong friendship. Later the two friends met Dante Gabriel Rossetti and became associated with the The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. While Burne-Jones studied painting with Rossetti in London, Morris took articles with a Gothic revivalist architect in Oxford, where he established a friendship with the senior clerk Philip Speakman Webb.

Morris disliked aspects of Victorian society declaring that ‘the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilization.’ He was particularly interested in the medieval period in his poetry and his prose. Morris’s work suggests that the medieval past embodied values such as heroism, chivalry, beauty, and love — which were largely absent from industrial Victorian Britain. Morris was an admirer of the Romantics particularly Coleridge, Shelley and Keats all of whom used the medieval as a motif in their work..

Morris & Company’s Shop with stained glass on the first floorThe emphasis on Medievalism is clear in his literary work and led him to the moral and aesthetic premises underlying Morris & Co. As a designer, craftsman, and theorist, William Morris had a tremendous impact on 19th- and 20th-century art. He publicly endorsed “truth to materials,” which became the credo of the Arts and Crafts movement. Morris himself often created flat patterns based on fruit, flower, and bird forms. He was especially talented at designing carpets, fabrics, tiles, stained glass, and wallpapers.. His company—Morris, Marshall & Faulkner (later Morris & Co.)—helped make his products available to middle-class consumers everywhere for almost 80 years. The financial affairs of the firm were pretty chaotic. Morris, as manager, drew an annual salary of £150, but as the company, over the years, consistently lost money, he was forced to sustain it with his own income (which diminished as time went on) from the mining shares he had inherited from his father.

Nevertheless the cult of Medievalism and the High-Church Anglican and Anglo-Catholic movements provided the company with a ready market for its products. Stained-glass windows became by far their most important product: Morris himself designed over one hundred and fifty windows, and Rossetti and Burne-Jones produced many more.

Among his many other works were Icelandic and classical translations, Sigurd the Volsung, The Pilgrims of Hope, and a series of prose romances which included A Dream of John Ball, News from Nowhere, and The Well at the World’s End.

There was always however, considerable tension between Morris’s socialist convictions and the expensive hand crafted objects made by the firm. In 1876, a wealthy industrialist whose house Morris’s company was redecorating asked him why he was pacing up and down and room and muttering to himself, Morris replied “It’s only that I spend my life in ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich.” This tension remained unresolved but during the 1880s Morris was an active propagandist for the socialist cause, giving hundreds of lectures and speeches throughout the country.

In 1890 Morris founded the Kelmscott Press in premises near his last home at Kelmscott House in Hammersmith. Morris designed three typefaces for the Press: Golden, Chaucer, and Troy. In all, sixty-six volumes were printed by the Kelmscott Press, the most impressive of which was its magnificent edition of Chaucer which was published in 1896. Morris died at Kelmscott House on 3 October 1896.Head of St.Mathew from the Lady Chapel Christ Church Southgate

Reputed self portrait of William MorrisOf the four windows in the Lady Chapel in Christ Church, Southgate representing the four Evangelists, the first on the left which is of St. Mathew writing on a scroll, is an early design by Morris, though the Gothic canopy and emblem in a four-foil panel which completes the window was the work of Philip Webb. The image of St. Mathew is reputed to be a self portrait of Morris. Over the altar the figure of St Luke, sitting in a pew and looking towards the right and next to it, the figure of St. John, leaning forward and writing on his knee, are also attributed to Morris.

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