WILLIAM MORRIS

1834 – 1896

The Arts and Crafts Movement

Beginning in Britain around 1880, the Arts and Crafts movement was born from the values of people concerned about the effects of industrialization on design and traditional craft. In response, architects, designers, craftsmen, and artists turned to new ways of living and working, pioneering new approaches to create decorative arts. One of the most influential figures during this time was William Morris, who actively promoted the joy of craftsmanship and the beauty of the nature.

Morris became an internationally renowned designer and manufacturer. Other creatives such as architects, painters, sculptors and designers began to take up his ideas. They began a unified art and craft approach to design, which soon spread across Europe and America, and eventually Japan. Morris is widely credited as the founder of the arts and crafts movement. 

As David Raizman writes, “The spiritualization of craft, its link to social reform and skepticism toward the widely held view that industrialization and progress went hand in hand, characterize Morris's attitude and became the basis for a number of organizations and other initiatives that were generally known as the Arts and Crafts Movement.”

Who was William Morris?

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William Morris

Born in Walthamstow, East London in March 1834, As a child, Morris lived something of an idyllic lifestyle in his family's large country house near Epping Forest in Essex, surrounded by ancient woodland scattered with medieval architecture. Morris spent his time reading, following his own interests, and exploring the landscape surrounding the school, including medieval churches and Neolithic monuments. The sites and hobbies of his childhood would be carried with Morris for the rest of his life, influencing his design-work, and standing as points of repeated, nostalgic return in his writing.

William Morris was a poet, artist, philosopher, typographer, political theorist, and arguably the most celebrated designer of the Arts & Crafts movement. He strived to protect and revive the traditional techniques of handmade production that were being replaced by machines during the Victorian era’s Industrial Revolution. Although he dabbled in embroidery, carpet-making, poetry and literature, he mastered the art of woodblock printing, and created some of the most recognizable textile patterns of the 19th century.

Morris was dismayed by the shoddy quality of the mass-produced goods turned out by the industrial machinery of the 19th century, which he saw as degrading taste and everyday life. In 1861, he persuaded his artist and designer friends to join him in setting up a company to produce quality furniture, printed textiles, tapestries, wallpaper and stained glass. But Morris’s bluff manner alienated his partners, and in 1875 he resolved to buy them out and re-launch the firm as Morris & Company.

Education and Early Training

In 1853, Morris began his studies in Theology at Exeter College, Oxford, planning to become a priest in line with his mother's wishes. However, within less than a year, his outlook on life had changed drastically: his reading in the library shifted from religious matters to history and ecclesiastical architecture, and eventually to the art criticism of John Ruskin. it was the writings of art critic John Ruskin on the social and moral basis of architecture that came to Morris “with the force of a revelation.” Soon, he discovered his lifelong passion for writing poetry, and his fate as a creative was sealed when he met fellow student Edward Burne-Jones, a budding artist and designer with whom he would remain friends for the rest of his life.

On graduating in 1856, Morris and Burne-Jones moved to London: Burne-Jones to work as a painter and designer of stained-glass, Morris to become an architect, a change of direction that was badly received by his family. Morris started an apprenticeship. However, his career soon took another turn when he met Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Morris was swept up in a wave of artistic creativity, in the company of artists whose work focused on nature, and the romantic chivalry of the medieval past. Encouraged by Rossetti and Burne-Jones, Morris abandoned his architectural career and began painting in the Pre-Raphaelite style.

He began to realize the only way he could have the beautiful home he wanted was if he designed every part of it himself. As he famously once said, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” It was during the furnishing and decorating of this house by Morris and his friends that the idea came to them of founding an association of “fine art workmen,” which in April 1861 became the firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Company, with premises in Red Lion Square. The other members of the firm were Ford Madox Brown, Rossetti, Webb, and Burne-Jones.

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William Morris & Edward Burne-Jones

Morris appears in the memoirs of the painter Val Prinsep, as “a short square man with spectacles and a vast mop of dark hair.” It was observed “how decisive he was: how accurate, without any effort or formality: what an extraordinary power of observation lay at the base of many of his casual or incidental remarks.” Morris shared a studio with Burne-Jones in London’s Red Lion Square, for which he designed, according to Rossetti, “some intensely medieval furniture.”

Mature Period

Morris threw himself into the bohemian lifestyle of the group, painting long-haired medieval women in natural landscapes similar to those found in Rossetti's watercolors - though Morris's paintings never received quite the same critical acclaim as those of his Pre-Raphaelite peers. In 1857, Morris, Rossetti, and Burne-Jones returned to Oxford to paint murals on the walls of the Union Library. The same year, Morris met Jane Burden, a beautiful, working-class girl who began to model for his and Rossetti's paintings. Morris fell in love with her, and by 1859 they were married.

Around this period, Morris's creative imagination was leading him beyond painting. He was interested in how the aesthetics and ethics of the Pre-Raphaelites - a love of nature, medieval aesthetics and Gothic architecture, a hatred of mechanization - might be applied across a wide range of art forms and applied crafts. At the same time, the artist yearned for a home outside the city in which he could raise a family. These ambitions converged in the design of "Red House", completed in 1860 in collaboration with the Gothic architect Philip Webb.

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The Red House

Red House is an architectural masterpiece, encapsulating what became known as the Arts and Crafts aesthetic. Its sloping gabled roofs, painted brick fireplaces, and rambling cottage garden epitomized the new paradigm of beauty which the Pre-Raphaelites had defined in their paintings, but realized those ideals in three dimensions: this, in a nutshell, defined the Arts and Crafts philosophy. Situated close to London, Red House would become the country get-away of Morris's artistic acquaintances for the next five years. Today, the house is owned by the National Trust and is open to visitors

After the house was built, Morris and his friends decided to decorate the interiors themselves, establishing through creative collaboration many of the principles of Arts-and-Crafts interior design. Burne-Jones designed the stained-glass windows, while Morris created the murals with help from Rossetti and other members of the wider Pre-Raphaelite circle. Around this time, Morris began to focus his attention on the wallpaper and textile designs which made him famous, some of which still survive in the house.

This collaborative effort led to the founding of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., known as 'The Firm', an art and design company that championed hand-craftsmanship and traditional techniques with a strongly medievalist aesthetic and a desire to create affordable “art for all.”. Members included Rossetti, Webb, and Burne-Jones, as well as P.P. Marshall, Charles Faulkner, and Ford Madox Brown.

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The Red House

Wallpaper Designs

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Featuring swirling leaves, thieving birds, rose-filled trellises, and fruit tree branches, the designs of William Morris have a unique timeless quality. He began designing wallpapers in 1862, but their sale was delayed by several years while he experimented with printing from zinc plates. Inspired by nature, Morris’ designs feature leaves, vines, and flowers that he observed in his gardens or on walks in the countryside. Rather than life-like illustrations, his drawings are subtly stylized versions. Daisy, a simple design featuring meadow flowers, was the first of Morris’ wallpaper designs to go on sale in 1864. Morris designed Trellis after being unable to find a wallpaper that he liked enough for his own home. 

Inspired by the rose trellis in the garden of the Red House, Morris designed the pattern which went on sale in 1864. Interestingly, Morris could not draw birds, and the birds for this design were actually sketched by Philip Webb, the same friend and architect who designed the Red House. Morris had his wallpapers printed by hand, using carved, pear woodblocks loaded with natural, mineral-based dyes, and pressed down with the aid of a foot-operated weight. Each design was made by carefully lining up and printing the woodblock motifs again and again to create a seamless repeat. 

Morris once spoke about the precise process, saying, “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.” He employed the printers Jeffrey & Co. to print his wallpapers up until his death in 1896, when the Merton factory took over production until the company’s voluntary liquidation in 1940.

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The Kelmscott Press

How did the Kelmscott Press come about?

Morris developed an interest in printing through the publication of his own writings and his friendship with Emery Walker, an expert on typography and a fellow member of the Hammersmith Socialist League. Together they studied early printed books, known as incunabula – a term derived from the Latin word for ‘cradle’ since the books come from the infancy of printing, before 1501.

Frustrated by the declining standard of printed book, Morris set up his own press 'with the hope of producing some which would have a definite claim to beauty, while at the same time … not dazzle the eye, or trouble the intellect of the reader by eccentricity of form in the letters'.

The Kelmscott Press

The Kelmscott Press was started in 1891, with the printer and type designer Emery Walker as typographic adviser, and between that year and 1898 the press produced 53 titles in 66 volumes.

Morris designed three type styles for his press:

  • Golden type, modeled on that of Nicolas Jenson, the 15th-century French printer;
  • Troy type, a gothic font on the model of the early German printers of the 15th century;
  • Chaucer type, a smaller variant of Troy, in which The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer was printed during the last years of Morris’s life. One of the greatest examples of the art of the printed book, Chaucer is the most ornate of the Kelmscott publications. Most of the other Kelmscott books were plain and simple, for Morris observed that 15th-century books were “always beautiful by force of the mere typography.”

In seven years of operation the Kelmscott hand-operated press published 53 books in 18,000 copies. The Kelmscott Chaucer, Morris's masterpiece, took several years to complete the 556 pages and 87 illustrations. In total 425 copies of the book were completed by a total of 11 master printers.

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The Kelmscott Chaucer

What’s special about the Kelmscott Chaucer?

The Kelmscott edition of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales set a new benchmark for book design at the end of the 19th century. It was also the last great project of Morris’s life, bringing together two of his passions. First, his love of medieval literature, which inspired the subjects and style of much of his own writing. Second, his socialist philosophy, which looked back to a time before mechanization and division of labor had destroyed, as he saw it, the personal fulfilment and social function of meaningful work. 

The book was exceptional in its ambitious number of illustrations and rich decorative borders. 'If we live to finish it,' Burne-Jones wrote, 'it will be like a pocket cathedral – so full of design and I think Morris the greatest master of ornament in the world.'

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The Kelmscott Chaucer

How was the Kelmscott Press different?

Morris’ approach to design was fundamentalist: he went back to the basics of any medium he employed. For his printed fabrics he had re-created dyes from traditional recipes. For his bookmaking he looked back to the earliest days of printing in the 15th century.

He took as his inspiration the type made by Nicholas Jensen in Venice in the 1470s. Individual letters from Jensen’s books were photographed and enlarged. Morris copied the shapes of the letters over and over until he was confident he had the measure of them. He then drew designs of his own.

Morris insisted on handmade paper. His search led to a paper-mill at Little Chart, whose owner matched the 15th-century Italian papers Morris admired. Ink came from the German firm of Jaenecke.  Morris named the press after Kelmscott Manor, his beloved country house in Wiltshire.

The Golden Type

The Golden Type is a serif font designed by William Morris, based on type designed by engraver and printer Nicolas Jenson in Venice around 1470. It is named for the Golden Legend, which was intended to be the first book printed using it. The original design has neither an italic nor a bold weight, as neither of these existed in Jenson's time.

 Morris's aim in the Kelmscott Press was to revive the style of early printing and medieval manuscripts, and the design accordingly is a profound rejection of the harsh, industrial aesthetic of the contemporary Didone typefaces used at the time in general-purpose printing. Instead, the design has a relatively heavy "color" on the page. The design is a loose revival, somewhat bolder than Jenson's original engraving, giving it the appearance of medieval blackletter writing, and it has been criticized for ponderousness due to this heavy appearance. 

The Golden Type sparked a trend of other typefaces in a similar style commissioned for fine book printing in Britain, including that of the Doves Press, which was co-founded by Walker. Several of these typefaces were also cut by Prince. Other early copies were made in America. Many similar Jenson revivals, including Cloister Old Style, the Doves Type, Centaur, Adobe Jenson and Hightower Text have been created since, most more faithful to Jenson's original work. It also influenced some of the work of Frederic Goudy.

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Small selection of ornamental designs by William Morris

The Legacy of William Morris

It's nearly impossible to sum up William Morris' contributions to British design, arts, and aesthetics. A true prodigy, Morris dove deeply into each of his many interests, leaving us a rich legacy in multiple fields. His artistic and poetic skill, sent shockwaves through the worlds of art, architecture, design, poetry, and political thought. His most obvious impact was on the Arts and Crafts Movement, of which he is generally considered a founding father. Several of his friends took up his mantle in the field of craft and design, while his work also resonated internationally, inspiring the development of Art Nouveau in France, as well as the North-American Arts and Crafts Movement.

His ideal of collaborative, artisanal community, exemplified by 'The Firm' and the construction of Red House, would inspire artists across the next century. Eric Gill would soon set up his own Catholic arts circle in Sussex, carrying forwards Morris's ideals of combining beauty and function through design and decorative lettering. Some decades later, the 1951 Festival of Britain took inspiration from Morris's socialist beliefs, and from his sense of the role of the community in artistic production, introducing these principles to a new generation of creatives including Terence Conran and Lucienne Day. 

The unity of architecture and decoration embodied in Red House also had an irrevocable effect on architectural philosophy across the coming decades, influencing the way in which buildings were conceived and designed. Charles Rennie Mackintosh would expand on Morris's ideas by devising each of his buildings as a 'total work of art', in which décor, furniture, and architectural elements all fitted around each other. Even Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Gropius, architects who produced sleek and refined modernist masterpieces, freely admitted the impact of Morris's work on their development. 

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In his honor for his 182nd birthday to highlight his iconic style, Doodler Lydia Nichols recreated five different Morris designs. Each appeared randomly as the page was refreshed. May these designs honor the distinct and varied ways in which his point of view shaped our world.

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