William Morris Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)

ph_0111205199-Morris_Wi.jpg William Morris Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Morris’ influence on book design has been almost as profound as his impact on the decorative arts and the course of modern design; his key contribution to the growth of modern British socialism was practical, financial, and philosophical; he was also a powerful force in the revival of narrative poetry and the rediscovery of Norse literature, and an influential romantic and utopian writer.

Early Life

Future Socialist William Morris was born into upper-middle-class comfort on March 24, 1834, the son of a nondescript Evangelical mother and a businessman father. He was brought up in a series of semirural residences near Epping Forest, where he acquired a love of natural form that would later manifest itself in his designs. At Marlborough public school, from January, 1848, until December, 1851, he benefited not from studying (since the school, then newly founded, was rather lax and rough) but from having free access to beautiful countryside and the wealth of historic buildings in the area. This resulted in his coming to know, as he later said, “most of what was to be known about English Gothic.”

In 1853, he entered Exeter College, Oxford. In 1854, he made the first of several summer trips abroad that expanded his conception of art and architecture. During this period, the writings of essayist and reformer John Ruskin proved to be a revelation to Morris, clarifying his unconventional beliefs. Also critical to his development was Thomas Carlyle’s upholding of the virtues of the medieval past over the vices of the present. Also at Exeter, Morris made two friendships that would last his lifetime and inform his work. Most important, the idealistic enthusiasm for things medieval of future painter Edward Burne-Jones confirmed Morris’ own. The two gathered about them a group of friends, the “Brotherhood,” dedicated to a “Crusade and Holy Warfare against the age”; for the twelve months of 1856, they published the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine (largely funded by Morris, who in 1855 came into an income of nine hundred pounds a year). At the same time, after taking his degree, in January, 1856, Morris articled himself to George Edmund Street, one of the most prominent architects of the revived English Gothic. In his Oxford office, he met and became friends with young architect Philip Webb.

Another major influence of the Oxford years was the Pre-Raphelite painter-poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who swayed Morris toward painting and away from architecture: Crucially, Rossetti’s painting was medieval in inspiration and tended to emphasize the decorative. The influence is apparent in one of Morris’ few extant paintings, a mural executed at the new Oxford Union Debating Hall in 1857. His model was seventeen-year-old Jane Burden, daughter of an Oxford groom: In 1859, in the teeth of Victorian convention, Morris married her. In a poem in his first volume, The Defence of Guenevere (1858), he pays tribute to the beautiful and enigmatic Jane; it points, too, at the loneliness he would later suffer in this marriage. Her great “mournful” eyes “[are] most times looking out afar,/ Waiting for something, not for me/ Beata mea Domina!

Life’s Work

Anticipating the birth of two daughters in 1861 and 1862, in 1860 Morris joined with Webb to build himself a house. At this moment, Morris’ path started to unroll before him. “Red House,” so called for the color of its brick, left uncovered in defiance of architectural convention, has been said to have initiated plain, unostentatious modern domestic design. The problem of what to do about aesthetically satisfying interior decoration and furniture led directly to the formation of Morris and Company.

The aim of “the Firm,” which involved painters Rossetti and Ford Madox Brown as well as Webb and Burne-Jones, was to reinstate decoration as one of the fine arts. As its prospectus stated, it was concerned with everything from paintings “down to . . . the smallest work susceptible of . . . beauty.” It was so successful that by 1866, only four years after the first Morris wallpaper, “Daisy,” the Firm was decorating rooms at St. James’s Palace. Gradually, as he mastered each craft, Morris expanded its scope to include, besides painted windows and mural decoration, furniture, metal and glassware, cloth and paper wall-hangings, embroideries, jewelry, dyed and printed silks and cottons, and carpets and tapestries. He created more than six hundred designs for the Firm, basing his designs on natural forms, primarily flowers, but always retaining a structural pattern. His designs are characterized by his firm calligraphic line (anticipating the style of art nouveau) and suggestions of movement, growth, and fullness.

At the height of these activities, in 1869, Morris was visited by Henry James, who remembered the bearded and still somewhat bohemian designer as “short, burly and corpulent, very careless and unfinished in his dress. . . . He has a very loud voice and a nervous restless manner and a perfectly unaffected and business-like address.” As a younger man, Morris had been rather poetically beautiful, though not when in the throes of his occasional childish rages, during which he would bang his head on the walls.

There had been a lull in poetic...

(The entire section is 2195 words.)