The Life and Designs of William Morris

With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on.”
– William Morris, The Well at the World’s End (1896)

 

 

Set in Lloyd Park, Walthamstow, London, is a house dedicated to one of the most multitalented artists Britain has ever seen. Once the home of William Morris (1834-96), the William Morris Gallery offers a detailed history of the revolutionary Victorian designer, craftsman, writer and campaigner. Through nine galleries that cover most of the house, visitors are introduced to Morris’ life, career and a notable collection of textiles, furniture, ceramics, paintings, designs and personal items. With films, audio clips and interactive displays, there is something to interest people of all ages, regardless as to whether they are William Morris enthusiasts or soon-to-be fans.

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William Morris age 23, c.1853

William Morris was born on 24th March 1834, the eldest son of a rising stockbroker. When he was six, the wealthy family moved to a mansion on the verge of Epping Forest, an ancient woodland that would prove to be a great inspiration for Morris later in life.

Morris much preferred roaming the forest on his own pony than he did education. His initial schooling at Misses Arundale’s Academy for Young Gentlemen proved to be futile, barely being able to spell by the time he moved on to Marlborough College, Wiltshire, in 1848. The previous year, Morris’ father of the same name died at the age of 50, causing his surviving family to downsize despite his fortune of £60,000.

In 1848, the Morris family moved to Water House in Walthamstow, the same building that is now the William Morris Gallery. William would not have been home often due to boarding at the school in Wiltshire, however, he returned home in 1851 due to a lack of discipline at the school. From then on, his education was provided by the Reverend Frederick Barlow Guy (1826-91), who encouraged Morris’ enthusiasm about the history of the Middle Ages. The Reverend was also a member of the Oxford Society for the Study of Gothic Architecture founded by John Ruskin (1819-1900), an art critic who would have a significant influence on Morris.

The introductory room at the Gallery explores Morris’ childhood and education, including letters and photographs that were written and taken at the time. An interactive map allows visitors to trace Morris’ footsteps around Walthamstow to discover the houses and places he liked to visit as a child.

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William Morris (24.03.1877)

Morris’ family expected him to aspire to a clerical career, however, a chance encounter during the Oxford entrance examination altered Morris’ direction in life. In January 1853, Morris entered Exeter College at Oxford University alongside the soon-to-be painter, Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98), who would prove to be a lifelong friend. A piano belonging to the latter can be found in the Gallery.

Influenced by the writings of John Ruskin, Morris and Burne-Jones discovered young, controversial painters, including Dante Gabriel Rosetti (1828-82) who founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. This encounter was the first of many sources of inspiration that prompted Morris to begin a life of art.

Morris became involved with short-lived publications, such as The Germ, a house journal of the Pre-Raphaelites. Some examples of these are on display along with early works of Morris and Burne-Jones. In 1857, Rosetti gathered together a group of friends, including Morris, to help him paint the walls of the Oxford Union with scenes from the legends of King Arthur. Unfortunately, this commission was a disaster as, due to their inexperience, they failed to prepare the walls properly before painting.

Morris threw himself into painting but also extended his efforts to wood carving, stained-glass designing and poetry. He also experimented with embroidery and wall-hangings. Despite the effort he put into his work, Morris only completed one painting, La Belle Iseult, based on Arthurian legend. His model was his fiancee Jane Burden (1839-1914), who, unfortunately, lived up to her surname. The painting, depicting the unfaithful Iseult, was a hidden precursor of events to come.

 

 

On 26th April 1859, Morris married Jane in Oxford. None of his family attended, perhaps due to Jane’s working-class background. The pair eventually moved into their own home in Upton, designed and decorated by Morris himself. Due to the colour of the Gothic brickwork, the house was affectionately known as Red House. Undaunted by their neighbours’ distaste, the Morrises lived a rather medieval lifestyle, consuming fruit and vegetables from their own garden and using candles for lighting. Apparently, the style of clothing Jane and her friends preferred were also decidedly odd.

In January 1861, Morris welcomed his first daughter Jane “Jenny” Alice (1861-1935) who was followed by her sister Mary “May” (1862-1938) in March the very next year. By now, Morris had given up the idea of painting as a career and was aspiring to set up his own successful decorative arts business.

Encouraged by Rossetti, Morris launched Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Company: Fine Art Workmen in Painting, Carving, Furniture and Metals, a.k.a The Firm, in April 1861. Beginning with a sum of £100 provided by Morris’ mother, who despite her disappointment at his aborted career in the Church, was willing to contribute to this latest endeavour, The Firm opened for business, receiving commissions from numerous establishments.

An interactive table allows visitors to attempt to run Morris’ business, making decisions about prices and materials to see if they could survive in a similar market. Morris was naturally the manager of The Firm, however, many of his friends had vital roles in the establishment. Burne-Jones was in charge of stained-glass design and another Pre-Raphaelite, Ford Madox Brown (1821-93), took on the role of chairing meetings. Rossetti was a valuable source, using his wide range of social contacts to receive commissions.

 

 

True to his nature, Morris took up a new artistic venture, wallpaper. Designs, such as Trellis and Daisy were registered in 1862 and were an immediate success. Despite business doing well, Morris’ health made it impractical to commute from home to The Firm’s premises in Bloomsbury, London, so the family moved to the residential quarters above the shop; something that placed a further strain on his rapidly deteriorating relationship with his wife.

Nonetheless, The Firm’s reputation was growing, receiving prestigious commissions such as redecorating the Armoury and Tapestry Room at St James’s Palace. This, along with their involvement with the Western Refreshment Room at the South Kensington Museum – now the Green Dining Room at the V&A – attracted the attention of Queen Victoria, who invited them back to St James’s Palace to decorate the Grand Staircase in 1880. The company also sold a furnishing fabric Utrecht Velvet, which was used to decorate the interior walls of the ocean liner, Titanic. 

 

 

After Morris took complete control of the company, which was renamed Morris & Co in 1874, a decade worth of exceptional creativity began. During this time, Morris produced designs for thirty-two printed fabrics, twenty-four machine-made carpets, twenty-three woven fabrics and twenty-one wallpapers. He also opened showrooms at 264 (now 449) Oxford Street, on the corner of North Audley Street, in 1877.

The Gallery has recreated Morris’ showroom, using appropriate furnishings and decorations. It provides the atmosphere of the original place and enables visitors to envisage what entering the shop as a customer would have been like at the time. A number of designs and items are on display and large sample books of various textiles and wallpapers are available to browse through.

Next door, a workshop is set out to resemble the Morris & Co workshops at Merton Abbey, where The Firm moved in 1881. Morris went to lengths to ensure his materials were the finest quality and his workers highly skilled. Pieces of machinery alongside brief videos introduce visitors to the hard work that went into producing the carpets, wallpaper and stained glass for Morris & Co. Examples of the outcomes adorn the walls, many of them featuring birds and plants, inspired by Morris’ upbringing around Epping Forest. Hands-on stations around the room encourage visitors to draw their own patterns, build a stained-glass window and experiment with some basic weaving.

 

“Ever since I can remember I was a great devourer of books.”
– William Morris

The ground floor rooms of the Gallery are devoted to Morris’ artwork and business, however, upstairs are entirely different sides to the versatile Victorian. During his years with the Pre-Raphaelites, Morris began writing poems, sometimes for publications. This was encouraged by Rossetti who is also remembered for his poems as well as his paintings. After he self-published The Life and Death of Jason in 1867, a retelling in verse of the Greek story of Jason and the Argonauts, Morris was predicted to secure his place amongst the chief English poets of the age. The poet Robert Browning (1812-89) declared the volume “noble, melodious and most beautiful,” and within five years, over 3000 copies were sold.

Shortly following this success was Morris’ first volume of The Earthly Paradise, a sequence of twenty-four narrative poems about Greek and Norse mythology. Morris dedicated this book to his wife, ignoring the evidence that Jane was having an affair with Rossetti. Morris later escaped to Iceland to avoid the marriage-destroying fling back home. He had previously been introduced to the Icelandic scholar Eirikr Magnusson (1833-1913), with whom he collaborated with on translations, for example, the original Icelandic Grettis Saga. Morris also translated the Aeneid into English and a loose interpretation of the Volsunga Saga. Titled Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs, his last major poem, George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) dubbed it “the greatest epic since Homer.”

As well as writing, Morris became interested in calligraphy and typography, which sparked the desire to tackle book-printing. In the late 1880s, Morris established the Kelmscott Press at 16 Upper Hall, which became his main preoccupation for the remainder of his life. Coming from a design background, Morris was intrigued with the union of art, literature, typography, binding and ink and determined to produce elaborate, unique page layouts that reflected his passion for all things medieval.

The Kelmscott Press printed over 50 titles, many of them written by Morris himself, but also the writers he admired, including Ruskin, Shakespeare, Rossetti, Keats and Chaucer. The gallery has many examples of the books and pages Morris designed, showing off his intricate calligraphy, exceptional illustrations and gothic patterns. The Kelmscott Chaucer was hailed at the time as the most beautiful book ever printed.

 

William Morris’ artistic and literary career was not his only focus in life. He was aware of the benefits he had gained from being born into a wealthy family and the hardships of the lower classes.

“If I had not been … well-to-do I should have found my position unendurable, should have been a mere rebel against … a system of robbery and injustice … The contrasts of rich and poor are unendurable and ought not to be endured … Such a system can only be detroyed … by the united discontent of numbers; isolated acts of a few persons of the upper or middle classes seeming to me … quite powerless against it.”
– William Morris

Unsupported by his peers, Morris became a Socialist during his 50s, committing himself to public lectures, despite not being much of a speaker. Looking back at his beloved medieval period, Morris wished to bring old ethical values back into practice, for example, co-operation, dignity and honesty. As a member of the Democratic Federation (DF), he took part in marches, sold the group newspaper Justice on street corners and published his own book for the cause: Chants for Socialists.

Later, when the DF was renamed the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), Morris was invited to take the place of president, however, he turned down the offer. Yet, in 1885, Morris became the leader of the Socialist League in Hammersmith, which had broken away from the original SDF. The Socialist League quickly gained hundreds of members and famous names were attracted by Morris’ lectures, including Oscar Wilde (1845-1900) and H. G. Wells (1866-1946).

In 1886, the Socialist League began producing a weekly publication, Commonweal, however, it failed to make a profit. In an attempt to raise funds for the magazine, Morris wrote his only play, The Tables Turned; or Nupkins Awakened, giving himself the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The play was performed ten times, however, Morris did not think the audience understood the Socialist message he was trying to get across.

The events of 13th November 1887, also known as “Bloody Sunday”, were a crucial part of Morris’ Socialist vocation. Morris led a large group to a protest meeting at Trafalgar Square, however, violent police involvement caused the death of two protestors and left hundreds injured.

Despite his involvement with politics, Morris did not give up on his other interests, continuing to run Morris & Co whilst writing poetry and translating popular works. He also combined his love of gothic design with his political tendencies, setting up the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) in 1877, a company that is still in existence today, to try to prevent damages to the original architecture of old buildings. Morris believed the Victorian restoration of these buildings was doing more harm than good and feared historical evidence of the foregoing centuries being destroyed completely.

 

Being such a talented and varied man, William Morris has left a huge legacy behind him. The final rooms at the Gallery explore the ways Morris has left his mark on the art and literature world. One room devotes itself to the work of Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956), one of the founders of the William Morris Gallery who was briefly apprenticed to William Morris. The other room takes a look at the resulting Arts and Crafts movement, inspired by the ideas of architect Augustus Pugin (1812-52), writer John Ruskin, and, of course, designer William Morris.

The Arts and Crafts movement flourished between the 1880s until the beginning of the First World War. Young artists, designers and craftsman were inspired by Morris’ ideas and continued to protest against the effects of industrialisation, just as he did during his time with the SDF and Socialist League. Unlike other art movements, Arts and Crafts was based more upon ideas than visual style, particularly ideas about Socialism, education and the environment.

Examples of work by these young artists can be seen in the eighth room of the Gallery, such as stained glass by Christopher Whall (1849–1924) and a carved plaque of Morris by George Jack (1855-1931) in tribute of the late artist.

May Morris, Morris’ youngest daughter was also an inventive designer. She learnt embroidery at a young age and by 1885, when she was only 21, she was elected head of the embroidery department at Morris & Co. Her passion for sewing helped to reconstruct embroidery from a female pastime to a serious form of art. The Gallery displays a fine silk embroidery by May titled Maids of Honour. Delicately made, this work of art was not produced for sale and remained in May’s private collection for the rest of her life.

“The true root and basis of all Art lies in the handicrafts.”
– Walter Crane (1845-1915)

Due to the sheer amount of information available, the William Morris Gallery is a place to be visited numerous times. Its free entry makes it a desirable place to revisit and its location in Lloyd Park only adds to its popularity. Activities for children are available throughout the Gallery, including brass rubbing, activity sheets and the opportunity to dress up.

The tea room or The Larder, situated in an orangery at the back of the house, provides breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea during the Gallery opening times. Throughout the year, specific exhibitions are also held in the building, the current one being The Enchanted Gardenfeaturing artists such as Claude Monet, Lucian Pissarro, Edward Burne-Jones and Beatrix Potter. This runs alongside a solo exhibition of fine artist Rob Ryan.

William Morris, as his obituary states, “was not only a genius, he was a man.” By encompassing his entire life rather than his outcomes and legacies, the William Morris Gallery succeeds in keeping the memory of the human being behind the name fresh and alive. He is definitely a person worth knowing about.

wmg_logo22Open Tuesday to Sunday, 10am – 5pm. Free entry.

10 thoughts on “The Life and Designs of William Morris

  1. This must have been a hard piece to write as William Morris was talented in so many skills. Likewise Hazel is multitalented and once again we read a masterpiece encompassing WM life and successes. A most enjoyable read as it was educational and entertaining. Thank you Hazel for sharing you are an expert of the written word.

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