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William Morris Biography

1834 - 1896

The relatively poor taste of the late Victorian age found a rescuer in the life and work of William Morris, probably the greatest and most influential of Victorian designers, the architect of the Arts and Crafts movement.

Early Life

William Morris was born in England, March 24, 1834. He died October 3, 1896. He went to Oxford in the eighteen fifties and beside him at the examinations sat Burne Jones, who became his life long friend.

He intended to study for the church. He knew nothing of art but became interested in it while traveling through Belgium and Northern France studying the churches of Amiens, Beauvais and Chartres. He had become acquainted with the work of the pre-Raphaelites, a brotherhood of artisans cultivating the Gothic arts and preaching the theory of individualism. Dante Gabriel Rossetti was the head, Ford Madox Brown, Holman Hunt and John Mallais were active members assisted by John Ruskin's writings. Subsequently the coterie admitted William M. Rossetti, James Collinson, F. J. Stephens and Thomas Wolner.

Morris's Childhood

As a child, Morris had a vivid imagination and a romantic, poetic temperament. At an early age he began writing poetry.

Buildings had interested Morris from his childhood. The Gothic period appealed to his nature, the beauties of the Gothic art stimulated it and before he was through Oxford he had decided to study architecture and his friend Burne-Jones was to become an artist.

Interest in Art

Morris studied under George Edmond Street, an architect whose enthusiasm for the thirteenth century made the foundation for all of Morris's work. Street was engaged at the time Morris went to him in restoring ancient churches and designing Gothic buildings. While never an artist in the broad sense, in the ability to depict the human form, and while never an architect, Morris developed along lines of adornment or ornamentation.

In 1855 Burne-Jones and Morris took lessons in painting under Rossetti, and in 1856 Rossetti wrote enthusiastically of Burne-Jones predicting his fame as an artist, and of Morris he said that "in all illumination work of that kind he considered him quite unrivalled". When he was twenty-five Morris married Jane Burden, and the house into which they moved, known afterwards as "The Red House", possessed many furnishings contributed by their artistic friends.

Morris & Co.

The firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., as it was first called, appears to have followed their success of this early effort at decoration. Rossetti explains that the suggestion to organize a firm was a whim.

One evening a lot of us were together, and we got to talking about the way in which artists did all kinds of things in olden times, designed every kind of decoration and most kinds of furniture, and someone suggested that each put down five pounds and form a company. This was done. Morris was elected manager simply because he was the only man among us who had time and money to spare.

The associates were Morris, Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Madox Brown, an artist of reputation, Webb, the architect of the Red House, also a designer of furniture, Peter Paul Marshall and Charles Faulkner.

Naturally their work was of the highest character, covering mural decoration, carving as applied to architecture, stained glass, metal work, furniture, fabrics, stamped leathers and decorations generally, including draperies and wallpaper.

They affected full, luscious colorings, tabooed fadey effects and dingy colors were abhorred by them.

In 1858 some of the furniture made by Ford Madox Brown was described by him:

Adapted to need of solidity and of a kind of homely beauty; above all, free of false display in carving, veneering and the like.

He tried to exhibit his furniture at the Hogarth Club, but the work was rejected as not fine art. But he persevered, and today his masterpieces, the frescoes in the Manchester Town Hall, are recognized as unequalled.

Morris Interior
A furnished interior influenced by the designs of William Morris.

Rossetti describes a room which he was furnishing for his bride:

Our drawing-room is papered from a design printed on common brown packing paper. The trees stand the whole height of the room; the stems and fruits are of Venetian red; the leaves are black; the fruit will have a fine line of yellow to indicate roundness.

The Morris factory took up finally printing on wallpapers, or fabrics, which, together with the furniture, was based upon Gothic lines influenced in the modern spirit. Occasionally his floral treatment was classic, utilizing the acanthus or flora of England. His wood tones predominated as a background for vivid colors. His designs were never in straight lines and were always Medieval, and even where his motifs were modern flora the colorings and technique were Medieval.

Morris Alone

Tapestry

In 1875 the original firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner et Co. was dissolved and Morris carried on the business alone, though Burne-Jones and Webb continued to help him with designs for stained glass and furniture. His enthusiasm was aroused in 1877 (in spite of his great interest at this time in public affairs), by the establishing of calico and chintz printing, the manufacture of brocades in silk and silk and wool, a Frenchman being got over to teach brocade work. He also began to think of tapestry, though this could not be attended to till later in the year, and it was when he took Kelm-scott house, on the upper mall, Hammersmith, that he had a tapestry loom put up in his bedroom, rising early to practice the art of tapestry weaving and needlepoint work. Carpet looms were built in the stables and here the first Hammersmith carpets were made.

Chintz & Wallpaper

The most important development perhaps was the production of printed cotton goods, ie, "Morris chintzes" which are more used than any of his other fabrics.

Between seventy and eighty wall-paper designs and nearly forty chintzes were invented and carried out by Morris, though if the various colorings were counted separately his designs would amount to 400. The sum total of his designs for paper-hangings, chintzes, woven stuffs, silk damasks, stamped velvets, bedspreads carpets, and tapestries (excluding the hand-made carpets and the arras tapestries, which were each specially designed and as a rule not duplicated) which were actually carried out, amounts to little short of 600, besides countless designs for embroidery.

A True Craftsman

In that welter of "latest styles" and "newest fashions" Morris worked out his theories of honesty and interest in the making of things, and they bore fruit in a great return on the part of the artistically minded sections of society to the ideals of the craftsman who made things by hand. Morris took the trouble to master the crafts which attracted him. Weaving with his own hands; making pottery himself, and gaining from such work the sympathy with materials that makes designing an understanding and thoughtful process rather than an aesthetic diversion, brought Morris real power, the great and commanding power that can not only execute good work, but inspire its execution when circumstances make it necessary to entrust it to other hands. The men Morris was associated with in the business he started in 1862 (Morris, Marshall, Faulkner et Co.) were all men of influence, imagination and ideas, and that company which set out to execute ecclesiastical decoration and furnishing, stained glass, carving, metal-work, wallpapers, chintzes and carpets, was composed of D. G. Rossetti, Philip Webb, Burne-Jones, Madox Brown, Faulkner and Marshall.

Morris was certainly not alone in appreciating the soundness and beauty of hand-made things, but he was articulate and very practically convincing, and a great wave of interest in handicraft work followed his lead.









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