This is a well-known name here in England, you can find mentions of his works from museums like V&A, even in clothing brands like H&M, not to mention that you might have in your house wallpapers with the prints created by him.
But who is William Morris anyway? And why is his story and art so relevant to this day?
Born in Walthamstow, in east London in 1834, William Morris had a privileged childhood. His broker father was very successful in the financial market, and so he inherited enough money to never need to earn an income.
William Morris spent most of his time exploring local parkland, forest and churches, and had a particular love for the stories of Walter Scott – and all of this helped him develop an early love for landscape, buildings and historical romance. Not to mention, his very very string opinions on design at a young age – which is marked by him refusing to visit the Great Exhibition hosted in London in 1851 on the grounds of taste. The theme was Machine Age design. This would all help shape the person he later became in life.
Oxford University was his next step after school, where he went to study for the Church and also met one of his life-long friends, Edward Burns-Jones, who later became one of his era’s most famous painters, very well known for his Pre-Raphaelite work.
It was Edward that introduced him to a group of students and they later formed “The Set” or “The Brotherhood”. They enjoyed romantic stories of medieval chivalry and self-sacrifice. And being part of this group showed Morris the deep divisions in contemporary society, and it created in him the interest in attempting to create a different process to the dehumanising industrial systems – which in his opinion produced poor-quality, “unnatural” objects. Again, this also helped shape his professional choices in the future.
William Morris and his friend Burne-Jones went on an architectural tour of Northern France in 1855 – where they noticed their higher commitment to art than the Church.
After his return, he soon found work at the George Edmund Street office, one of the leading Neo-Gothic architects. But he used most of his time setting up Oxford and Cambridge magazine – where “The Brotherhood” would publish written material – and he showed little interest in architecture.
During the time he was working in Oxford, he had a chance encounter with a stableman’s daughter, Jane Burden, whom he married in 1859. This was a bold move on his part since he was directly defying customs of the period by marrying outside his class.
He commissioned architect Philip Webb to build a house in rural Kent that eventually became known as Red House. A property that was ‘medieval in spirit’ where he wanted to create a craft-based artistic community. And unhappy with the the furnishings available at the time, Jane and Morris spent two years decorating the interior of the house with the help of their artistic circle.
Happy with their collective efforts, Morris and his friends decided to set up their own interior design company – the Morris Marshall, Faulkner & Co. As mentioned, his own past helped shape the company’s strategy, in which everything was crafted by hand, standing firmly against the industrialised efforts of the period.
And as you visit the house and gallery, there are interactive elements added to the tour where you can play and calculate the economic costs and efforts involved in such a strategy. The cost of production, delivery and how much it would cost to the outside market when compared to the industrialised prices. And you can even see works side by side in parts of the house and see how much the hand-crafted work and effort created such beautiful work of art.
Initially, their company, later known as ‘The Firm’, specialised in a type of wall paintings and embroidery hangings similar to what was produced for the Red House. It took a few years for the company to really grow, and they survived in commissions by churches, especially through their stained glass work. And it was soon after that Morris and Jane moved back to London selling the Red House – after his friend’s daughter’s death of scarlet fever, his dream of a craft house was abandoned.
Two large commissions brought notoriety to the company – one for a new dining room at the South Kensington Museum (later the V&A), and the St. James’s Palace. It was during this period that William started working on his first wallpapers, inspired by English gardens and hedgerows.
And in 1875, William Morris became the sole director of the company, renaming it to Morris & Company. In 1877 he opened a shop on Oxford Street, where he could continue to produce at an impressive rate, and adding another 32 printed fabrics, 23 woven fabrics and 21 wallpapers.
Morris later became an active member of politics, especially due to his disillusion with parliamentary politics. With efforts to end class division, he helped form a new group called Socialist League. He frequently gave street-corner speeches and went on marches, but his fame protected him against prosecution. Towards the end of the tour you can even see his bag where he would carry and distribute socialist material and pamphlets.
In his later years, Morris became an avid writer, adding to his poetic material with some prose that would engage and speak to his socialist and romantic utopianism. His love for literature led him to create an impressive collection of books, of which you can see part of it during your visit. And he even set up a book press company called Kelmscott Press.
Although today’s gallery exists in his childhood home, it houses an impressive collection of his work, and shows key elements of his impressive story. So many examples of his textile work, and you can even experience how his extensive research in designs, landscape and colours happened and helped shape the amazing crafted material that can still be purchased to this day. After all, you can still purchase Morris & Co. wallpapers to decorate your own house.
The visit also counts with an impressive garden, which again shows how much the English garden landscape helped mould the man that inspired so much in interior design, and hand-crafted art.
Visiting the William Morris Museum, you get in touch with his history and know much more about his work.
This is one of those visits that runs away from the conventional, but puts you in touch with so much knowledge that it enchants you to know more about it.
After all, it is very interesting to meet the man behind such famous prints.