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The Work of William Morris

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William Morris tile panel1996 saw the centenary of the death of William Morris. William Morris has increasingly become a household name and as the father-figure of the Arts and Crafts movement has had a great impact on 20th century design. He was the first to champion such art and craft principles as “truth to materials” and simplicity in art. This simplistic nature was also seen in his attitude towards life where he propagated an ideal of rustic living. His utopian socialism beliefs and his affinity for natural, hand-crafted details made him the spiritual leader of the Crafts Revival of the 20th century.

Pictured: William Morris tile panel – the architect of Membland Hall in Devon commissioned this sumptuous design for bathroom tiles from William Morris (1834-1896). Morris had the tiles painted in the studios of William de Morgan (1839-1917). They represent a rare collaboration between these two creative geniuses. From Collections at the V&A click for more details © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

William Morris was born into a wealthy local pottery family on March 24, 1834, at Elm House, Walthamstow. He was the third of nine children (and the oldest son) of William and Emma Shelton Morris. In his childhood Morris showed a great passion for all things medieval and a great affinity with nature.

William Morris tapestry The ForestPictured: William Morris tapestry The Forest – William Morris’ use of birds and animals in his early tapestries is a forebear to his later carpet patterns. This design, one of his most successful compositions, uses a dense cover of trailing acanthus leaves, as seen in his first tapestry ‘Acanthus and Vine’, into which have been placed Philip Webb’s five studies of animals and birds. It is possible that Henry Dearle supplied foreground floral details, although these are similar to Webb’s preparatory drawings. The verse was later published under the title ‘The Lion’ in Morris’s Poems By the Way. The tapestry was woven by Morris & Co.’s three most senior weavers ‘under the superintendence of William Morris’ according to the 1890 Arts and Crafts Exhibition catalogue. Bought by Aleco Ionides for 1 Holland Park, in London, it hung in the study together with an acanthus-leaf panel. From Collections at the V&A click for more details © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

William Morris wallpaper Trellis designIn 1847, Morris’s father died, and the following year, aged fourteen, he entered Marlborough College. He left in 1851 to continue to study at home. In 1853 Morris entered Exeter College at Oxford, where he met Edward Burne-Jones, who was to become one of the greatest of the Pre-Raphaelite artists, and began to study architecture and write poetry. In 1856 Morris began work in an architects office where he met Philip Webb, who would become another close friend and associate. He took rooms with Burne-Jones, already embarked on his career as an artist, and before the end of the year Morris himself abandoned architecture for art.

Pictured: William Morris wallpaper Trellis design – ‘Trellis’ is typical of Morris’s early wallpaper patterns. It combines simple bird and flower forms with a plain coloured background. It is a compromise between the boldly coloured pictorial patterns which were then popular with the general public, and the formalised flat patterns in muted tones which were promoted by the design reform movement. Philip Webb, the architect of the Red House, drew the birds for this wallpaper design. From Collections at the V&A click for more details © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In 1859 Morris married Jane Burden. In 1861 along with others Morris founded “Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company” (later Morris & Co.). Morris excelled in the design of flat patterns, derived from organic forms, particularly fruits, flowers and birds. He was especially talented in designing carpets, fabrics, stained glass and wallpapers. In 1878 the Morris family moved to Kelmscott House in Hammersmith, where Morris began to experiment with tapestries. Morris is credited with over 600 designs.

William Morris furnishing fabric Strawberry ThiefPictured: William Morris furnishing fabric Strawberry Thief – This printed cotton furnishing textile was intended to be used for curtains or draped around walls (a form of interior decoration advocated by William Morris), or for loose covers on furniture. This is one of Morris best-known designs. He based the pattern and name on the thrushes which frequently stole the strawberries in the kitchen garden of his countryside home, Kelmscott Manor, in Oxfordshire. Despite the fact that this design was one of the most expensive printed furnishings available from Morris & Co., it became a firm favourite with clients. The pattern was printed by the indigo discharge method, an ancient technique used for many centuries mostly in the East. Morris admired the depth of colour and crispness of detail that it produced. He first attempted to print by this method in 1875 but it was until 1881, when he moved into his factory at Merton Abbey, near Wimbledon, that he succeeded. In May 1883 Morris wrote to his daughter, ‘I was a great deal at Merton last week … anxiously superintending the first printing of the Strawberry thief, which I think we shall manage this time.’ Pleased with this success, he registered the design with the Patents Office. This pattern was the first design using the technique in which red (in this case alizarin dye) and yellow (weld) were added to the basic blue and white ground.  From Collections at the V&A click for more details © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Morris was becoming more and more interested in politics and despite his wealthy background developed strong utopian, socialist views. He became a prominent speaker and theorist and wrote several poltical texts including Art and Socialism. He saw Socialism as a way of solving many of the problems present in Victorian society such as poverty and unemployment.

william morris wallpaper acanthusPictured: William Morris wallpaper Acanthus design – This wallpaper was printed for Morris’s company by the London firm Jeffrey & Co., who specialised in high quality ‘Art’ wallpapers. It required thirty wood blocks to print the full repeat, and used fifteen subtly different colours (more than any previous design by Morris). ‘Acanthus’ was issued in two colour combinations – one in shades of green and the other in predominantly reddish-brown tones. From Collections at the V&A click for more details © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Throughout his life Morris continued to write books and poetry and even turned down the position of poet laureate. Morris died on October 3 1896 at Kelmscott House, and lies buried in Kelmscott Village churchyard.

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