The Classic Creatives: William Morris

Taking a step back in time to revisit the works of some truly inspirational people. See our first Classic Creatives feature – on ceramic artist Clarice Cliff – here.

Who?

William Morris, textile designer, artist and writer (1834-1896).

What did he do?

William Morris was a key member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (a group of 19th century artists and poets who wished to return to classic art methods rather than the more ‘mechanical’ methods that were becoming popular) who is also famed for his embroidery and textile designs.

Born in London, he attended Oxford University, where he studied, amongst other things, theology, poetry and art. After gaining his degree, Morris – who had originally intended on entering the church – decided to become an architect. He then founded the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, which he self-funded. Through this, he was introduced to the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who contributed to the magazine.

Morris married Jane Burden in 1859; the couple had two daughters. Jane went on to have a prolonged affair with Rossetti (for whom she posed many times) and despite their unhappy marriage, Morris and his wife never divorced.

In 1861, he founded an arts company with Rossetti and a few others, named Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. (described by art history scholar Sir Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘the beginning of a new era in Western art’). The business focused on a variety of undertakings, including the decoration of churches, embroideries, wall-hangings, jewellery, tapestries, furniture and numerous others.

Passionately interested in politics, Morris was often left disillusioned by the age he lived in. He dabbled with the Liberal party before becoming a key member of the Socialist movement. After experiencing similar disenchantment, he became involved with the Socialist Democratic Federation, before returning to the Socialists.

Outside of his designs, Morris also wrote novels, poems and essays, as well as providing numerous translations of classical texts.

What inspired his work?

Morris preferred to use 2d shading in his embroideries and textiles; he loathed the 3d designs that were coming into vogue. Describing his views on tapestry in his Of The Revival Of Design And Handicraft, he noted that:  ‘Depth of tone, richness of colour, and exquisite gradation of tints are easily to be obtained in Tapestry; and it also demands that crispness and abundance of beautiful detail which was the especial characteristic of fully developed Mediæval Art.’ He greatly admired the Mediæval method of tapestry-making, and described it as ‘the noblest of the weaving arts’.

What is his best known piece of work?

A collaborative effort in 1867 – the room at South Kensington Palace that Morris decorated with Philip Webb and Edward Burne-Jones.

Now displayed at the Victoria and Albert and nicknamed the Morris Room, it features stained glass designs by Burne-Jones, a frieze by Webb and panels adorned with fruit and flowers by Morris.

Why should I care about him?

Morris’s thirst for knowledge and vast range of expertise makes him a truly inspiring Classic Creative. He immersed himself in every project he undertook and each of his designs recognises his appreciation of the classical arts. His pieces are still loved today, with many of his textile designs adorning wallpapers, shopping bags, postcards and crockery across the world.

He said…

‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’

The William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow is currently closed for restoration until July 2012. Find out more about William Morris’s wallpaper designs on the V&A site here.

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