William Morris
Biography of English Victorian Artist: Arts and Crafts Movement.

Pin it

La Belle Iseult (1858)
Tate Britain, London.

William Morris (1834-96)


Early Life
Medieval Designs: Art and Architecture
Arts and Crafts: Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co
Traditional Designs
Historic Architecture
Medieval Tapestries
Medieval Printing: The Kelmscott Press

The Attainment (1891-94) (detail)
The Vision of the Holy Grail as it
appeared to Sir Galahad, Sir Bors,
and Sir Perceval. One of several
Holy Grail tapestries woven by
Morris & Co for Stanmore Hall.
Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery.


A pioneering figure of 19th century Victorian art, albeit one who championed authentic medieval craftsmanship, William Morris was an artist, designer and medievalist, whose brainchild - the design firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company, promoted back-to-nature textile and furniture designwork, and the traditionalist principles of the English Arts and Crafts Movement. Morris himself was also a major influence in the rediscovery of medieval methods of production in several areas, notably printmaking and textiles. His work also had a strong influence on other design movements, such as Art Nouveau, the German Jugenstil and the progressive breakaway movements such as the Munich Secession (1892), the Vienna Secession (1897) and the Berlin Secession (1898). In his final years he focused his attention on the Kelmscott Press, which he established in 1891, whose edition of the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer is still seen as a masterpiece of book illustration and design. Closely associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, including Dante Gabriele Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones, Morris is now revered as one of the great figures of modern art in England, although the sheer breadth of his artistic interests, albeit hampered occasionally by excessive idealism, makes it difficult to fully appreciate his creative genius.

The English Arts and Crafts
Movement originated in the 1850s
with John Ruskin (1819-1900).
It deplored the aesthetic and
social effects of the Industrial
Revolution, typified by the mass
produced products shown at
the Great Exhibition (1851).
The movement propagated the
value of individual craftsmanship
and socially responsible design,
in all the crafts and decorative arts
including: stained glass art,
textiles, furniture, wallpaper,
book typography & illustration,
and architecture. William Morris
was a leading figure in all
aspects of the movement which
faded after 1900.

For a list of the most important
portraitist, history painters and
landscape artists in oils and
watercolours, during the
eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries, (1700-1900) see:
Best English Painters.

For information and facts about
famous artists from England, see:
Alfred Stevens (1817-75)
Sculpture, decorative art
GF Watts (1817-1904)
Portrait painter, muralist
John Everett Millais (1829-96)
Academic portraitist
Frederic Leighton (1830-1896)
Neoclassical painter and sculptor.
Lawrence Alma-Tadema
Classical subject painter.
William Holman Hunt (1827-1910)
Co-founder of Pre-Raphaelites.
John William Waterhouse (1849-1917)
Romantic painter of The Lady of Shalott
Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98)
Art Nouveau illustrator.

Early Life

The English artist William Morris was born in Walthamstow into a wealthy family; he enjoyed a private income from the time he came of age. As a child, riding in Epping Forest, he developed a lifelong love of the English countryside, together with the habit of imagining what it was like in the Middle Ages. In 1853 he went up to Oxford intending to enter the Church, but he found himself increasingly attracted to the architecture, literature, and life of the medieval past. At Oxford he met the painter Edward Burne-Jones and together they studied illuminated manuscripts, prints by the great Northern Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer, and brass rubbings, and read ancient and modern authors such as Chaucer, Mallory, Scott, La Motte-Fouque, Carlyle, Kingsley, and Ruskin.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.

For an explanation of the
terminology, see:
Art: Definition and Meaning.

For the best works, see:
Greatest Modern Paintings.


In 1855, on his second visit to the cathedrals of northern France, Morris decided to become an architect and for a short time worked in the office of G.E. Street. But early in 1856 he met Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the leader of the Pre-Raphaelites movement, who persuaded him to take up painting. Rossetti was in turn impressed by Morris' poems and stories, which appeared in the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine throughout 1856. These works and the poems published in his first book The Defence of Guenevere (1858), dedicated to Rossetti, convey Morris' intense awareness of the vitality, landscape, pattern, and colour of the Middle Ages but also his awareness of the period's brutality.

Medieval Designs: Art and Architecture

Rossetti involved Morris in painting the Oxford Union in 1857, and partly through this work Morris realized that his genius lay in pattern design. His fondness for the Middle Ages and his hatred of industrialization led him to recreate the spirit of the past. Thus in 1856 he had massive medieval furniture built for his rooms in London. Four years later, after his marriage to Jane Burden, he moved into Red House, Bexley Heath, built for him by his friend Phillip Webb to designs by Webb and Morris. This was a simple red brick house, Gothic in style; Morris furnished it with furniture painted by himself and his friends, embroidered hangings, stained glass art, and wall paintings, so that it became a richly coloured medieval palace of art.

Arts and Crafts

Morris' experience at Red House led him and his friends to set up the firm Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company in 1861. With Rossetti, Madox Brown, Jones, Arthur Hughes, and other painters working for it, this firm showed how the rift between the "fine arts" and the "minor arts" could be healed. Its prospectus asserted that the firm would undertake wood carving, metal-work, stained glass art, wallpaper, printed fabrics (chintzes), and carpets. From the outset, decorative craftwork for churches was an important part of the business. Based initially at 8 Red Lion Square, London, its non-ecclesiastical services gradually widened to encompass, besides painted windows and mural decoration, furniture design, metalwork and glassware, cloth and paper wall-hangings, embroidery, jewellery, woven and knotted carpets, silk damasks, and tapestries.

In 1885-6, William Morris in collaboration with textile manufacturer Thomas Wardle, his wife Elizabeth, and 30 female embroiderers, made a full-size replica of the famous Bayeux Tapestry, based on a fascimile drawing provided by the Museum of South Kensington. The embroidery now resides in the Museum of Reading, Berkshire.

Traditional Designs

Morris himself was responsible for a few stained glass cartoon designs, the foliage backgrounds to many figures drawn by the other artists, and all matters to do with colouring. He also designed wallpapers, at first simple, naturalistic ones such as Daisy; later, from the early 1870s, he designed papers such as Jasmine, full of depth, and a suggestion of mysterious abundance. In deliberate opposition to the theories of the South Kensington School of Design, Morris wanted his designs to provide a substitute for nature, with familiar plants and believable patterns of growth. He also designed chintzes (from 1873), carpets (from 1878), tapestries (from 1879), and embroideries, always taking great care to use natural processes and often reviving forgotten methods such as dyeing with vegetable dyes. Because of the time and skill needed to execute his designs the firm's work was always expensive, but in the 1870s and early 1880s it was taken up by the Aesthetic Movement and sold well.

The firm exhibited to great acclaim at the 1862 International Exhibition, and within a few years was flourishing. Sadly, in late 1864, a severe illness forced Morris to choose between quitting his home at Red House in Kent and giving up his work in London. With immense reluctance he gave up Red House, and in 1865 settled under the same roof as his workshops, now relocated to Queen Square, Bloomsbury.

In 1867, the company completed a prestigious commission - the "green dining room" at the South Kensington Museum (a space now known as the Morris Room of the Victoria and Albert Museum) - which featured stained glass windows and panel figures by Burne-Jones, panels with branches of fruit or flowers by Morris, and olive branches and a frieze by Philip Webb.

In 1874, Morris proposed a restructure of the firm, with the result that Ford Madox Brown and Rossetti opted to leave, requiring a buyout which proved to be an expensive business. Throughout his life, William Morris remained principal owner and design chief, although the company changed names. Its most famous later title was Morris & Co. The firm's designwork is still available today from Sanderson and Sons and Liberty of London.


Meanwhile, Morris continued to write poetry, publishing The Life and Death of Jason (1867), The Earthly Paradise (1868-70), and Sigurd the Volsung (1876), perhaps his finest poem. With the help of E. Magnusson, whom he met in 1868, he translated Icelandic sagas. Around this time, Morris and Rossetti rented a country house, Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire, as a summer retreat, except it rapidly became the location for a lengthy but complicated liaison between Rossetti and William Morris' wife, Jane. The two spent summers there, with the Morris children, while Morris himself travelled to Iceland on research trips in 1871 and 1873 for his writing. Kelmscott Manor remained an important retreat and symbol of simple country life for Morris in later years.

Historic Architecture

From about this time, vernacular buildings made from local materials by local craftsmen began to interest Morris as much as, if not more than, famous monuments. Though he never became a practising architect, his interest in architecture continued throughout his life, and in 1877 he was instrumental in founding the "Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings": an attempt to prevent the over-zealous restoration of historic buildings that often destroyed their surface, and with it, the hand of the original craftsman. Morris' preservation work resulted indirectly in the foundation of the National Trust. See also: Victorian architecture (1840-1900).

Medieval Tapestries

In 1881, Morris expanded his design firm by establishing a new textile workshop in Surrey, whose weaving looms specialized in medieval tapestry art. At the same time, and with the growing realization that art and society were indivisible, Morris began to play an active role in politics and the tackling of social problems. Ruskin's belief (expressed in the chapter "The Nature of Gothic" in The Stones of Venice), that the division of labour in industry prevented the workers from using their imagination and enjoying their work, formed the keystone of Morris' thinking. With its "profit-mongering", the capitalist system had killed the practice and appreciation of art except for the privileged few. Morris, like Ruskin, preferred traditionalism exemplified in folk art and other similar styles, and believed that "Art is Man's Expression of his Joy in Labour".

In January 1883 Morris joined the Social Democratic Federation, and in the following year formed his own Socialist League. He continued to play an active part in this until 1890, editing and financing its paper The Commonweal, and lecturing up and down the country to foment discontent among the lower classes, and encourage an educated, directed revolution.

Medieval Printing: The Kelmscott Press, Hammersmith

One of Morris' final projects - once again in his favourite area of medievalism - involved typography. Previously, during the early 1870s, he had devoted much time and attention to the arts of calligraphy and manuscript illumination, writing several manuscripts, with illuminations of his own design. He now set about beautifying the art of modern printing, a task which culminated in 1891 with his founding of the Kelmscott Press at Hammersmith in London. The company's mission was the printing of books, using, as far as possible, the printmaking technology and typographical style of the 15th-century.

The project perfectly reflected the doctrine of the English Arts and Crafts movement, namely its opposition to the mass-production techniques of contemporary printing and to the increasing production of lithographic prints designed to look like woodcuts. Morris designed two typefaces based on 15th-century models, the Roman "Golden" type (after the Venetian printmaker Nicolaus Jenson) and the black letter "Troy" type, with its larger sister type, the "Chaucer". He also created borders and initials for the books, decorated with floral designs, drawing inspiration from woodcut illustrations found in 15th century manuscripts. All this, together with meticulous attention to the choice of paper and ink, made the Kelmscott Press the most renowned private printing press of the Arts and Crafts movement. It continued in operation until 1898, producing a total of more than 18,000 copies of over fifty books (notably its masterpiece, The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer) and inspired the foundation of several other private presses, including Ashendene Press, Caradoc Press, Doves Press and the Vale Press.

Artworks by William Morris can be seen in a small number of the best art museums in England, such as the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.


• For more biographies of Victorian artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For details of Arts and Crafts movements, see: History of Art.
• For more information about decorative designwork, see: Homepage.

© visual-arts-cork.com. All rights reserved.