William Morris (1834-96)
ARTS & CRAFTS IN ENGLAND
A pioneering figure of modern art in England, 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 Vienna Secession. 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. Now viewed as one of the great modern artists, the sheer breadth of his artistic interests, albeit hampered occasionally by excessive idealism, makes it difficult to fully appreciate his creative genius.
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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.
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.
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".
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.
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