William Morris (1834-1896)

Page from The Glittering Plain

Famous as the founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement. He was born in Walthamstow, then a village, and moved to a grand residence there called Water House at the age of 14 - this has since become the William Morris Gallery. He studied at Oxford with the intention of becoming a clergyman, but while there he met Edward Coley Burne-Jones, also studying for the church, and they both began to turn towards art. They were persuaded by Rossetti to give up the studies and become artists. Morris did a year in architectural practice of G. E. Street, and then turned to painting. However, he soon found that his metier was design.

The cooperative attempt to decorate his new house (the Red House, built by Philip Webb) at Bexleyheath, south east of London, lead to the setting up of the firm Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. The partners were Morris, Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown, Philip Webb, Charles Faulkner, and Peter Paul Marshall, a surveyor. The firm was set up as a 'company of Fine Art Workmen', designing and producing (or at least supervising the production of) furniture, wallpaper, murals, tapestrywork, stained glass windows, metalwork, tapestries, and smaller works such as tiles and embroidery. It started in 8 Lion Square, London, where there was sufficient space for workshops, showrooms, and a kiln in the basement for tile production. The firm later became simply Morris and Co. when Morris - always blessed with a private income - bought out the other partners.

Morris's wallpapers were his best-known output, with complex designs incorporating plants, flowers and birds. Morris married Jane Burden, a beautiful model who appears in many Pre-Raphaelite paintings (it is she who sat for nearly all Rossetti's later works). Jane, together with her sister Bessie, did embroideries for Morris's firm. Philip Webb designed much of the furniture, metalwork, and many tiles. For stained glass, Morris generally designed the backgrounds and Burne-Jones drew most of the figures, with Rossetti and Ford Madox Brown also contributing designs. Burne-Jones also collaborated with Morris on tapestries, designed many tiles, and drew for the books produced by the Kelmscott Press, founded by Morris in 1891. Morris was described by Walter Crane as being 'the first to approach the craft of practical printing from the point of view of the artist'. The most important book of the Press was the Kelmscott Chaucer, which has been described as the most beautiful book to be produced since the Renaissance. This had typography and borders by Morris, with 87 illustrations by Burne-Jones. Other artists working as designers for the Kelmscott Press included C. M. Gere, Arthur Gaskin, and E. H. New, all from the Birmingham School of Art, and the Birmingham illustrators were in general much influenced by Morris's books.

Morris's novels are still readily available from second hand bookshops - they are not in great demand so do not part with more than a pound - but the Kelmscott Press books are very precious. A complete set is at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, London. The Kelmscott Chaucer has been reproduced in modern times on several occasions, and is often found in remaindered bookshops; I picked up my copy for six pounds. In 1996 there were many large exhibitions of his work, including at the V&A, marking the centenary of his death, and for this reason there are many catalogues and books currently available. Morris left few paintings - a Guinevere and Sir Tristram and Iseult's Dog come to mind - and the former of these is in the Tate Gallery.

Most easy to find are Morris's stained glass windows, in many churches up and down the country, and in various museums such as the V & A and in Birmingham. Also widely spread are his wallpaper designs and his tilework.

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Illustration // Arts and Crafts // Other artists