It is hard not to be in admiration, even awe, of William Morris. Principally this is due to the breadth and depth of his talents but there’s so much more that made him a giant of his day. His breadth of vision encompassed a broad spectrum of applied arts, technology and the workplace, an integration of the present with the past, social and even environmental issues. His tapestries are just one portion of his prodigious artistic output. Frank Lloyd Wright said “All artists honor William Morris”.
We mere mortals are left with the wonderful legacy of his life and work and his ongoing influence.
William Morris – early life, studies and family
William Morris was born in March 1834 in London, the third of ten children, to a wealthy family, his father being a financier.
Among the benefits of this privileged setting is that the family copper mining shares funded his collection of antique books and paintings though dwindling income led to the later sale of many. Nonetheless, he collected old books and manuscripts to his dying days.
Morris attended Oxford University from 1853 where he soon met life-long friend and occasional colleague Ned Jones, later to become Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98). While at Oxford both men fell under the influence of John Ruskin (1819-1900) whose inspiring though verbose writings presented the desirable virtues, or perceived ones, of medieval Europe. He led their thinking on art and architecture, human morality and work, materialism and society. Ruskin, like Tennyson in a different way, was to give an impetus to three related movements: the Gothic Revival, the Pre-Raphaelites, and the Arts and Crafts Movement.
In the summer of 1855 the two friends had an inspiring tour of northern France, visiting cathedrals and churches. Morris’s thoughts moved steadily away from his original plan to take holy orders culminating in a decision at Le Havre where they both determined to devote themselves to “a life of art”. They saw this rather romantically within an idealized context of medieval times; Ned was to be an artist and Morris to train as an architect.
He articled in architecture in January 1856 in the offices of Gothic Revival leading architect G.E.Street who was to greatly influence many future Arts and Crafts architects. On the staff was Philip Webb (1831-1915), a future loyal friend for four decades who was famously to design the Morris home The Red House in Kent. However the necessary five to seven year articling presented artistic Morris with problems with the necessary discipline required in the office.
Eighteen year old Jane Burden came into Morris’s life when Burne-Jones and Gabriel Dante Rossetti met her by chance at a theatre. Both were struck by her looks and the smooth-talking Rossetti persuaded her to sit for him. She was to epitomise the Pre-Raphaelite image of beauty. She sat for Morris who reputedly wrote on his canvas “I cannot paint you but I love you”. Although from very different backgrounds, they married in 1859 at the charming St Michael at the Northgate – you can wander around, view a commemorative plaque and climb up its late Anglo-Saxon tower. Though ill-educated she was intelligent and was the inspiration for the leading character George Bernard Shaw developed in Pygmalion (which became the film My Fair Lady). After a few years the Morrises moved to The Red House at Bexley Heath, Kent, designed for them by Philip Webb and decorated by Morris and his friends with the intention of making it “the beautifullest place on earth”.
Their marriage relationship became rather distant. Janey took refuge in affairs with Rossetti and Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, and William found it easier to confide in Aglaia Coronio and Georgiana Burne-Jones. His friendship with Ned was mostly on an artistic level and they certainly had their disagreements, on politics in particular, whereas he felt a close rapport with Georgiana.
The Morrises had two daughters, Jenny and May. Both were exceptionally intelligent, thriving on their artistic surroundings. However, in 1876 Jenny suffered her first epileptic fit and her life, and her family’s, was altered for ever. May, on the other hand, was able to fulfill her potential being her father’s assistant in his Socialist years and later becoming the leading embroiderer of her day.
William Morris – Morris & Co
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–82) was introduced to Morris by Burne-Jones. Rossetti envisaged the three of them becoming a second phase of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, charismatically leading them on, for better or worse. Others, including Arthur Hughes and Ford Madox Brown were drawn in too by Rossetti.
These friends termed themselves “The Brotherhood” and in April 1861 this became Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co, “The Firm”, with seven partners including Morris, Burne-Jones, Rossetti and Webb. Their publicised services including mural decoration in pictures or patterns, carving, stained glass, metal work, furniture, embroidery, stamped leather. Initially stained glass commissions were the most successful.
Morris’s own early contributions were his energetic vision and the development of his skills designing wallpaper patterns after 1862 which suited his perfectionist style – he “allowed nothing to pass until he was quite satisfied it was right both in colour and design” (Metford Warner). By 1874 some of the partners were more involved with other activities and Morris’ relations with Rossetti had deteriorated consistent with Rossetti’s affair with Janey. So Morris determined to bring the company under his own control and to shape new directions for its output, mainly in wallpapers, chintzes and carpets. After sometimes acrimonious arguments the company finally began trading as Morris & Co in 1875.
William Morris – the artist
Early attempts at painting by Morris were disappointing but the compatible team of Morris and Burne-Jones worked together well, so that Morris’ wooden looking figures were replaced by Burne-Jones graceful lines leaving Morris to concentrate on the background designs and patterns where he excelled. These precise yet flowing patterns included 32 for printed fabrics using hand woodblocking, 23 for woven fabrics and 21 for wallpapers between 1875 and 1885 in addition to those for tapestries, embroideries and carpets. William Lethaby described Morris as “the greatest pattern-designer we ever had or ever can have”. Morris’s own views was “Ornamental pattern work, to be raised above the contempt of reasonable men, must possess three qualities: beauty, imagination and order”.
His enthusiasm for Eastern carpets typically resulted in Morris teaching himself the original production processes and passing on his skills once mastered, as he did with so many artistic processes. These were both hand-knotted by Morris & Co and (with some reluctance) machine–woven by reliable outside contractors. The production of his “Hammersmith” hand-knotted carpets gave Morris the satisfaction of control of the creation of all their elements: the design, dyeing of the yarns and the knotting process, all inspired by old Eastern carpets.
“If I were asked to say what is at once the most important production of Art and the thing most to be longed for, I should answer – a beautiful house.”
“The past is not dead, it is living in us and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make.”
For three years after 1875 he often visited Leek in Staffordshire to learn textile dyeing, spending hours with his arms in vats experimenting with natural dyes, “taking in dyeing at every pore”. His aim, as with so many crafts which he learnt, was to produce the very best possible via traditional means which he would pass on to his employees. In 1881 Morris & Co established a workshop at Merton Abbey for the production of their products, with over one hundred employees by 1884. Tapestries were supervised by John Henry Dearle.
Embroidery – Morris constantly searched for techniques of the past and sought new creative challenges. As a result, he had an old-styled embroidery frame built in 1857 on which he taught himself the techniques which he then passed on to Janey and her sister Bessie. He produced designs for the Royal School of Needlework after it was established in 1872. Janey and especially their daughter May and sister Bessie were all very fine embroiderers.
Morris designed almost no furniture but was influential for decades, maintaining that there was more to furniture than function. His settles may have been uncomfortable so he said “If you want to be comfortable go to bed”. Nonetheless, the “Morris Chair” is an enduring classic.
The caricaturist Max Beerbohm wrote of Morris “Of course he was a wonderful all-round man, but the act of walking round him has always tired me.”
William Morris – tapestries
Morris called tapestry weaving “the noblest of the weaving arts”. From 1877 he set about learning the techniques of high-warp tapestry weaving as woven in the medieval period, referring to a fourteenth century French manual. Here, in comparison to low-warp weaving, the weaver works behind the tapestry just using a mirror occasionally, since he considered it was more creatively artistic. Morris, not surprisingly, rejected the mechanical Jacquard loom.
In 1879 he designed a high-warp loom which he had placed in his bedroom at Kelmscott Manor where he experimented early each morning. His first tapestry was Acanthus and Vine (above), designed with pairs of birds and leaves began in May 1879. Its success led him to install another loom at the Queen Square workshops to be worked by John Henry Dearle. He was to become an important designer for Morris & Co and managed textile productions for them until he died in 1932. In 1881 these workshops were transferred to Merton Abbey Mills, including three high-warp looms manned by nine weavers (see photo). These permitted large-scale creations using wool dyed in-house: the series of six Holy Grail tapestries by Edward Burne-Jones (Quest of the San Graal) were all 8 feet high and the final scene, The Attainment, was 23 feet long.
The Woodpecker Tapestry woven in 1885 was the only one entirely designed by Morris, measuring 10 feet high and 5 feet wide.
Among the early Merton Abbey tapestries were two by the old team – Burne-Jones drafting the figures and Morris writing verses and designing backgrounds: Pomona and Flora. The originals, reproduced several times later, are now in the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester.
From the essay Of the Revival of Design and Handicraft, by William Morris: “There are several ways of ornamenting a woven cloth: (1) real tapestry, (2) carpet-weaving, (3) mechanical weaving, (4) printing or painting, and (5) embroidery. There has been no improvement (indeed, as to the main processes, no change) in the manufacture of the wares in all these branches since the fourteenth century, as far as the wares themselves are concerned; whatever improvements have been introduced have been purely commercial, and have had to do merely with reducing the cost of production; nay, more, the commercial improvements have on the whole been decidedly injurious to the quality of the wares themselves.
The noblest of the weaving arts is tapestry, in which there is nothing mechanical: it may be looked upon as a mosaic of pieces of colour made up of dyed threads, and is capable of producing wall ornament of any degree of elaboration within the proper limits of duly considered decorative work.”
William Morris – the Socialist
From the early 1880’s Morris’s time and energy were consumed by his devotion to the Socialist cause. As a result most of his artistic work was placed on hold. He was to give about 100 lectures and write almost 500 articles in these years.
This article will not dwell on his socialism, this being outside its main focus. However a quotation from his lectures seems to draw together the two themes of Morris’s life’s work: art and socialism.
– “That thing which I understand by real art is the expression by man of his pleasure in labour. I do not believe he can be happy in his labour without expressing that happiness; and especially is this so when he is at work at anything in which he specially excels.” (The Art of the People, 1879)
– “I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few”. (The Lesser Arts, 1877)
Their context in his life can be contained within: “Give me love and work – these two only.”
He extended his concerns to conservation issues including the poor restorations of ancient buildings.
William Morris – poet and author
William Morris wrote his first acknowledged poem in his second year at Oxford. Ned wrote “Here, one morning just after breakfast, he brought me the first poem he ever made. After that, no week went by without a poem.” His first book of poems, The Defence of Guenevere, was published in 1858. Seven years later Morris began a five year project inspired by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: The Earthly Paradise contained a prologue and twenty four tales and became very popular. It was to be important in Morris being considered as Poet Laureate after Tennyson’s death in 1892. He excelled at taking classical subjects which he retold in romantic verse; these were generally epic narratives given an epic treatment. Most involved a quest, a topic he and Burne-Jones shared in their art.
Morris could write 1,000 lines of verse in a day and would write in the midst of other projects, picking up his pen and putting it down without losing the thread of the content. He said “If a chap can’t compose an epic poem while he’s weaving tapestry he had better shut up”. His admiration for the ancient sagas inspired him to make his own translations, from the Greek (The Odyssey) and Latin (The Aeneid) as well as being assisted with translations from Old English (Beowulf) and from Icelandic.
William Morris – Publisher
His Kelmscott Press at Hammersmith published 66 books in the 1890’s, 23 being Morris’s own works. The crowning glory was the publication of his Works of Geoffrey Chaucer which had occupied the last five years of his life.
His demands for authenticity naturally included the paper which had to be hand-made from linen rags and the ink which was to be chemical-free. Bindings were sometimes in vellum. All these proved difficult to acquire to his standards. Again, Morris was to revive medieval methods of crafts, researching and experimenting himself until satisfied.
Typefaces provided an ideal opportunity for Morris to combine his flair for details of design and his desire for time-honoured authenticity in the Kelmscott Press volumes. The 15th century, as so often, gave him the necessary inspiration.
Decorative elements of the volumes included illustrations by Burne-Jones and calligraphy, borders and woodcuts by Morris himself. He had begun working on woodcuts just before leaving Oxford, became adept at the craft and eventually produced over fifty woodcuts. He had first created illuminated manuscripts while working for G.E. Street. In 1870, with The Earthly Paradise finally complete, Morris found great pleasure in what he called his “painted books”. He experimented enthusiastically with the art of gilding with gold-leaf illustrations on vellum (yet another dormant medieval craft he revived) creating 1,500 pages in 18 manuscripts.
William Morris – Death and Today
Throughout his life Morris displayed great energy. Even at his deathbed his doctor gave the cause of death as “Simply being William Morris, and having done more work than most ten men”. In Morris’s last years Edward Burne-Jones playfully summed up the man he knew so well: “When I first knew Morris nothing would content him but being a monk, and getting to Rome, and then he must be an architect, and apprenticed himself to Street, and worked for two years, but when I came to London and began to paint he threw it all up, and must paint too, and then he must give it up and make poems, and then he must give it up and make window hangings and pretty things, and when he had achieved that, he must be a poet again, and then after two or three years of Earthly Paradise time, he must learn dyeing, and lived in a vat, and learned weaving, and knew all about looms, and then made more books, and learned tapestry, and then wanted to smash everything up and began rich-looking books – and all things he does splendidly – and if he lives the printing will have an end – but not I hope, before Chaucer and the Morte d’Arthur are done; then he’ll do I don’t know what, but every minute will be alive.”
When Morris died in 1896 obituaries referred first to his poetry, then to his politics. Today we are barely aware of these, instead we think of his patterns and his influences upon design. Were he alive today he would be campaigning against dehumanising within our world, from sweat shops to town planning. He would be an ardent environmentalist. One suspects Morris might find it difficult to come to terms with our technological age but would have become a reluctant disciple; after all, he was no Luddite and did use machinery at times.
If you’ve read this far you probably share our appreciation of the man and gratitude for the immense inspiration he brought to many, individuals and organisations. William Morris tapestries are our main joys but there’s so much else.
In 1880 in Birmingham William Morris gave a lecture entitled The Beauty of Life which included these memorable words “You may hang your walls with tapestry instead of whitewash and paper; or you may cover them with mosaic, or have them frescoed by a great painter: all this is not luxury, if it be done for beauty’s sake, and not for show: it does not break our golden rule: Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”.
“My work is the embodiment of dreams in one form a another.”
For further reading I thoroughly recommend “William Morris” by Fiona MacCarthy published by Faber and Faber.