William Morris

William Morris

William Morris was a great English artist, designer, poet and translator, founder of the British Arts and Crafts Movement.

Early years

William Morris was born at e in Walthamstow, Essex, on March 24, 1834. He was the third child in the family of a financier William-Morris the Elder and Emma Morris. He liked drawing, reading. Captivated by stories about Middle Ages, the boy had read almost all novels of Walter Scott by nine years old. Morris grew up as a reserved, dreamy child and loved lonely hikes about the country. His father died in 1847. In a year the future artist entered Marlborough College, but was soon expelled from it for participating in revolt.

In June 1852 Morris entered Oxford University’s Exeter College, where studied art, architecture and religion. There he met Edward Burne-Jones, who became his life-long friend. Young men were united by love to art, medieval culture and ideas of John Ruskin, whose articles they were engrossed in reading. Together with Burne-Jones William set off for a trip around the North of France to see gothic temples. On their way back home mates decided to abandon Oxford and dedicate themselves to art. In 1855 Edward and William moved to London, where took a little room for two and penetrating into art. At that period, the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood became there ideal, as its ideals were consonant to their aspirations.

Joining Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood

In 1856, Morris became an apprentice the bureau of the Neo-Gothic architect George Edmund Street, where developed friendship with Philip Webb. At the same time he met Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who inspired him to step aside from architecture and try his hand in painting and poetry. In 1857 Rossetti invited the artist invited him to participate in painting at Oxford Union. The subject of murals were legends about King Arthur and Knights of the Round Table. Apart from William and Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Hughes, Pollen and Prinsep took part in the project.

In October 1857, while working over frescos, William Morris acquainted Jane Burden, who posed Rossetti for the image of Queen Guinevere. The daughter of an Oxford’s horseman, she had rare natural beauty that charmed Pre-Raphaelites – she became their muse, prototype of “femme fatale”, glorified by Rossetti in his late works. The same year she posed for Morris, who created his own variant of “Guinevere” (1857, known also as “The beautiful Isolde”) – his only oil painting in his legacy. The legend says the artist wrote the love-confession on the backside of the canvas, so the model could read it while posing. He remained unsatisfied with his painting – probably because of his feelings to Jane he couldn’t express in colors. William made no further attempts in painting and realized his talent in other spheres of art.

Establishing company

On April 26, 1859 William and Jane got married in the church of St. Michael in Oxford. Nobody from Morris’ family came to the wedding. After a six-weeks journey across France, the couple returned to London and settled in furnished apartments at 41 Great Ormond Street. By that time architect Philip Webb finished his project of the “Red House”, named so due to the color of the brick it was built from. Morris and Jane moved to Amberley Lodge (Kent), which was near the Red House, so they could supervise its building, and moved to their new dwelling in June 1860. Interior of the Red House was designed by William and his friends. That was the moment, when he had an idea of opening his own business.

In 1861 William Morris established company “Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co.”, with: Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Webb, Ford Madox Brown, Charles Faulkner and Peter Paul Marshall as his partners. The company produced frescos, stained glass, tapestries, wallpapers, furniture, ceramic tile and dinnerware. At first, they had almost no clients and rarely received orders for stained glass from churches. However, since 1867, with the changes of cultural situation, the company’s products became fashionable. In 1870 the artist reorganized manufacture and made himself the company’s only owner, renaming it “Morris & Co.”. It existed up to 1940.

Main creative principles

Morris was one of leaders in reviving of medieval crafts. His manufacture was the first step to emergence of “Arts & Crafts” movements, which was the forestaller of Art Nouveau. William, as his friend-Pre-Raphaelites, was preoccupied with making designs. He was especially successful in making patterns for textile and wallpapers, which reflected his love to nature.

Numerous Morris’ biographers believe him to be the father of Design. When entering the Social Democratic Federation, he wrote in his membership card “designer” in the column “profession” – it was the first mention of that word in such context. Aesthetics and life were closely related for William Morris, as he believed that object’s functionality was its main feature.

The artist claimed “art is happiness in work”. His main target was joining of art with labor that should make humanity happy. Many of his ideas William Morris adopted from Ruskin – he shared the critic’s adornment of the Middle Ages, rejected machinery production, trying to oppose hand-made objects of art, created in his numerous workshops. Alas, it occurred to be Utopia – hand-made things were too expensive and couldn’t compete with industrial goods.

Period of 1870s

Morris’ home was always opened to his friends. Burn-Jones with his wife were frequent quests at it; and Rossetti found his shelter there after the death of his beloved Elizabeth. Trying to return his composure Dante started painting again and Jane posed for him. Not receiving enough attention from busy Morris, she reciprocated Rossetti’s courting and became his mistress. Their adultery was happening right before William’s eyes. He acted nobly in the situation and left for a journey to Island. In 1873 he tripped together with Edward Burne-Jones around Northern Italy and then came again to Island. He was enchanted with austere grandiosity of the Scandinavian epos and translated into English “The Saga of Gunnlaug Worm-Tongue” and “Grettis Saga” and the “Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs”.

After returning to Britain William Morris started searching for escape from his family tragedy in active social life. In 1877 he founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, delivered his first public lection about applied arts. In 1878 the artist moved from the Red House with his family to the mansion in Kelmscott, where organized a tapestry workshop. He also reverted to literature and was even offered a position of Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, but declined it.


By the end of 1870s William was carried away with socialistic ideas of changing the society and took active part in political events. In 1885 he was arrested for participating in demonstration and public disturbance for a short while. His socialistic views Morris represented in brilliant utopian fantasies “A Dream of John Ball” (1888) and “News from Nowhere” (1891). But gradually he became disappointed with politics and decided to concentrate on publishing. In 1891 he founded “Kelmscott-Press” publishing house, where books were printed with the manual press on a high-quality handmade paper from linen rags. His credo William Morris formulated in next lines “I began printing books with the hope of producing some which would have a definite claim to beauty, while at the same time they should be easy to read and should not dazzle the eye, or trouble the intellect of the reader by eccentricity of form in the letters. […] And it was the essence of my undertaking to produce books which it would be a pleasure to look upon as pieces of printing and arrangement of type”.

The master believed that every detail – type, capital letters, ornaments, ‑ everything mattered in book. He invited highly qualified printers for his manufacture and artists, who created antique and gothic fonts, like “Kelmscott Golden”, “Troy” or “Chaucer”.

Morris’ editions were true masterpieces of book art. In the period between 1891 – 1898 the company issue 53 books. Their print run was small – around 400 copies, as large part of the process was manual. That made the production expensive and available only to a narrow circle of connoisseurs. The first released book was William’s novel “The Story Of The Glittering Plain”.

“The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer” is considered to be the highest achievement of “Kelmscott-press”. It was printed on a big format, beautifully ornamented and illustrated with 87 engravings of Burne-Jones. 13 exemplars were made on parchment. The book was presented just a few months before the artist’s death and became a true sensation. Walter Crane once said that William Morris was “the first to approach the craft of practical printing from the point of view of the artist”.

William Morris died on October 4, 1896 in his Kelmscott estate, 62-years-old. His doctor answered about the cause of death, that he was “simply being William Morris, and having done more work than most ten men”. Truely, it was a person of dozen talents in various fields – painting, graphic art, design, theory of art and literature.