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William Morris

By Sara Welland

William Morris Portrait by Watts
William Morris (March 24th, 1834 – October 3rd, 1896) at Elm House, Walthamstow, he born into an affluent family, the third child of William and Emma Morris. His father was a partner in a reputable firm of brokers, and was eventually granted his own coat of arms.

Although not trained as an artist early on, Morris was given free reign to roam the grounds of his home—which were a source of great inspiration to him. Nature would continue to fuel his creativity when he decided to become an artist. Initially intent on becoming a clergyman, Morris met his close friend and fellow student of the Church, Edward Burne-Jones, while attending Oxford. Although privileged, Morris would become known for dismissing class conventions and his lectures on Socialism.

While attending school, Morris and Burne-Jones were greatly influenced by the French cathedrals that they visited, and later by Modern painting of the time. Particularly, that of the Pre-Raphaelities, such as Rosetti, Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais. Both Morris and Burne-Jones abandoned their studies of the church in favor of artistic careers.

At first Morris began studying architecture, but quickly discovered that the had no patience for it. Although he never finished his studies to become an architect, the skills he did learn later became essential to his later work.
Strawberry Thief
So Morris began to take drawing lessons, studying under Dante Gabriel Rosetti and Ford Maxon Brown. He met his future wife as a studio model named Jane Burden. And, in 1859 and despite class distinctions, he married Jane, who represented the model of beauty for the avante-garde and Pre-Raphaelite ideal. Jane was the daughter of a stableman, but both Morris and Burden were interested in the marriage despite class distinctions. Dante Gabriel Rosetti, another of Morris’s close friends as well as his teacher, encouraged the marriage.

In 1876, William Morris became actively involved in politics. While at first a Liberal, he later became deeply involved in Socialism even as he was both a socialist and industrial employer. William Morris was known for burning the candle at both ends. By his late fifties he had diabetes, although it wasn’t very severe at first. He died at sixty-two, although his death was largely a product of exhaustion.
Another Morris Pattern
In his work, Morris fought, most of all, against the decline in standards of the textile industry. The quantity of fabric, Morris felt, was more important than the quality to the companies prominent at the time. Rollers, rather than copper plates or the wooden blocks prior to the 1700s allowed factories of this time period to produce five hundred pieces of twenty-eight yards a day. Morris returned to old fashioned printing technology, despite the lesser productivity, in an effort to retain the aesthetic of woodblock that he felt was lost with the roller technology.

When deciding on new methods of approach, Morris often chose to go back to the past, a mentality which became a characteristic of his innovative style. Instead of commercial dyes, which he disliked, he returned to the old palette, with naturally-derived colors like indigo blues, red madder, weld yellow, and so on.

In his first small business, the Oxford Street Shop that he created with Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., in April 1876, customers were presented with pattern-books, photographs, sketches and completed products. The Strawberry Thief was one of his most popular fabrics.
William Morris Pattern
Morris’s style is characterized by its natural colors, repetition and pattern, which was useful because the purpose of his work was often to decorate large stretches of wall or fabric, thick lines, and flat application of color an line.

The Pre-Raphaelites had several tenants:

  1. to have genuine ideas to express;
  2. to study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express them;
  3. to sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parodying and learned by rote;
  4. and, most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues

William Morris, of course, subscribed to all of the above.

In his Socialist work and lectures, he was more interested in educating people that starting an upheaval or revolution. Although by the end of his life he couldn’t see how things could change without some kind of “disturbance and suffering” as he said in the last lecture before his death. However, the society of the time wasn’t interested particularly in revolution.

Today you can still decorate your home William Morris style. He has been consistently in print since the height of his popularity in Victorian times.


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