William Morris - The Arts and Crafts Movement.

English reformer, poet, and designer William Morris was among a small group of socialist-thinking pre-Raphaelites who, around the end of the 19th century, changed the direction of English art, architecture, and design. At a time when opulent Victorian style was popular and the Industrial Revolution was taking over in furniture and textile manufacturing, they worked to turn back the clock to the values of craftsmanship, simplicity, and quality materials in what became known as the Arts & Crafts Movement.

This movement that took place across the pond was prior to Roycroft and Stickley. Morris and his cohorts, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Arthur Hughes, and others were frantically working to return the common man’s environment to the spirit and quality of medieval craftsmanship.

Although the Arts & Crafts Movement relied on the talent and creativity of the craftsman, the outcome of the movement was different in England than it was here. The British version of the Arts & Crafts Movement took on a richly gothic style with white-washed walls and wallpaper carrying medieval themes. The pottery and textiles had intricate, colorful designs. These items made their way, for the most part, to the homes of the upper class. When that Arts & Crafts arrived in America, however, it became much more available to the mass market. Here, machines were used, but craftsmen were still able to assemble and finish the furniture, which lowered the cost and made it affordable to the common man. The grain of the wood was much more emphasized, along with the form of the pot. Walls had rich wood tones or earth-tone paints. Very little wallpaper was used, mostly just as borders.

In 1861 William Morris founded a firm with fellow artists called Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, and Company. They produced furniture, textiles, wallpaper, jewelry and other decorative items. Later, that firm became Morris and Company.

Morris, a socialist, was born to a well-to-do family and attended Marlborough College and University of Oxford. He and the other proponents of the movement felt that the industrial revolution had parted humans from their own creativity and individualism. They wanted to reconnect the workers with beautiful work, honesty in design, lacking mass production. There he met his life-long friend, Edward Jones (a.k.a. Burne-Jones) and became influenced by writer John Ruskin on the social and moral basis of architecture. He went on from there to the Oxford office of the Gothic Revivalist architect G.E. Street and also financed the first 12 issues of The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine. He loved medieval art and was heavily influenced by Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossettii, who talked him into pursuing painting instead of architecture. He fell in love with and married the model in his painting La Belle Iseuot, Jane Burden, in 1859.

To interior designers, William Morris is best known for his textiles, tapestries, wallpapers, stained glass, carpet designs and furniture. One of his most famous pieces of furniture is the chair named for him…the Morris Chair.

It’s a reclining easy chair with moderately high armrests and detachable cushions on the seat and back. A feature usually found on the Morris Chair was a hinged back, set between two unupholstered arms and a reclining angle adjusted through a row of pegs, holes or notches in each arm. The wood chair is often seen with turned spindles. It is widely reproduced now and has a broad price range, from a few hundred dollars to several thousands.

William Morris’ wallpapers and fabrics created a revolution in wallpaper design and are still very popular today. The great master of pattern-making, Morris mostly designed products for only one form of manufacture, but some of his wallpaper patterns were also offered as fabric. Morris designed more than 50 wallpapers and his firm produced another 49 by other designers. Plant forms are seen in each pattern. Some were shown with luxurious naturalism, as seen in his “Acanthus”, “Pimpernel”, and “Jasmine”. A flatter, more formalized style is found in some of Morris’ other wallpapers, as in “Sunflower”.

"Acanthus", wallpaper, William Morris, 1875. Museum no. E.495-1919

"Sunflower”, by William Morris.

William Morris was also well known for his stained glass and embroideries. The patterns of his stained glass, still seen today in churches throughout Britain, are mostly floral, as are his fabrics and wallpapers.

In addition, Morris was a writer if Icelandic and classical translations. In 1890, he founded the Kelmscott Press at his last home in Hammershmith, England, which is now the headquarters of the William Morris Society. The Kelmscott Press produced sixty-six volumes, most impressively an edition of Chaucer in 1896. He designed three type styles for Kelmscott Press. His “Golden” type was influenced by 15th-century French printer Nicolas Jenson. He also created a gothic “Troy” type and a smaller version of Troy that he called “Chaucer” type.

Morris entered politics in 1876 as treasurer of the Eastern Question Association and continued his radical endeavors in the National Liberal League and the Radical Union. Later, he joined the socialist Democratic Federation and when he disagreed with its leader, he moved on to form the Socialist League and the Hammersmith Socialist Society. Morris was one of the most active proponents of his day for the socialist cause. In 1887, he lead a banned demonstration to London’s Trafalgar Square, alongside playwright George Bernard Shaw, on what was called “Bloody Sunday”, when police and troops there cleared the square of demonstrators.

In 1896 Morris was exhausted and set sail to Norway for some R&R. Nevertheless, he died later that year at his Kelmscott House.

William Morris’ work has passed the test of time. His designs often did not find a market quickly, but they caught on became a mainstay in the U.S. during the early 1900’s and he is today celebrated as a consummate designer and craftsman. Morris’ love of medieval art, his exposure to nature since childhood, and his lifelong insatiable love of reading greatly affected all of his work.

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