Who was William Morris?

Victorian designer and social reformer William Morris was a titan of British design and a leading figure in the English Arts and Crafts movement, whose influence is still felt today

William Morris Tulip wallpaper
Published: April 2nd, 2022 at 9:00 am

"Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful."

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William Morris (1834-1896) was one of the major creative forces of Victorian Britain and the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement.

Today, he is considered a national treasure – the fabrics and wallpapers designed both by him, and by his company Morris & Co, are regarded as agreeably familiar and comfortable. Yet in his time, Morris was a revolutionary, and his products were purchased by trend-setters and forward-thinkers who wished to challenge convention.

William Morris Strawberry Thief
Morris & Co Strawberry Thief Oxford Pillowcase - Indigo

Not only was Morris’s style to become an unmistakable look that has stood the test of time, his ideals of simplicity and craftsmanship were to profoundly influence 20th-century design. ‘Morris was radical and revolutionary in everything he did,’ says Anna Mason, curator at the William Morris Gallery. ‘And he is still so hugely influential.’

A writer, poet, translator, publisher, environmentalist, protector of ancient buildings and fervent socialist, Morris was appalled by the over-elaborate, mass-produced goods that were flooding the Victorian market, and sought to reintroduce traditional techniques that had been lost in the Industrial Revolution.

He was an unlikely radical, however. Born in Walthamstow, London, in 1834, he was the son of a wealthy stockbroker, went to Oxford University to read classics, and planned to enter the church. At Oxford, however, he met Edward Burne-Jones, later to be one of the great pre-Raphaelite artists and Morris’s lifelong friend and mentor.

The pair developed a great interest in art and literature, influenced by Ruskin, Medievalism and the Romantic movement, and established The Brotherhood, an intellectual society whose aim was to fight ‘a crusade and holy war against the age’.

In 1856, Morris began an apprenticeship with the Gothic-Revival architect George Edmund Street, where he trained under Philip Webb. Sharing many of the same interests, Webb soon became a friend, and Morris commissioned him to design Red House in Bexleyheath.

William Morris Rede House
A view of the west front at Red House, National Trust

Morris and his friends decorated the entire property in medieval style and, on its completion in 1861, Morris turned what had been a hobby into a commercial venture and set up Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Company (aka the Firm) in Bloomsbury.

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The business set out to sell original domestic furnishings, from wallpapers and upholstery fabrics to stained glass and tiles. With Ruskin, Morris also founded the Art Workers’ Guild in 1884 to break down barriers between artists, designers and makers, believing that all crafts had equal value.

Morris blockprinted his wallpaper and textile designs by hand and from the mid 1870s experimented with natural dyeing methods. In 1881, the company (now Morris & Co) moved to a printworks at Merton Abbey, London, when Morris cracked complex indigo discharge printing.

This allowed him to create Strawberry Thief – one of his most famous designs –a pattern based on the thrushes that stole strawberries in the kitchen garden of his countryside home, Kelmscott Manor, in Oxfordshire. This iconic depiction of English nature in the Arts and Crafts style was first created as a furnishing fabric at Merton Abbey Mills in 1883.

Morris was also inspired by the symmetry and ordered patterns of Islamic art, as well as its depiction of plant forms. He admired Persian carpets and would often visit the Victoria and Albert Museum to view the Ardabil Carpet, made in Iran c1539–40.

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Morris incorporated tulips into many of his designs for wallpaper and fabric, often intertwining them with a partner plant such as the willow, rose, lily or peony. This ‘Tulip’ wallpaper frieze (from the V&A’s collection), beautifully shows the influence of Islamic design on his work.

William Morris Tulip wallpaper
‘Tulip’ wallpaper frieze (from the V&A’s collection)
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