William Morris – art, craft and conscience

Join me on a journey visiting three houses in Greater London where William Morris once lived and you will receive an illuminating education in the great man’s life. We will discover displays of his artistry, the decorative art he inspired and read some of his letters, literature and social discourse upon the humanising aspects of the arts and crafts.

The first stop is Walthamstow, once a quiet town and now a sprawling suburb in north-east London. There, Morris, the third of nine children, was born in 1834. His father was a broker in the City. Profitable investments in a copper mine enabled him to move his family, when William was six, to Woodford Hall, a Georgian mansion with parkland and farmland, on the edge of Epping Forest. At Woodford Hall, Morris developed an interest in medieval culture, an interest that shaped his artistic, literary and political destiny.

Morris read avidly, in particular Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels. Wearing a toy suit of armour, he would ride a Shetland pony or walk through the Forest exploring the hornbeam and holly thicketed woods, examining the flora and fauna and observing the birds and animals, translations of which would later feature characteristically in his designs. With his father he visited Essex churches to look at their monuments, stained glass windows and brasses, depicting heraldic motifs, knights in shining armour and ladies bedecked in magnificent finery.

When Morris was 14 his father died and the family moved to the smaller Water House nearby, now home to the William Morris Gallery. This is the only public gallery devoted to the Morris’s work.

As we follow the spirit of Morris through the gallery, we see, among other Morris designed or inspired objects, tiles with scenes from the Bible, fairy tales and Greek myths, Hammersmith rugs, carved pearwood printing blocks for wallpaper, Edward Burne-Jones’s cartoons for stained glass windows, the characteristic Morris and Co. Sussex rush-seated chairs and adjustable back chair, and pictures of Morris and Co. workshops at Merton Abbey in south London. We also view works by those outside Morris’s sphere of friendship and business but nonetheless influenced by Morris’s artistic themes: wallpapers designed by Charles Voysey (1857-1941) who shared Morris’ reverence for the English vernacular architecture of the 16th and 17th centuries, furniture designed by Arthur Mackmurdo (1851-1942), and paintings by one time apprentice to Morris and Co., Sir Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956).

We learn that after attending a small local private school, Morris was educated at Marlborough College in Wiltshire. He studied for the priesthood at Exeter College, Oxford after Marlborough.

At university, Morris formed life long friendships with men such as Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) and Richard Watson Dixon (1833-1900), a budding poet and ecclesiastical historian. Morris’ companions referred to themselves as the ‘Brotherhood’ and were bonded by a love of medieval romantic literature – tales of chivalry, sacrifice and morality.

They also discussed social commentary by reformers such as Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin which sharpened Morris’ sensitivity to the unjust effects of poverty and class barriers and the dehumanising aspects of Victorian industrialisation – the drudgery and exploitation associated with factory work. Morris considered the medieval ideal of craftsmanship, which encouraged the maker to take pleasure in her creation, much more laudable. He lamented the often ‘shoddy’ workmanship of factory produce.

In the summer holidays the companions visited churches and museums in France and the Low countries, viewing early Medieval art and decoration. They became interested in the work of the Pre-Raphaelite painters Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) and John Everett Millais (1829-1896), artists recreating in some sense the artistry of the Middle Ages. Moved by what he read and saw, Morris began to express his thoughts in social commentary and write prose and poetry echoing the spirit of idealised past ages.

At the age of 21 Morris inherited from his father’s estate an annual income of about £900 and he resolved that his future lay in the realm of art rather than religious devotion. He became, for a short while, an articled pupil of George Street, a notable Neo-Gothic architect, best known for his design of the London Law Courts. Later, encouraged by Rossetti, he tried his hand at painting.

The fact that Morris’s figures, people and animals, were disappointing was perhaps a blessing, for Morris then turned his hand to the practical arts. He experimented with wood and stone carving, clay modelling, stained glass, manuscript illumination and embroidery. He designed furniture – a settle, table and chairs – for his lodgings to save money and show that furniture did not have to be ‘cheap and shoddy’ as many factory products were. He did not feel that he was humbling himself by abandoning his fine art endeavours.

However, it was not craftsmanship which first established Morris’s fame but rather the publication in 1858 of his book of poems, The Defence of Guenevere, the subjects of which were mostly from the Le Morte D’Arthur. One of the poems incidentally idolised his wife-to-be Jane (Janey) Burden, the daughter of a stable hand, whom he had met in Oxford. Morris was infatuated with her ‘Pre-Raphaelite looks’: Janey was pale, willowy, with a long neck and thick black curly hair. The couple were married in 1859. Sadly, they proved to be ill-suited, intellectually and romantically.

Their first family home is a landmark in domestic architecture and the only house that Morris both lived in and helped to design: Red House. There Janey gave birth to two girls, May and Jenny. We discover Red House, now under the auspices of the National Trust, after a rail journey to Bexleyheath, Kent, not far from south London. It strikes one as what the title of one of Morris’s works terms an ‘earthly paradise’ – when one eyes the house among the almost faceless setting of small suburban houses. Rossetti described Red House as ‘more a poem than a house…but an admirable place to live in too’…a ‘real wonder of the age’.

The house was built on an orchard not far, it is believed, from where Chaucer’s pilgrims would have passed on their way to Canterbury. The architect was Philip Webb whom Morris had befriended when both men were apprenticed with George Street.

The vernacular buildings, cottages and barns of the Sussex and Kentish weald, inspired Webb’s designs. The plain two storey, brick, L-shaped edifice has steeply tiled roofs, long ridge lines, tall chimney stacks and deep recessed porches. The shapes of the recessed windows are a mixture of tall casements, hipped dormers, round-headed sash and bull’s eye windows.

The interior of the house is expressive of Morris’ reinterpretation of medieval design, and his disdain for the clutter, ostentation and floridity of Victorian taste. Friends of Morris contributed to the interior decoration. Burne-Jones designed stained glass windows and, together with Rossetti, painted parts of the furniture and the walls with scenes from medieval romances. Janey embroidered wall hangings according to designs by Morris. Webb designed much of the furniture and glassware, grates and fire irons. Fortunately, there have been no radical alterations that overwhelm the look and atmosphere of the original house.

Morris went to great efforts to understand and contribute to the production process, an endeavour that was to be characteristic of all his artistic accomplishments. For example, he taught Janey, as she recalls, ‘the first principles of laying stitches closely [ensuring threads are correctly tensioned and aligned] so as to cover the ground [background fabric] smoothly and radiate them properly [stitches radiating diagonally from a centre]. Afterwards we studied old pieces and by unpicking etc. we learnt very much.’

Certain interior architectural features are particularly impressive. One notes the central oak stairway with circular perforations and pinnacled newel posts, the richly geometric-patterned roof supported by exposed beams above it, and the ‘wagon’ ceiling extending into the roof of the Drawing Room.

The garden was divided into ‘rooms’ hedged with wattled fences with rambling roses. There is a well house of brick and oak with a tiled conical roof –piped water would not have been available. Webb was careful to retain many of the old trees including apple, cherry, plum, oak, ash, yew, hazel and holly.

The aesthetic success of Red House inspired Morris to establish his own firm in 1861 to create as Burne-Jones said: ‘all things necessary for the decoration of a house’ –murals, wallpapers, carvings, stained glass windows, metalwork, furniture and embroidery. The offices and workshops were based in Bloomsbury.

What distinguished Morris’ interior decorating firm from others was, as Ian Bradley has noted in William Morris and His World, that the ideal of medieval craftsmanship whereby the artist designed and executed his own work remained a guiding principle; Morris and Co. artists should understand the nature of the craft in hand and involve themselves in the process of production. Moreover, the company did not wish to engage in mass production, although this was not always possible given the volume of the work undertaken.

The firm immediately attracted a healthy market, not necessarily ‘home based’. It received commissions from churches for decorative schemes and stained glass windows including All Saints’ Church and Jesus College Chapel in Cambridge, the ceiling for the latter being a ‘sumptuous checkerboard of armorial bearings and the Holy Initials supported by lines of painted angels’ as Stephen Coote in William Morris – His Life and Work describes. For the Victoria and Albert Museum, the firm decorated the Green Dining Room with gilded panels with a dog chasing a hare, and plainer ones with tree and fruit branches and figures representing the Zodiac.

Unfortunately, due to illness (Morris had been suffering from rheumatic fever), the exhausting commute to London and financial constraints, the Morris family had to give up Red House. They moved to London to live above the business premises.

Morris continued to seek fresh intellectual and artistic challenges. He immersed himself in the literature and culture of Iceland. He learned Icelandic and journeyed to Iceland, which he found ‘a most beautiful and poetical place’. He was struck by what he perceived as the remote and timeless state of the country and the stalwartness of the people. Morris’s Icelandic discoveries inspired him to write an epic poem Sigurd the Volsung, published in 1876. George Bernard Shaw described it as ‘the greatest epic since Homer’. That Morris was considered for the position of Poet Laureate indicates the respect he commanded in literary circles.

Later in his life Morris became involved in politics. He helped to establish the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) in 1877. Morris was a great believer in preserving ‘public’ buildings as they are, making only the minimum repairs necessary to prevent decay and injury, rather than restoring or recreating the buildings as one imagined they might have been in their original state, scraping away accumulations of the past (hence the Society being referred to as ‘Anti-Scrape’).

Morris developed his own interpretation of socialism, which reflected the importance of the relationship between art and society. He wrote: ‘when art is fairly in the clutch of profit grinding she dies…Socialism is the only hope of the arts…art cannot have a real life and growth under the present system of commercialism and profit-mongering’.

Most of Morris’s political endeavours took place at our final destination, Kelmscott House, a handsome Georgian house facing the River Thames in Hammersmith where Morris lived with his family for the last 18 years of his life. It is now the headquarters of the William Morris Society. We may view the lower ground floor rooms and the coach house where political meetings took place.

A few doors away from Kelmscott House, Morris undertook his last enterprising venture in 1891 when he established the Kelmscott Press. He had long been an admirer of the calligraphy of the Middle Ages and the earlier printing which replaced it.

Morris designed three typefaces, manuscript decorations, ornaments, borders and lettering. He used hand-made linen paper from a papermaker in Kent and ink from Hanover. The Press issued fifty-two books, most memorably the Kelmscott Chaucer which contained eighty-seven illustrations by Burne-Jones. One of the iron hand presses used by the Press is displayed.

Morris died on 3 October 1896 from congestion of the lungs. One doctor declared: ‘the disease was simply being William Morris and having done more work than most ten men.’

Morris’s legacy is very much a part of the way we live now. The smooth, simple lines of modern wood furniture and natural motifs on our wallpaper and fabrics reflect his taste. Fine buildings have been saved as a result of campaigns by SPAB. Kelmscott Press inspired the emergence of private printing presses on both sides of the ‘pond’. We encourage and practise the arts of craftsmanship, revering embroiderers, potters and bookbinders just as much as we respect painters.

Morris is credited with inspiring ‘garden cities’ and cleaner environments. His voice echoes when we question the alienating effects of free-market enterprise without welfare provision and equality of choice and opportunity. Thankfully Morris’s visions, artistic and social, remain guiding lights for weaving the future fabric of our world.


For further information about the gallery and the houses discussed, please contact www.walthamforest.gov.uk/william-morris, and www.morrissociety.org (for The Red House and Kelmscott House). Each house has a research library open by appointment. If you are interested in seeing other houses in the UK associated with and featuring work by William Morris, consider Emery Walker House (www.emerywalker.org.uk) close to Kelmscott House, Hammersmith, London (Emery Walker helped Morris establish the Kelmscott Press), Kelmscott Manor, Lechlade, Oxfordshire (www.morrissociety.org), which was the Morris family’s ‘country retreat’ for several years, Standen, East Grinstead, West Sussex (www.nationaltrust.org.uk/standen) and Wightwick Manor and Gardens, Wolverhampton, West Midlands http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/wightwick-manor-and-gardens

First published in The Art Book, Volume 17, Issue 4, pages 19 – 21, November 2010.