The great designers
Marc Allum explores the life and legacy of William Morris
Some thirty years ago, I purchased my first property. It was in Walthamstow, north London, a first-floor conversion of a typical Victorian terraced house, and proved to be my first serious foray into interior design. Being of limited means, the style was largely based on a pared-down Arts and Crafts aesthetic, with furniture adorned in copper appliqués gleaned from the pages of Loot.
I had good cause to follow this line because William Morris’ childhood home and now gallery – Water House – was only two minutes from my flat. This influential local resource steered my interest in using Morris fabrics and wallpapers, while buying examples of his classic vernacular reinventions - Sussex and Rossetti chairs - to complete the overall look. It did also substantially add to my understanding of what is undeniably one of the most important British design movements.
Morris’ father was a wealthy middle-class financier, and as a result William enjoyed a privileged upbringing. Educated at Marlborough College in Wiltshire, he went on to study Classics at Oxford, which – by all accounts – he was not enamoured by, but did find great interest in the medieval surroundings of his Oxford colleges and the city. This served as inspiration for his burgeoning love of Romanticism and the medieval aesthetic of the increasingly popular Romantics movement. In essence, he began to reject the capitalist values of Victorian society, looking back instead to an idealistic, chivalric epoch in which he could indulge his growing interest in architecture and design. It was at Oxford that Morris joined the Birmingham Set, a group of men interested in literature and aesthetics. Also known as The Brotherhood, it included Edward Burne-jones
and Charles Joseph Faulkner – among the founding partners of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co in 1861.
The company’s remit was to promote the use of craftsmanship and traditional skills, including the weaving and dying of textiles and carpets. Working with friends and artists from the Preraphaelite movement, the strong influence of medieval design and ornament had an immediate bearing on the company’s output. Interiors and architectural decoration became noticeably ‘revivalist’ under Morris’ direction. During this time we see some of his most iconic designs, including the famous ‘Morris Chair’ recliner. His politics also pushed him increasingly towards a socialist agenda, which played a role in his egalitarian design ethos.
Other famous design and artistic collaborators included Philip Webb, Ford Madox Brown and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. As a result, the prodigious output of the company extended to all manner of disciplines, and with church building at a high point in this period, stained glass, carving and ecclesiastical fittings were in great demand.
Secular commissions, too, accounted for much of the company’s work, in providing a wide range of fittings and accessories for domestic interiors, including metalwork, furniture, glass, ceramics and even jewellery. It’s here that we see superlative examples of Morris’ collaborative creations, such as the St George’s cabinet, designed by Webb and painted by Morris for the International Exhibition of 1862. It’s now housed in the Victoria & Albert Museum, where his famous ‘green dining room’ is also preserved and on view.
In shunning modern methods of production and reviving techniques that were often considered outdated and inefficient, Morris made an important mark in reinterpreting crafts such as woodblock printing and the use of natural dyes; Morris is certainly best known for his textile designs. In fact, he produced some six hundred and is considered historically – by many – to be the singularly most important exponent of the British textile trade.
In 1875, after a disagreement with his other shareholders, Morris restructured the company and it was under his sole ownership that Morris & Company was to become known for such enduring designs as ‘Acanthus’ (1875), ‘Anemone’ (1876) and ‘Peacock and Dragon’ (1878). Many designs were also issued in a range of wallpapers and textiles and are still available and very popular today.
Morris’ political leanings were an important factor in his ethical stance on production and manufacturing. He believed that everybody had the right to live in a comfortable and aesthetically pleasing home. Not only was he a designer and innovator, but an accomplished writer, poet and academic, too. This passion for historical texts and medieval-style illumination resulted in the founding of the Kelmscott Press in 1891. Morris went on to publish dozens of beautifully produced books, again using traditional techniques and handmade papers and vellum.
His health began to deteriorate badly and by the middle of the 1890s he was an invalid, taking less interest in the firm and undoubtedly paling in the afterglow of the heyday of the Arts and Crafts movement. Most aspects of the company had passed to his daughter, May Morris, and by the time of his death in 1896 his apprentice, John H Dearle, had become the art director of Morris & Co.
Many of Morris’ designs have become almost ubiquitous and overly copied, yet to obtain the purity of what his design ethic really denotes is actually quite difficult. In his own home, Kelmscott Manor in West Oxfordshire, the clever, comfortable and slightly sparse blend of medieval, Persian and vernacular period pieces melds perfectly with the designs of his Pre-raphaelite compatriots. It is textile rich, denoting his obsessive desire to always explore new avenues in weaving, dying and design.
In a way, it’s too easy to cover a chair in a
Morris fabric and get ‘the look’, but all too often the nuances deployed by his coterie of designers find their work complete only with the addition of his designs, not supplemented by them.
The company carried on under Dearle’s direction and changed its name in 1905 to Morris & Co Decorators Ltd. The catalogues from this period are particularly interesting, although more mainstream, with illustrations of a wide variety of upholstered furnishings, chintzes, silks, cabinets, tapestries and wallpapers. Dearle died in 1932 and the business finally closed at the beginning of World War II. But the appeal of Morris’ work has never waned, and it lives on under the umbrella of Sanderson, which still uses the Morris & Co brand.
Places to visit
William morris Gallery – Housed in Morris’ family home from 1848 to 1856, this is the only public gallery devoted to his life and work.
Open Tues–sun, 10am–5pm. Free entry.
(Tel: 020 8496 4390; wmgallery.org.uk)
Kelmscott manor – The 17th-century Cotswold retreat that inspired many of his most important designs. Open April–october, Weds & Sat, 11am– 5pm. Entry adult £10, child £5. (Tel: 01367 252486; sal.org.uk/kelmscott-manor)
red House - Located in Bexleyheath, this is the only house commissioned, created and lived in by Morris. Designed by Philip Webb, it gives a unique view of Morris and his wife Janey’s life. Open March-december, Weds–sun. Entry adult £8, child £4. (Tel: 020 8303 6359; nationaltrust.org.uk)