The great de­sign­ers

Period Living - - Contents -

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.

Aes­thetic in­flu­ences

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.

tex­tile tra­di­tion

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.

en­dur­ing de­signs

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)

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