William Morris

Father of the Arts & Crafts Movement

Born in Walthamstow, Essex, on March 24, 1836, William Morris was the son of a wealthy businessman. As such, he enjoyed a comfortable childhood before going to Marlborough and Exeter, Oxford.

William Morris Portrait

William Morris, age 37

The initial plan was that he take holy orders, but after reading the scathing social commentaries and philosophies of Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin, Morris abandoned his liturgical aspirations to devote his life to art.

He worked briefly for G. E. Street, the Gothic Revival architect, after he left Oxford, but soon left, determined to pursue a more painterly life. With his sensitivity and artistic proclivities, it wasn't long before he forged friendships with the clique known as the Pre-Raphaelites. These artists, particularly Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, had a lifelong impact on Morris and his work. Rossetti's influence in particular is evident in Morris's only surviving painting 'La Belle Iseult'.

By the 1860s, the mercurial and multi-talented Morris decided that his creative future lay in the field of the decorative arts. His career as a designer began when he decorated the Red House, Bexleyheath, which had been built for him by Phillip Webb.

So successful was this venture that Morris formed Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. in 1861. The firm (later renamed Morris & Company) was particularly well-known for its stained glass, examples of which can be seen in churches throughout Britain. Morris produced dozens of designs that are often characterized by intricate intertwining fruit, flower, and foliage patterns.

Poetry and language translations also numbered among Morris's prodigious skills as well as creative writings. He translated many Icelandic and classical works including "Sigurd the Volsung" and "The Pilgrims of Hope". Other writings include such fantasy novels and socialist parables as "A Dream of John Ball", "News from Nowhere", and the "Well at the World's End."

William Morris

Politically, Morris leaned hard to the left. In 1876, he acted as treasurer of the Eastern Question Associations, the National Liberal League, and Radical Union. He soon became disillusioned with the Liberals and in 1883 joined the socialist Democratic Federation. After disagreements with the Federation's leader, H.M. Hyndman, he formed the Socialist League, and later the Hammersmith Socialist Society. During the 1880s he was probably the most active propagandist for the socialist cause, giving hundreds of lectures and speeches throughout the country.

In 1890, Morris founded the Kelmscott Press near his last home at Kelmscott House in Hammersmith. Inspired by Italian Renaissance and medieval German typography, Morris designed three typefaces for the Press: Golden, Chaucer, and Troy. More than sixty-six volumes were printed by the Kelmscott Press, the most impressive of which was its magnificent edition of Chaucer which was published in 1896. Morris died at Kelmscott House on 3 October 1896 at the age of 62 years.

Contributed by Ralph Jones.

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