William Morris

William Morris
William Morris

William Morris by George Frederic Watts, 1870
Born 24 March 1834(1834-03-24)
Died 3 October 1896(1896-10-03) (aged 62)
Nationality English
Occupation Artist
Writer, socialist
Known for Wallpaper and textile design
Fantasy author / medievalist
Utopian theorist
William Morris self-portrait, 1856.

William Morris (24 March 1834 – 3 October 1896) was an English textile designer, artist, writer, and socialist associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the English Arts and Crafts Movement. He founded a design firm in partnership with the artist Edward Burne-Jones, and the poet and artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti which profoundly influenced the decoration of churches and houses into the early 20th century. As an author, illustrator and medievalist, he is considered an important writer of the British Romantic movement, helping to establish the modern fantasy genre; and a direct influence on postwar authors such as J. R. R. Tolkien. He was also a major contributor to reviving traditional textile arts and methods of production, and one of the founders of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, now a statutory element in the preservation of historic buildings in the UK.

Morris wrote and published poetry, fiction, and translations of ancient and medieval texts throughout his life. His best-known works include The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems (1858), The Earthly Paradise (1868–1870), A Dream of John Ball (1888), the utopian News from Nowhere (1890), and the fantasy romance The Well at the World's End (1896). He was an important figure in the emergence of socialism in Britain, founding the Socialist League in 1884, but breaking with that organization over goals and methods by the end of the decade. He devoted much of the rest of his life to the Kelmscott Press, which he founded in 1891. Kelmscott was devoted to the publishing of limited-edition, illuminated-style print books. The 1896 Kelmscott edition of the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer is considered a masterpiece of book design.



Early life and education

William Morris was born in Walthamstow on 24 March 1834, the third child and the eldest son of William Morris, a partner in the firm of Sanderson & Co., bill brokers in the City of London. His mother was Emma Morris née Shelton, daughter of Joseph Shelton, a teacher of music in Worcester.[1] As a child Morris was delicate but studious. He learned to read early, and by the time he was four years old he was familiar with most of the Waverley novels. When he was six the family moved to Woodford Hall, where new opportunities for an out-of-door life brought the boy health and vigour. He rode about Epping Forest, sometimes in a toy suit of armour, where he became a close observer of animal nature and was able to recognize any bird upon the wing.[2][3]

Morris's painting La belle Iseult, also inaccurately called Queen Guinevere, is his only surviving easel painting, now in the Tate Gallery.

At the same time he continued to read whatever came in his way and was particularly attracted by the stories in the Arabian Nights and by the designs in Gerard's Herbal. He studied with his sisters' governess until he was nine, when he was sent to a school at Walthamstow. In 1842, his sister Isabella was born. She grew to be the churchwoman who oversaw the revival of the Deaconess Order in the Anglican Communion.[4] In his thirteenth year their father died, leaving the family well-to-do. Much of the family's wealth came from a copper and later arsenic mine, Devon Great Consols, of which Morris divested himself in the 1870s. The home at Woodford was broken up, as being unnecessarily large, and in 1848 the family relocated to Water House and William Morris entered Marlborough College. Morris was at the school for three years, but gained little from attending it beyond a taste for architecture, fostered by the school library, and an attraction towards the Anglo-Catholic movement.[5] He made but slow progress in school work and at Christmas 1851 was removed and sent to live as a private pupil with the Rev. F. B. Guy, Assistant Master at Forest School and later Canon of St. Alban's, for a year to prepare him for University.[2][6] The Forest School archives still contain many items of correspondence from Morris, and the School boasts a Morris stained glass window in the Chapel.

Oxford, apprenticeship, and artistic influences

In June 1852 Morris entered Exeter College, Oxford, though since the college was full, he was unable to go into residence until January 1853. At Exeter, Morris met Edward Burne-Jones, also a first year undergraduate, who became his life-long friend and collaborator. Morris also joined a Birmingham group at Pembroke College, known among themselves as the "Brotherhood" and to historians as the "Pembroke set".[2][7] Together, they read theology, ecclesiastical history, and medieval poetry; studied art, and during the long vacations visited English churches and the Continental cathedrals. They became strongly influenced by the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, John Ruskin's essay "The Nature of Gothic" from the second volume of The Stones of Venice, Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur and the poetry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Morris began to adopt Ruskin's philosophy of rejecting the tawdry industrial manufacture of decorative arts and architecture in favour of a return to hand-craftsmanship, raising artisans to the status of artists, creating art that should be affordable and hand-made, with no hierarchy of artistic mediums.[2]

Moreover, Morris began at this time to write poetry and many of his first pieces, afterwards destroyed, were held by sound judges to be equal to anything else he ever worked on. Both Morris and Burne-Jones had come to Oxford with the intention of taking holy orders, but as they felt their way, both decided their energies were best spent on social reform. Morris decided to become an architect and for the better propagation of the views of the new brotherhood a magazine was at the same time projected, which was to make a specialty of social articles, besides poems and short stories. At the beginning of 1856 the two schemes came to a head together. Morris, having passed his finals in the previous term, was entered as a pupil at the office of George Edmund Street, one of the leading English Gothic revival architects who had his headquarters in Oxford as architect to the diocese;[1] and on New Year's Day the first issue of the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine appeared. The expenses of publishing were borne entirely by Morris, but he resigned the formal editorship after the first issue. Many distinguished compositions appeared in its pages, but it gradually languished and was given up after a year's experiment. The chief immediate result was the friendship between Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a contributor.[2]

In Street’s office Morris formed an intimate and lifelong friendship with the senior clerk, Philip Webb, which had an important influence over the development taken by English domestic architecture during the next generation. He worked in Street’s office for nine months, first at Oxford and afterwards in London when Street removed there in the autumn.[1] Morris worked hard both in and out of office hours at architecture and painting, and he studied architectural drawing under Webb.[8] Rossetti persuaded him that he was better suited for a painter, and after a while he devoted himself exclusively to that branch of art. That summer the two friends visited Oxford and finding the new Oxford Union debating-hall under construction, pursued a commission to paint the upper walls with scenes from Le Morte d'Arthur and to decorate the roof between the open timbers. Seven artists were recruited, among them Valentine Prinsep and Arthur Hughes,[9] and the work was hastily begun. Morris worked with feverish energy and on finishing the portion assigned to him, proceeded to decorate the roof. The frescoes, done too soon and too fast, began to fade at once and now are barely decipherable.

Marriage and family

Rossetti had seen Jane Burden at a theatre performance and recruited her to model as Guinevere for the Oxford Union murals. Morris was smitten with Jane from the start.[10] They became engaged in 1858 and married at St Michael at the Northgate, Oxford, on 26 April 1859, settling temporarily at 41 Great Ormond Street, London. Morris's only surviving painting in oils is of Jane Burden as La Belle Iseult. William and Jane had two daughters, Jane Alice (Jenny), born January 1861, who developed epilepsy in her teens, and Mary (May) (March 1862–1938), who became the editor of her father's works, a prominent socialist, and an accomplished designer and craftswoman.[11]

Although of humble origins and unschooled in her youth,[10] Jane Morris underwent a remarkable self-education after her marriage. A striking beauty, she mixed freely with the Pre-Raphaelites and posed many times for Dante Gabriel Rossetti, with whom Jane sustained a long affair. The Morrises' initial happiness together did not survive the first ten years of their marriage, but divorce was unthinkable, and they remained together until Morris's death.[11]

Red House

Red House, Bexleyheath

For several years after his marriage Morris was absorbed in two connected occupations: the building and decoration of a house for himself and Jane, and the foundation of a firm of decorators who were also artists, with the view of reinstating decoration, down to its smallest details, as one of the fine arts. Meanwhile he was slowly abandoning painting; none of his paintings are dated later than 1862.[1]

Red House at Bexleyheath in Kent, so named when the use of red brick without stucco was still unusual in domestic architecture, was built for Morris to designs by Webb; it was Webb's first building as an independent architect[12] Red House featured ceiling paintings by Morris, wall-hangings designed by Morris and worked by himself and Jane; furniture painted by Morris and Rossetti, and wall-paintings and stained- and painted glass designed by Burne-Jones.[12] However it contained no wallpaper, printed or woven fabrics, or carpets by the firm, these being manufactured from 1864, 1868 and 1875 respectively.

Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co.

In 1861, the decorative arts firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co.(later described by Nicholas Pevsner as the 'beginning of a new era in Western art ')[13] was founded with Morris, Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown and Philip Webb as partners, together with Charles Faulkner and Peter Paul Marshall, the former of whom was a member of the Oxford Brotherhood, and the latter a friend of Brown and Rossetti.[1] The prospectus set forth that the firm would undertake carving, stained glass, metal-work, paper-hangings, chintzes (printed fabrics), and carpets.[2] The decoration of churches was from the first an important part of the business. On its non-ecclesiastical side it gradually was extended to include, besides painted windows and mural decoration, furniture, metal and glass wares, cloth and paper wall-hangings, embroideries, jewellery, woven and knotted carpets, silk damasks, and tapestries. The first headquarters of the firm were at 8 Red Lion Square.

The work shown by the firm at the 1862 International Exhibition attracted much notice, and from 1866 began to make a profit. In the autumn of 1864, a severe illness obliged Morris to choose between giving up his home at Red House in Kent and giving up his work in London. With great reluctance he gave up Red House, and in 1865 established himself under the same roof with his workshops, now relocated to Queen Square, Bloomsbury.[1]

An important commission of 1867[14] was the "green dining room" at the South Kensington Museum (now the Morris Room of the Victoria and Albert), featuring stained glass windows and panel figures by Burne-Jones, panels with branches of fruit or flowers by Morris, and olive branches and a frieze by Philip Webb.

Although already the firms paid manager, in 1874 Morris wished to take sole control of the now profitable firm, but, unsurprisingly, had to buy out other shareholders. This venture into capitalism was a severe test of friendship with Rossetti and Ford Maddox Brown. Throughout his life, Morris continued as principal owner and design director, although the company changed names. Its most famous incarnation was as Morris & Co. The firm's designs are still sold today under licenses given to Sanderson and Sons (which markets the "Morris & Co." brand) and Liberty of London.

Main Entrance to Kelmscott Manor

Kelmscott Manor

In 1869, Morris and Rossetti rented a country house, Kelmscott Manor at Kelmscott, Oxfordshire, as a summer retreat, but it soon became a retreat for Rossetti and Jane Morris to have a long-lasting and complicated liaison. The two spent summers there, with the Morris children, while Morris himself traveled to Iceland in 1871 and 1873. Kelmscott Manor remained an important retreat and symbol of simple country life for Morris in later years. It was the model for "the old house by the Thames" in Morris's News from Nowhere.[15] The house and gardens are now owned by the Society of Antiquaries of London, and is open to the public on Wednesdays and Saturdays in the summer. The garden and its flora were a particular inspiration to Morris in his textile designs.


In the 1870s, Morris had begun to take an active interest in politics. He became treasurer of the National Liberal League in 1879; but after the Irish coercive measures of 1881, he finally abandoned the Liberal Party and advanced into socialist politics.

In January 1883, Morris was enrolled among the members of the Democratic Federation, forerunner of the Social Democratic Federation. Over the next two years, Morris and party founder Henry Hyndman worked together as the best-known leaders of the fledgling organisation.[16] For the rest of the decade, his creative efforts sprang from his socialist politics.

In March 1883 he gave an address at Manchester on "Art, Wealth and Riches"; in May he was elected upon the executive of the federation. In September he wrote the first of his "Chants for Socialists." About the same time he shocked the authorities by pleading in University Hall for the wholesale support of socialism among the undergraduates at Oxford. To the surprise of many who saw him as a respectable poet and decorator from that point on he threw himself wholeheartedly into the nascent Socialist movement, becoming co-author of the Social Democratic Federation manifesto.

Disagreements with Hyndman over Irish Home Rule and a generalized mistrust of Hyndman's personal motives led to the foundation of the breakaway Socialist League in December 1884, encouraged by Friedrich Engels and Eleanor Marx. As the leading figure in the organization Morris embarked on a relentless series of speeches and talks on street corners, in working men's clubs and lecture theatres across England and Scotland. Eventual repression of street corner meetings by the police meant that free speech, rather than economic working-class causes, became the practical focus of the League. Morris also became both editor and principal contributor to the League's monthly - soon to become weekly - newspaper, Commonweal, which became the first place where his published essays, poems, and other works appeared. His best known prose works, the utopian News from Nowhere and A Dream of John Ball were first printed here in serialized form.

From 1887, anarchists began to outnumber socialists in the Socialist League.[17] The 3rd Annual Conference of the League, held in London on 29 May 1887 marked the change, with a majority of the 24 branch delegates voting in favor of an anarchist-sponsored resolution declaring that "This conference endorses the policy of abstention from parliamentary action, hitherto pursued by the League, and sees no sufficient reason for altering it."[18] Morris played peacemaker but sided with the anti-Parliamentarians, who won control of the League, which consequently lost the support of Engels and saw the departure of Eleanor Marx and her partner Edward Aveling to form the separate Bloomsbury Socialist Society.

William Morris (right) with artist Edward Burne-Jones, 1890.

By 1889, the anarchist wing had completely captured the organisation. William Morris was stripped of the editorship of Commonweal in favor of Frank Kitz, an anarchist workman. Morris was left to foot the ongoing operating deficit of the publication, approximately £4 per week[17] — this at a time when £150 per year was the average annual family income in the kingdom.[19] By the autumn of 1890, Morris had had enough and he, too, withdrew from the Socialist League.

The following years have been described as a time of disillusionment for Morris, but he continued to write articles and give public lectures in active support of the Socialist cause. Morris himself was perhaps the greatest British representative of what has come to be called libertarian socialism. Liberated from internal factional struggles, he retracted his anti-Parliamentary position and worked for Socialist unity, giving his last public lecture in January 1896 on the subject of "One Socialist Party."[2]

Historic preservation

Although Morris never became a practising architect, his interest in architecture continued throughout his life. In 1877 he founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (sometimes known as "Anti-Scrape"), which sprang into being as a practical protest against a scheme for restoring and reviving Tewkesbury Abbey.[2][20] His preservation work resulted indirectly in the founding of the National Trust. Combined with the inspiration of John Ruskin — in particular his essay "The Nature of Gothic" — architecture played an important symbolic part in Morris's approach to socialism.

Another aspect of Morris' preservationism was his desire to protect the natural world from the ravages of pollution and industrialism, causing some historians of the green movement to regard Morris as an important forerunner of modern environmentalism. [21] [22]

Later years

In his later years, Morris returned to the paramount interests of his life, art and literature. When his business was enlarged in 1881 by the establishment of a tapestry industry at Merton Abbey Mills, in South West London, Morris found yet another means for expressing the medievalism that inspired all his work, whether on paper or at the loom.[23] He then added another to his many activities; he assumed a direct interest in typography. In the early seventies he had devoted much attention to the arts of manuscript illumination and calligraphy. He himself wrote several manuscripts, with illuminations of his own devising. From this to attempts to beautify the art of modern printing was but a short step. The House of the Wolfings, printed in 1889 at the Chiswick Press, was the first essay in this direction; and in the same year, in The Roots of the Mountains, he carried his theory a step further. Some fifteen months later he added a private printing-press to his multifarious occupations and started upon the first volume issued from the Kelmscott Press. For the last few years of his life this new interest remained the absorbing one.[2]

After his departure from the Socialist League, Morris divided his time between the Firm, then relocated to Merton Abbey,[24] Kelmscott House in Hammersmith, the Kelmscott Press, and Kelmscott Manor. At his death at Kelmscott House in 1896 he was interred in the Kelmscott village churchyard.

"A brief sketch of the Morris movement" was a 1911 pamphlet at the 50th anniversary of the Morris & Co. (http://www.kelmscottbookshop.com/store/21556.htm)


William Morris was a prolific writer of poetry, fiction, essays, and translations of ancient and medieval texts. His first poems were published when he was 24 years old, and he was polishing his final novel, The Sundering Flood, at the time of his death. His daughter May's edition of Morris's Collected Works (1910–1915) runs to 24 volumes, and two more were published in 1936.[25]


Morris began publishing poetry and short stories in 1856 through the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine which he founded with his friends and financed while at university. His first volume, The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems (1858), was the first book of Pre-Raphaelite poetry to be published.[25] The dark poems, set in a sombre world of violence, were coolly received by the critics, and he was discouraged from publishing more for a number of years. "The Haystack in the Floods", one of the poems in that collection, is probably now one of his better-known poems. It is a grimly realistic piece set during the Hundred Years War in which the doomed lovers Jehane and Robert have a last parting in a convincingly portrayed rain-swept countryside.[25] One early minor poem was "Masters in this Hall" (1860), a Christmas carol written to an old French tune.[26] Another Christmas-themed poem is "The Snow in the Street", adapted from "The Land East of the Sun and West of the Moon" in The Earthly Paradise.[27]

When he returned to poetry in the late 1860s it was with The Life and Death of Jason,[28] which was published with great success in 1867.[25] Jason was followed by The Earthly Paradise, a huge collection of poems loosely bound together in what he called a leather strapbound book. The theme was of a group of medieval wanderers who set out to search for a land of everlasting life; after much disillusion, they discover a surviving colony of Greeks with whom they exchange stories. The collection brought him almost immediate fame and popularity (all of his books thereafter were published as "by the author of The Earthly Paradise").[25] The last-written stories in the collection are retellings of Icelandic sagas. From then until his Socialist period Morris's fascination with the ancient Germanic and Norse peoples dominated his writing. Together with his Icelandic friend Eiríkr Magnússon he was the first to translate many of the Icelandic sagas into English, and his own epic retelling of the story of Sigurd the Volsung was his favourite among his poems.[1] Due to his wide poetic acclaim, Morris was quietly approached with an offer of the Poet Laureateship after the death of Tennyson in 1892, but declined.


Morris had met Eiríkr Magnússon1868, and together they began to learn the Icelandic language. Morris published translations of The Saga of Gunnlaug Worm-Tongue and Grettis Saga in 1869, and the Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs in 1870. An additional volume was published under the title of Three Northern Love Stories in 1873.[1][25]

In the mid-1870s, Morris's leisure was mainly occupied by scribe and illuminator; to this period belong, among other works, two manuscripts of Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam with illustrations by Burne-Jones. He was for some time engaged in the production of a magnificent folio manuscript of Virgil's Aeneid, and in the course of that work had begun to translate the poem into English verse. The manuscript was finally laid aside for the translation, and the Eneids of Virgil was published in November 1875. Morris also translated large numbers of medieval and classical works, including Homer's Odyssey in 1887.

Prose romances

In the last nine years of his life, Morris wrote a series of imaginative fictions usually referred to as the "prose romances".[29] These novels — including The Wood Beyond the World and The Well at the World's End — have been credited as important milestones in the history of fantasy fiction, because, while other writers wrote of foreign lands, or of dream worlds, or the future (as Morris did in News from Nowhere), Morris's works were the first to be set in an entirely invented fantasy world.[30] These were attempts to revive the genre of medieval romance, and written in imitation of medieval prose. Morris' prose style in these novels has been praised by Edward James, who described them as "among the most lyrical and enchanting fantasies in the English language."[31]

On the other hand, L. Sprague de Camp considered Morris' fantasies to be not wholly successful, partly because Morris eschewed many literary techniques from later eras.[32] In particular, De Camp argued the plots of the novels are heavily driven by coincidence; while many things just happened in the romances, the novels are still weakened by the dependence on it.[33] Nevertheless, large subgenres of the field of fantasy have sprung from the romance genre, but indirectly, through their writers' imitation of William Morris.[34]

Early fantasy writers like Lord Dunsany, E. R. Eddison [35] and James Branch Cabell [36] were familiar with Morris' romances. The Wood Beyond the World is considered to have heavily influenced C. S. Lewis' Narnia series, while J. R. R. Tolkien was inspired by Morris's reconstructions of early Germanic life in The House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains. The young Tolkien attempted a retelling of the story of Kullervo from the Kalevala in the style of The House of the Wolfings;[37] Tolkien considered much of his literary work to have been inspired by an early reading of Morris, even suggesting that he was unable to better Morris's work; the names of characters such as "Gandolf" and the horse Silverfax appear in The Well at the World's End.

Sir Henry Newbolt's medieval allegorical novel, Aladore, was influenced by Morris' fantasies. [38] James Joyce also drew inspiration from his work.[39]


Cabbage and vine tapestry, 1879

Furnishing textiles were an important offering of the firm in all its incarnations. By 1883, Morris wrote "Almost all the designs we use for surface decoration, wallpapers, textiles, and the like, I design myself. I have had to learn the theory and to some extent the practice of weaving, dyeing and textile printing: all of which I must admit has given me and still gives me a great deal of enjoyment."[40]

Morris's preference for flat use of line and colour and abhorrence of "realistic" three-dimensional shading was marked; in this he followed the propositions of Owen Jones as set out in his 'The Grammar of Ornament' of 1856, a copy of which Morris owned. Writing on tapestry weaving, Morris said:

As in all wall-decoration, the first thing to be considered in the designing of Tapestry is the force, purity, and elegance of the silhouette of the objects represented, and nothing vague or indeterminate is admissible. But special excellences can be expected from it. Depth of tone, richness of colour, and exquisite gradation of tints are easily to be obtained in Tapestry; and it also demands that crispness and abundance of beautiful detail which was the especial characteristic of fully developed Mediæval Art. - Of the Revival of Design and Handicraft

It is likely that much of Morris's preference for medieval textiles was formed — or crystallised — during his brief apprenticeship with G. E. Street. Street had co-written a book on Ecclesiastical Embroidery in 1848, and was a staunch advocate of abandoning faddish woolen work on canvas in favour of more expressive embroidery techniques based on Opus Anglicanum, a surface embroidery technique popular in medieval England.[41]

He was also very fond of hand knotted Persian carpets[42] and advised the South Kensington Museum in the acquisition of fine Kerman carpets.[43]


Morris taught himself embroidery, working with wool on a frame custom-built from an old example, and once he had mastered the technique he trained his wife Jane and her sister Bessie Burden and others to execute designs to his specifications. "Embroideries of all kinds" were offered through Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. catalogues, and church embroidery became and remained an important line of business for its successor companies into the twentieth century.[44] By the 1870s, the firm was offering both designs for embroideries and finished works. Following in Street's footsteps, Morris became active in the growing movement to return originality and mastery of technique to embroidery, and was one of the first designers associated with the Royal School of Art Needlework with its aim to "restore Ornamental Needlework for secular purposes to the high place it once held among decorative arts." [45]

Printed and woven textiles

Design for "Tulip and Willow" indigo-discharge wood-block printed fabric, 1873

Morris's first repeating pattern for wallpaper is dated 1862, but was not manufactured until 1864. All his wallpaper designs were manufactured for him by Jeffrey & Co, a commercial wallpaper maker. In 1868 he designed his first pattern specifically for fabric printing. As in so many other areas that interested him, Morris chose to work with the ancient technique of hand woodblock printing in preference to the roller printing which had almost completely replaced it for commercial uses.

Morris took up the practical art of dyeing as a necessary adjunct of his manufacturing business. He spent much of his time at Staffordshire dye works mastering the processes of that art and making experiments in the revival of old or discovery of new methods. One result of these experiments was to reinstate indigo dyeing as a practical industry and generally to renew the use of those vegetable dyes, like madder, which had been driven almost out of use by the anilines. Dyeing of wools, silks, and cottons was the necessary preliminary to what he had much at heart, the production of woven and printed fabrics of the highest excellence; and the period of incessant work at the dye-vat (1875–76) was followed by a period during which he was absorbed in the production of textiles (1877–78), and more especially in the revival of carpet-weaving as a fine art.[1][46] However, his first carpet designs of 1875, were made for him industrially by commercial firms using machinery.

Morris's patterns for woven textiles, some of which were also machine made under ordinary commercial conditions, included intricate double-woven furnishing fabrics in which two sets of warps and wefts are interlinked to create complex gradations of colour and texture.[47] His textile designs are still popular today, sometimes recoloured for modern sensibilities, but also in the original colourways.


Morris long dreamed of weaving tapestries in the medieval manner, which he called "the noblest of the weaving arts." In September 1879 he finished his first solo effort, a small piece called "Cabbage and Vine".[48][49] Shortly thereafter Morris trained his employee John Henry Dearle in the technique, setting up a tapestry loom at Queen Square and later a large tapestry works at Merton Abbey.

The Kelmscott Press

Trademark of the Kelmscott Press

In January 1891, Morris founded the Kelmscott Press at Hammersmith, London, in order to produce books by traditional methods, using, as far as possible, the printing technology and typographical style of the fifteenth century. In this he was reflecting the tenets of the Arts and Crafts movement, and responding to the mechanisation and mass-production of contemporary book-production methods and to the rise of lithography, particularly those lithographic prints designed to look like woodcuts.

He designed two typefaces based on fifteenth-century models, the Roman "Golden" type (inspired by the type of the early Venetian printer Nicolaus Jenson) and the black letter "Troy" type; a third type, the "Chaucer" was a smaller version of the Troy type. He also designed floriated borders and initials for the books, drawing inspiration from incunabula and their woodcut illustrations. Selection of paper and ink, and concerns for the overall integration of type and decorations on the page, made the Kelmscott Press the most famous of the private presses of the Arts and Crafts movement, and the main inspiration for what became known as the "Private Press Movement". It operated until 1898, producing more than 18,000 copies of 53 different works, comprising 69 volumes, and inspired numerous other private presses, notably the Vale Press, Caradoc Press, Ashendene Press and Doves Press.[50]


Kelmscott Manor depicted in the frontispiece to the 1893 Kelmscott Press edition of News from Nowhere.

Among the works issued by the Kelmscott Press were:[50][51][52]

  • William Morris, The Story of the Glittering Plain (1891)
  • William Morris, The Defence of Guenevere and other Poems (1892)
  • William Morris, A Dream of John Ball and A King's Lesson (1892)
  • Raoul Lafevre, The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye (1892)
  • William Shakespeare, The Poems (1893)
  • William Morris, News from Nowhere (1893)
  • William Caxton (trans.), The History of Reynard the Foxe (1893)
  • William Caxton (trans.), The Order of Chivalry (1893)
  • Guilelmus, Archbishop of Tyrel, The History of Geoffrey of Boloyne (1893)
  • Sir Thomas More, Utopia (1893)
  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Sonnets and Lyrical Poems (1893)
  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ballads and Narrative Poems (1893)
  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Hand and Soul (1894)
  • Wilhelm Meinhold, Sidonia the Sorceress (1894)
  • William Morris, The Story of the Glittering Plain (1894)
  • Algernon Charles Swinburne, Atalanta in Calydon (1894)
  • An American Memorial to Keats (1895)
  • Sir Percyvelle of Gales (1895)
  • William Morris, The Life and Death of Jason (1895)
  • Geoffrey Chaucer, The Works (called the Kelmscott Chaucer) (1896)
  • William Morris, The Earthly Paradise (1896)
  • Sir Ysumbrace (1897)
  • William Morris, The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs (1898)

The Kelmscott Press edition of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, with decorations by Morris and illustrations by Burne-Jones, is sometimes counted among the most beautiful books ever produced. Full-scale facsimiles of the Kelmscott Chaucer were published by the Basilisk Press in 1974 and by the Folio Society in 2002. More modest facsimiles were published by World Publishing in 1964 and Omega Books in 1985.


Morris family tombstone at Kelmscott, designed by Philip Webb


Three years after his death, Morris's biographer John William Mackail (the husband of Burne-Jones's daughter Margaret and so a member of his immediate circle) summed up his career for the Dictionary of National Biography in a quote that is markedly prescient in its assessment:

The fame of Morris during his life was probably somewhat obscured by the variety of his accomplishments. In all his work after he reached mature life there is a marked absence of extravagance, of display, of superficial cleverness or effectiveness, and an equally marked sense of composition and subordination. Thus his poetry is singularly devoid of striking lines or phrases, and his wall-papers and chintzes only reveal their full excellence by the lastingness of the satisfaction they give. His genius as a pattern-designer is allowed by all qualified judges to have been unequalled. This, if anything, he himself regarded as his specific profession; it was under the designation of "designer" that he enrolled himself in the socialist ranks and claimed a position as one of the working class. And it is the quality of design which, together with a certain fluent ease, distinguishes his work in literature as well as in industrial art. It is yet too early to forecast what permanent place he may hold among English poets. "The Defence of Guenevere" had a deep influence on a limited audience. With "Jason" and the "Earthly Paradise" he attained a wide popularity: and these poems, appearing as they did at a time when the poetic art in England seemed narrowing into mere labour on a thrice-ploughed field, not only gave a new scope, range, and flexibility to English rhymed verse, but recovered for narrative poetry a place among the foremost kinds of the art. A certain diffuseness of style may seem to be against their permanent life, so far as it is not compensated by a uniform wholesomeness and sweetness which indeed marks all Morris’s work. In "Sigurd the Volsung" Morris appears to have aimed higher than in his other poems, but not to have reached his aim with the same certainty; and his own return afterwards from epic to romance may indicate that the latter was the ground on which he was most at home. The prose romances of his later years have so far proved less popular in themselves than in the dilutions they have suggested to other writers. Here as elsewhere Morris’s great effect was to stimulate the artistic sense and initiate movements. So likewise it was with his political and social work. Much of it was not practical in the ordinary sense; but it was based on principles and directed towards ideals which have had a wide and profound influence over thought and practice.[1]

From a later perspective, Stansky concludes that:

Morris's views on the environment, on preserving what is of value in both the natural and "built" worlds, on decentralising bloated government, are as significant now as they were in Morris's own time, or even more so. Earlier in the twentieth century, much of his thinking, particularly its political side, was dismissed as sheer romanticism. After the Second World War, it appeared that modernisation, centralisation, industrialism, rationalism – all the faceless movements of the time – were in control and would take care of the world. Today, when we have a keen sense of the shambles of their efforts, the suggestions which Morris made in his designs, his writings, his actions and his politics have new power and relevance.[53]

Today, Morris's poetry is little-read. His fantasy romances languished out of print for decades until their rediscovery amid the great fantasy revival of the late 1960s following the phenomenal success of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. But his textile and wallpaper designs remain a staple of the Arts and Crafts Revival of the turn of the 21st century, and the reproduction of Morris designs as fabric, wrapping paper, and craft kits of all sorts is testament to the enduring appeal of his work. The William Morris Societies in Britain, the US, and Canada are active in preserving Morris's work and ideas.

Notable collections and house museums

A number of galleries and museums house important collections of Morris's work and decorative items commissioned from Morris & Co. The William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, England, is a public museum devoted to Morris' life, work and influence. The collection, which is of international significance, includes printed, woven and embroidered fabrics, rugs, carpets, wallpapers, furniture, stained glass and painted tiles by Morris and his associates. In April 2007, The Guardian newspaper reported that funding for the Gallery was threatened by cost cutting by the London borough of Waltham Forest. A campaign to avoid the reduction in opening times and dismissal of key staff was launched.[54] Since then, the Gallery has secured £1.523 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund, matched by £1.5 million from the London Borough of Waltham Forest, to renovate and extend the Gallery.[55] Further funding has been secured from charitable trusts and foundations and through an ongoing public fundraising campaign.[56] When the Gallery reopens in July 2012, more of the collection will be on display. The William Morris Gallery Development Project will also deliver a dedicated learning and research space, a new temporary exhibition gallery, a new shop and tea room and a varied activities and events programme.[57]

The former "green dining room" at the Victoria and Albert Museum is now its "Morris Room". The V&A's British Galleries house other decorative works by Morris and his associates.[58]

Wightwick Manor in the West Midlands, England, is a notable example of the Morris & Co. style, with original Morris wallpapers and fabrics, De Morgan tiles, and Pre-Raphaelite works of art, managed by the National Trust. Standen in West Sussex, England, was designed by Webb between 1892 and 1894 and decorated with Morris carpets, fabrics and wallpapers. Morris's homes Red House and Kelmscott Manor have been preserved. Red House was acquired by the National Trust in 2003 and is open to the public by advanced reservation. Kelmscott Manor is owned by the Society of Antiquaries of London and is open to the public[59].

The Art Gallery of South Australia is "fortunate in holding the most comprehensive collection of Morris & Co. furnishings outside Britain".[60] The collection includes books, embroideries, tapestries, fabrics, wallpapers, drawings & sketches, furniture and stained glass, and forms the focus of two published works (produced to accompany special exhibitions).[60][61]

The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California acquired the collection of Morris materials amassed by Sanford and Helen Berger in 1999. The collection includes stained glass, wallpaper, textiles, embroidery, drawings, ceramics, more than 2000 books, original woodblocks, and the complete archives of both Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. and Morris & Co.[62] These materials formed the foundation for the 2002 exhibition William Morris: Creating the Useful and the Beautiful and 2003 exhibition The Beauty of Life: William Morris and the Art of Design and accompanying publication.[63]


A fountain located in Bexleyheath town centre, named the Morris Fountain, was created in his honour and unveiled on the anniversary of his birth. Also in Bexleyheath, Morris' home Red House was opened up to the public by the National Trust in 2004. Also, Walthamstow Central tube station has William Morris inspired motifs (by Julia Black) in regularly spaced alcoves along the platform walls.

Literary works

Portrait of William Morris by William Blake Richmond.

Collected poetry, fiction, and essays


  • Grettis Saga: The Story of Grettir the Strong with Eiríkr Magnússon (1869)
  • The Saga of Gunnlaug the Worm-tongue and Rafn the Skald with Eiríkr Magnússon (1869)
  • Völsung Saga: The Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs, with Certain Songs from the Elder Edda with Eiríkr Magnússon (1870) (from the Volsunga saga)
  • Three Northern Love Stories, and Other Tales with Eiríkr Magnússon (1875)
  • The Odyssey of Homer Done into English Verse (1887)
  • The Aeneids of Virgil Done into English (1876)
  • Of King Florus and the Fair Jehane (1893)
  • The Tale of Beowulf Done out of the Old English Tongue (1895)
  • Old French Romances Done into English (1896)


Morris & Co. stained glass

Morris & Co. textiles

Decorative objects

Kelmscott Press

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Dictionary of National Biography, 1901, "William Morris"
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911, "William Morris"
  3. ^ J. W. Mackail, Life of William Morris, p. 3–8
  4. ^ Robinson, Elizabeth (1924). Deaconess Gilmore. London: S.P.C.K.. pp. 53. 
  5. ^ Morris's authorized biographer, John William Mackail, states that Morris left Marlborough "a committed Anglo-Catholic." See J. W. Mackail, Life of William Morris, p. 17
  6. ^ J. W. Mackail, Life of William Morris, p. 25
  7. ^ Parry, William Morris, p. 90
  8. ^ Watkinson, Ray, "Painting" in Parry, William Morris, p. 90
  9. ^ Watkinson, Ray, "Painting" in Parry, William Morris, p. 93
  10. ^ a b Parry, William Morris, p. 14-16
  11. ^ a b Daly, Pre-Raphaelites in Love, p. 340-341, 402-404
  12. ^ a b Parry, "Domestic Decoration." In William Morris, p. 136–137
  13. ^ Pevsner, Nicholas Pioneers of Modern Design (1936)
  14. ^ Charles Harvey and Jon Press, "The Businessman." in Parry, William Morris, p. 49-50
  15. ^ Todd, Pre-Raphaelites at Home, p. 123–130
  16. ^ G.D.H. Cole, A History of Socialist Thought: Volume II: Marxism and Anarchism, 1850-1890. London: Macmillan & Co., 1954; pg. 398.
  17. ^ a b Beer, A History of British Socialism, vol. 2, pg. 256.
  18. ^ Marx-Engels Collected Works: Volume 48. New York: International Publishers, 2001; pg. 538, fn. 95.
  19. ^ Clayton, The Rise and Decline of Socialism in Great Britain, pg. 44.
  20. ^ Thompson, E. P. (1976). William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary. New York: Pantheon. pp. 228. ISBN 0394733207. "The Society, which Morris dubbed 'Anti-Scrape'..." 
  21. ^ Wall, Derek. Green History: A Reader. London,Routledge, (pgs. 9-12,240, 242-3).
  22. ^ Guha,Ramachandra. Environmentalism: A Global History. London, Longman 2000 (pgs. 15-6).
  23. ^ Caroline Jewers, "Six Views of William Morris," in: Cahier Calin: Makers of the Middle Ages. Essays in Honor of William Calin, ed. Richard Utz and Elizabeth Emery (Kalamazoo, MI: Studies in Medievalism, 2011), pp. 65-67.
  24. ^ William Morris Society. "Merton Abbey". http://www.morrissociety.org/mertonabbey.html. Retrieved 2008-08-22. 
  25. ^ a b c d e f Faulkner, Peter, "The Writer". In Parry, William Morris, p. 44-45
  26. ^ "The words were written for the old French carol tune shortly before 1860 by Morris, who was in Street's office with Edmund Sedding (architect and compiler of carols, brother of the more famous J. D. Sedding; he died early, in 1868). Sedding had obtained the tune from the organist at Chartres Cathedral, and he published the words and tune in his Antient Christmas Carols, 1860." – The Oxford Book of Carols, 1928, p. 277.
  27. ^ Set to music by composers including Ralph Vaughan Williams. The Oxford Book of Carols, 1928, p. 406.
  28. ^ Full text, with illustrations, at "The Life and Death of Jason". Morris Online Edition. 1867. http://morrisedition.lib.uiowa.edu/jason.html. Retrieved 2008-08-22. 
  29. ^ Faulkner, Peter, "The Writer". In Parry, William Morris, p. 47
  30. ^ Lin Carter, ed. Kingdoms of Sorcery, p. 39 Doubleday and Company Garden City, NY, 1976.
  31. ^ Edward James, "Morris, William" in the St. James Guide To Fantasy Writers, ed. David Pringle, St. James Press, 1996, ISBN 1558622055, p. 426-9.
  32. ^ L. Sprague de Camp, Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: The Makers of Heroic Fantasy, p. 46. ISBN 0-87054-076-9
  33. ^ L. Sprague de Camp, Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers, p. 40.
  34. ^ L. Sprague de Camp, Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers, p. 26.
  35. ^ David Pringle, The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Fantasy, London, Carlton, 1998. (p. 36)
  36. ^ John R. Pfeiffer, "William Morris" in Supernatural Fiction Writers: Fantasy and Horror, ed. E. F. Bleiler, Scribner, 1985. ISBN 0684178087 (p 299-306).
  37. ^ Hammond and Scull, The J. R. R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, p. 816.
  38. ^ Robert Reginald, "Sir Henry Newbolt's Aladore", in Xenograffiti: Essays On Fantastic Literature. Wildside Press, 1996 ISBN 0809519003 (p.95-99).
  39. ^ Hero, Stephen, "Morris and James Joyce," The Journal of William Morris Studies, 6.3 (Summer 1985): 36, p. 11.
  40. ^ Quoted in Waggoner, DianeThe Beauty of Life: William Morris & the Art of Design.
  41. ^ Parry, William Morris Textiles, pp. 10–11.
  42. ^ Parry, Linda (1983). William Morris textiles. Viking Press. p. 89. ISBN 9780670770755. 
  43. ^ Wearden, Jennifer Mary; Thomas, Ian (1983). Oriental carpets and their structure: highlights from the V&A collection. Harry N. Abrams. ISBN 9780810966109. 
  44. ^ Parry, William Morris Textiles, pp. 16–17.
  45. ^ Quoted in Parry, William Morris Textiles, pp. 18–19.
  46. ^ Parry, William Morris Textiles, pp. 36–46.
  47. ^ Waggoner, The Beauty of Life, p. 54.
  48. ^ Parry, William Morris Textiles, pp. 103–104.
  49. ^ Waggoner, The Beauty of Life, p. 86.
  50. ^ a b Fiell and Fiell (1999), William Morris pp. 160–165.
  51. ^ Dreyfus, John, "The Kelmscott Press". In Parry, William Morris (1996) pp. 310–345.
  52. ^ "William Morris and the Kelmscott Press". http://www.alfredom.com/art/morris.htm. Retrieved 2008-08-22.  See also Peterson.
  53. ^ Stansky (1983) p. 89.
  54. ^ "News from Waltham Forest". The Guardian. 2007-04-21. http://arts.guardian.co.uk/art/news/story/0,,2062448,00.html. 
  55. ^ Walthamforest.gov.uk, William Morris Gallery Development Project.
  56. ^ Walthamforest.gov.uk, Support the William Morris Gallery Development Project.
  57. ^ William Morris Gallery Development Project
  58. ^ "William Morris at the Victoria and Albert Museum". http://www.victorianart.btinternet.co.uk/va-web/victoria_and_albert_museum.htm. Retrieved 2008-08-22. 
  59. ^ http://www.kelmscottmanor.org.uk/about About Kelmscott Manor
  60. ^ a b Menz, Christopher, (2002) Morris & Co., Adelaide : Art Gallery of South Australia
  61. ^ Menz, Christopher (1994), Morris & Company: Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts & Crafts Movement, Art Gallery of South Australia : Adelaide
  62. ^ "Crafts Cornered", Los Angeles Times, 15 December 1999, p. F1.
  63. ^ "Huntington Library: "William Morris: Creating the Useful and the Beautiful"". Archived from the original on April 16, 2008. http://web.archive.org/web/20080416232041/http://www.huntington.org/ArtDiv/morris.html. Retrieved 2008-08-22. 


 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
This article also incorporates text from the Dictionary of National Biography, supplemental volume 3 (1901), a publication now in the public domain.

Further reading

  • Anonymous (1873). Cartoon portraits and biographical sketches of men of the day. Illustrated by Frederick Waddy. London: Tinsley Brothers. pp. 28–29. http://en.wikisource.org/w/index.php?title=Cartoon_portraits_and_biographical_sketches_of_men_of_the_day/William_Morris. Retrieved 2011-01-06. 
  • Arscott, Caroline. William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones: Interlacings, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press (Published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art), 2008). ISBN 978-0-300-14093-4
  • Freudenheim, Leslie. Building with Nature: Inspiration for the Arts & Crafts Home (Gibbs Smith 2005 ) ISBN 978-1-58685-463-8.
  • Goodway, David. Anarchist Seeds beneath the Snow: Left Libertarian Thought and English Writers From William Morris to Colin Ward
  • MacCarthy, Fiona (1994). William Morris: A Life For Our Time. London: Faber. ISBN 0571174957. 
  • Marsh, Jan (2005). William Morris and Red House: A Collaboration Between Architect and Owner. National Trust Books. ISBN 9781905400010. 
  • Pinkney, Tony. William Morris in Oxford: The Campaigning Years, 1879–1895 (2007).
  • Robinson, Duncan (1982). William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones and the Kelmscott Chaucer. London: Gordon Fraser. 
  • Thompson, E.P. (1976; first published, 1955). William Morris, Romantic to Revolutionary. London: Merlin. 
  • Watkinson, Ray (1990). William Morris as Designer. London: Trefoil Books. ISBN 0862940400. 

External links



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