William Morris (1834–1896)

William Morris was one of the most influential intellectuals of his time: poet, critic, artist, designer, industrialist, and socialist. He was a charismatic leader and propagandist of revolutionary ideas.

Portrait of William Morris, George Frederic Watts, 1870

Image source: http://collectionimages.npg.org.uk

About his life

Morris studied to be an architect and initially had an unfulfilled ambition to become an artist. As a student at Oxford, he was heavily influenced by John Ruskin’s work on architecture, he met the painter Edward Burne-Jones and through this friendship came into contact with the Pre-Raphaelite artists. In 1859, Morris married Jane Bearden and immediately commissioned his friend, architect Philip Webb, to build them a new home. In April 1861, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. was founded in London at 8. Red Lion Square. It inspired the arts and crafts movement that began in Britain around 1880 and quickly spread to America, Europe and Japan. He also made a significant contribution to the establishment of socialism in Great Britain, founding in 1884 the Socialist League. He later founded the Kelmscott Press in 1891, to which he devoted the rest of his life.

Photo of William Morris in his fifties, old photo

Image source: http://digital.libraries.uc.edu


William Morris was a prolific writer of poetry, fiction, essays, and translations of ancient and medieval texts throughout his life. His best-known works are:

  • The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems (1858);
  • The Earthly Paradise (1868–1870);
  •  A Dream of John Ball (1888);
  • News from Nowhere (1890).
Snakeshead, William Morris, 1876

Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org


Morris has created over 600 wallpaper, textile and embroidery designs.

  • Trellis (1862-1864) was the first wallpaper design that Morris developed. The inspiration comes from the pattern of a lattice entwined with roses in the garden of his home in Bexlewheath, Kent.
  • Daisy(1864) was the first pattern to be released, a simple drawing of naively painted meadow flowers. It was based on a tapestry illustrated in the 15th century Froissard Chronicle style. Similar floral forms are also found in late medieval mille-fleurs tapestries and in early printed coats of arms.
  • Fruit (also known as Pomegranate), like the two previous designs, had a medieval character that links Morris’s early decorative arts with Pre-Raphaelite painters and Ruskin. Each pattern uses the shape of a plant, expressed in lush naturalism (Acanthus, Pimpernel, Jasmine) or in a flatter, formalized style (Sunflower). There is also a chrysanthemum, grapes and a garden tulip used in an extensive renovation of Holland Park No. 1 for the Greek merchant A.A. Ionides.
Daisy, William Morris, 1864

Image source: http://williammorristile.com


  • Morris Chair stands out among the furniture produced by Morris and Co.  It was a pioneering version of reclining chair, with a reclining back, moderately high armrests, and notches to adjust the degree of slant desired. It was adapted from a prototype owned by Ephraim Colman in rural Sussex, England.
Morris Chair, William Morris & Co., 1866

Image source: http://www.morrissociety.org


La Belle Iseult (1858) is the only completed easel painting that William Morris produced. This is a portrait of Jane Burden, wearing a medieval dress. Later, in 1859 they got married.  He also painted the ceiling of the Oxford Union Library building. It was painted in 1857 and subsequently rebuilt by Morris in 1875 in a modified form. The paintings depict scenes from the legends of King Arthur.

La Belle Iseult, William Morris, 1858

Image source: http://www.tate.org.uk

In 1891 Morris founded Kelmscott Press with typographic advisor to typographer and type designer Emery Walker. From 1891 to 1898, the press issued 53 editions in 66 volumes. Morris designed three type styles for his printing press:

  • Gold typeface modeled after Nicolas Jenson, a 15th century French printer;
  • Troy, a Gothic typeface modeled after early 15th century German printers;
  • Chaucer’s script, a smaller version of Troy, in which The Works of Jeffrey Chaucer was printed in the last years of Morris’s life. One of the greatest examples of the art of the printed book, Chaucer is Kelmscott’s most ornate edition. Most of Kelmscott’s other books were simple and straightforward, as Morris observed that 15th century books “were always beautiful because of typography.”
Colophon of Kelmscott Press

Image source: http://www.victorianweb.org








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