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William Morris

English Painter, Designer and Writer

William Morris Photo
Born: March 24, 1834
Walthamstow, England
Died: October 3, 1896
Hammersmith, England
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What business have we with art at all unless all can share it.
William Morris Signature

Summary of William Morris

Few artists left such a wide and indelible mark on the art, culture, and politics of their era as William Morris did on the second half of the nineteenth century. Training first as a priest and then as an architect before abandoning both to realize his visions of medieval arcadia in the company of the Pre-Raphaelites, he moved between artistic and literary media throughout his life. Initially producing paintings in the sweet Quattrocento style of his Pre-Raphaelite contemporaries, most notably Dante Gabriel Rossetti, he soon branched out into architecture and interior design, creating some of the most commercially successful and enduringly admired textile patterns and furnishings in British art history. Towards the end of his life, Morris focused with increasing singularity on the radical political ambitions which had always underpinned his practice, publishing utopian socialist fantasy literature, and consolidating his lifelong work as a poet. When he died in 1896, he had not only left a deep imprint on the century he had lived through, but also laid the groundwork for many of the artistic, architectural and political projects which defined the next.

Key Ideas

Biography of William Morris

William Morris Photo

William Morris was born in 1834 in Walthamstow, Essex, the third of nine children. William's father, after whom he was named, was a self-made business man, who was able to provide an upper-middle-class lifestyle for his family because of a shrewd investment in a Devonshire mine. Although William Morris Senior died when his son was just thirteen, the wealth he had accumulated provided a generous income for the artist well into his adult life.

Important Art by William Morris

La Belle Iseult (1858)

La Belle Iseult (1858)

Although this painting has been listed since its creation as 'unfinished', it is the only easel painting by Morris to reach this level of near-completion, and a quintessential work of Pre-Raphaelite-era portraiture. The model for the painting was Jane Burden, Morris's soon-to-be wife, and it is believed that he started work on it very early during their courtship. The artist reportedly struggled during the composition process with the proportions of the human body, which he was never able to execute as effectively as his peers. It is rumored that when he stopped working on the painting, he scribbled a note on the back to Jane: "I cannot paint you, but I love you".

Jane poses as the female protagonist of the story of Tristram and Iseult (Tristan and Isolde), a legend of Celtic origin made popular during the medieval period by the treatment of Thomas Mallory, on which Morris based his composition. The narrative of doomed lovers contains all the aspects of Medieval romance - thwarted desire, chastity, honor, chivalry - that attracted the Pre-Raphaelites to the literature and art of the period. In the scene depicted, Iseult is mourning the exile of Tristram - a knight sent to fetch her from Ireland to marry King Mark of Cornwall, only for the two to fall in love en route - from her husband's court. The tale was one that Morris had previously represented in the Oxford Union Murals, and the influence of the Pre-Raphaelite artists with whom he undertook that project, particularly Rossetti, is obvious. At the same time, we might trace a thread of affinity with the nascent Symbolist movement in continental Europe, given the heavily allegorical nature of the composition. The dog on the bed, given to Iseult by Tristram in Mallory's story, stands for loyalty, the rosemary in her crown for remembrance.

The painting also alludes in various ways to Morris's artistic and personal biography. Whilst figural painting would never be his true calling, we can sense clues as to his future endeavors as a designer and craftsman in the finer details of the scene. On the bed is an illuminated manuscript similar to those Morris would produce with Kelmscott Press, while the lavish textiles and tapestries are reminiscent of those Morris would spend most of his career creating. As for his model, Jane's strong, striking features, which epitomized the Pre-Raphaelite ideal of beauty, also caught the attention of Morris's friend and mentor Rossetti, with whom Jane embarked on a lifelong affair, grudgingly tolerated by her husband.

Red House (1860)

Red House (1860)

Created in collaboration with the architect Philip Webb, many consider this building the jewel in Morris's crown. After his marriage to Jane, Morris longed for a country home for the family, a place where he could live out his visions of medieval romance and collaborative creativity. The result was a strange and magnificent red brick construction which brought together the pointed arches of Gothic religious architecture, the gabled roofs of a Tudor mansion, and turrets from a medieval fairytale. This was not just a house to be lived in, but to be explored and experienced: for Rossetti, it was "more a poem than a house".

Everything in the creation and decoration of Red House was carefully considered. Perhaps in a nod to Morris's growing socialist principles, the red bricks of working-class housing were favored over the stone blocks that would have befitted his class status. He also abandoned bourgeoise taste by filling the garden with native British trees and flowers - those which inspired his decorative designs - rather than the exotic plants favored by the upper classes.

The decoration of the house has become as famous as its architecture, a collaborative endeavor involving not just Morris and Webb, but all of their artistic friends as well. Apparently, whenever a guest arrived to view the completed building, they would be invited to assist with its decoration. Morris would even prick out his designs in plaster, for less creatively inclined friends. The result is a work of interior decoration which showcases the talents of some of the best-known artists of the era. Murals, painted panels and chests, stained-glass windows and textiles: all were created in the spirit of collective joy and industry that Morris so valued.

Red House has been seen as the ancestral home of the Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain. Its construction also marked a decisive shift in architectural aesthetics, one whose effects were still playing out in the early twentieth century. In 1904, the German critic Hermann Muthesius described Red House as "the first house to be conceived and built as a unified whole, inside and out, the very first example in the history of the modern home". This concept would be hugely influential on architects of the Art Nouveau era such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and modernists such as Walter Gropius. 150 years after its construction, the building, now owned by the National Trust, continues to fascinate and excite visitors.

Green Dining Room (1868)

Green Dining Room (1868)

This Green Dining Room (also knonw as the Morris Room) is one of three refreshment rooms created for the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum) during the 1860s. This commission was not given to Morris alone, but to Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., the company known as The Firm. The prestige of this commission was a testament to the critical and commercial success that Morris and his collaborators had been enjoying since establishing The Firm in 1861. The individuals chiefly involved in this project were Morris, Philip Webb, and Edward Burne-Jones. As with their other joint-endeavors, each worked on the sections of the room that best suited their skills. The Green Dining Room thus embodies the spirit of collaborative artisanship which the company championed.

As the resident architect of the group, Webb designed the window frames, working with Morris on the floral and geometric designs pricked into the plaster of the ceiling. Burne-Jones painted the paneled frieze along the walls of the room, and, as an accomplished stained-glass designer, filled the window panels with scenes of medieval domestic bliss, including the ubiquitous, lissome Pre-Raphaelite beauties. The patterns inscribed into the green-painted plaster walls were the work of Morris alone, however. Olive boughs, raised up in the plaster, wrap around the room in an endless pattern, punctuated by the splashes of color introduced by flowers and berries. While these walls were created as reliefs, the designs pre-empt those Morris would later create for wallpapers and furnishing fabrics, particularly Willow. The latter is one of Morris's best-known designs, a simple pattern of intertwined willow leaves that gives the "unmistakable suggestions of gardens and fields" within a domestic setting.

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Content compiled and written by Jacqueline Kent

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Greg Thomas

"William Morris Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jacqueline Kent
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Greg Thomas
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First published on 04 Oct 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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