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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

"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

William Morris is often seen as the grandfather of the international Arts and Crafts Movement. In an era of increasing industrialism and urbanization, he embraced an idealized vision of the artisanship and cottage industries of the Middle Ages. For Morris, art was nothing if it was not a product of craftsmanship: a collaborative, spiritually imbued activity by which human beings grew together in kinship, and in connection to their natural environment. Inspired partly by the art historian John Ruskin, Morris's Arts and Crafts aesthetic directly or indirectly influenced a huge swath of artistic and literary movements over the coming decades, from Art Nouveau to the artists' books of the Futurists and Dadaists.
William Morris was the first artist of the modern era to combine word and image in the expression of his vision. Following in the footsteps of that other great London-born radical and luminary William Blake, Morris developed an aesthetic in which the words printed on a hanging tapestry, for example, or in a hand-printed manuscript, were as reliant on their surrounding pattern-work for meaning as the images were on the text. This notion of a multi-media art practice, though realized in the context of a nostalgic medievalism, pre-empted the more overtly radical art-and-language experiments of the twentieth century, from Constructivist book design to Concrete Poetry.
Like his mentor Rossetti, William Morris preferred to work in the company of friends, creative collaborators with whom he shared an artistic and spiritual worldview. It has often been argued that these collective endeavors, like those of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to which Morris was partially connected, pre-empt the notion of the avant-garde which held sway over radical artistic culture for much of the following century. If the definition of the avant-garde involves a radical, collective aesthetic vision infused with utopian political aims, then Morris's and his companions' activities certainly fit the bill.
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.

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