Founder of the English Arts and Crafts movement, William Morris was one of the most influential figures of Victorian art and design. A pre-Raphaelite artist, writer and textile designer, his name is synonymous with the beautiful Arts and Crafts furniture , textiles and artworks which flourish in England today.
Born in Walthamstow, Essex, in 1834, William Morris had a privileged upbringing, being educated at Marlborough School before attending Oxford University. Originally intending to study theology, he migrated to the arts after becoming drawn to socialism. Wanting to embed socialist ideologies into his work, he abandoned painting for architecture and design, associating with artists of the pre-Raphaelite movement. This had a profound influence on his artistic designs.
In 1861 Morris founded Britain’s first design company, which became Morris and Co. Together with his pre-Raphaelite associates he transformed the staid world of Victorian design, introducing new concepts in style and colour. Inspired by Mediaeval art, he eschewed the machine-made regularity of Victorian mass-production; instead each piece was handcrafted to reflect the individuality of the craftsman.
The company produced Arts and Crafts furniture, textiles, tiles, stained glass and wallpaper, embellished with organic forms such as vines, fruit trees, birds and Celtic animals. Each member of the company worked in a specific area of expertise; for example furniture such as Victorian antique dining chairs and cabinets was designed by Philip Webb, who also made tiles and metal ware. Jane Burden, the beautiful pre-Raphaelite model who became Morris’ wife, was taught to fashion embroideries by her husband.
In later years, the company opened new premises at Merton Abbey Mills, where their famous tapestries were woven. A prolific writer, Morris also founded the Kelmscott Press, which produced traditionally crafted, beautifully illuminated versions of classic works.
William Morris died in 1896. A staunch socialist to the last, it seems strange that his beautifully crafted works were too costly for the common man. However, he had an enormous impact on Victorian design in general. Today, arts and crafts pieces such as antique marquetry furniture are accessible to all.