Perpetuating the memory of one of the greatest men of the Victorian age

About William Morris

William Morris (24 March 1834 – 3 October 1896) was a revolutionary force in Victorian Britain: his work as an artist, designer, craftsman, writer and socialist dramatically changed the fashions and ideologies of the era.

On 24 March 1834 at Elm House, Walthamstow, William Morris was born to affluent parents Emma Morris (nee Shelton) and William Morris Snr, who by this point was a senior partner at brokers firm Sanderson & Co. His success with the firm led to the family moving, in 1840 to Woodford Hall in Essex, with their four young children. They had eight children in total, who survived until adulthood, and moved again to the Water House in Walthamstow, following William Morris Snr’s untimely death in 1847. By all accounts, Morris enjoyed an idyllic childhood growing up in the countryside, playing with his siblings and reading books as obscure as The Arabian Nights and John Gerard’s Herball, showing his early interests in both nature and storytelling. His natural ability in reading and writing went hand-in-hand with his developing interest in the wildlife and flowers surrounding him, and this love of the natural world would have a growing influence on his work.

Morris was privately educated from 13, at Marlborogh College, before matriculating to read Theology at Exeter College, Oxford, in 1853. He was swayed from his initial intention of taking holy orders by the social commentaries of writers such as Thomas Carlyle, Charles Kingsley and John Ruskin. After university he trained as an architect, married Jane Burden, and developed close friendships with the Pre-Raphaelite artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones, with whom he formed a deep and lasting friendship. The two fostered in him an increasing interest in art and architecture. This was the beginning of a remarkable career spanning several disciplines – artist, author, craftsman, and social activist.

Morris would become one of the most significant figures in the arts and crafts movement, a man of far ranging creativity and knowledge. His friend Philip Webb designed Morris a family home, Red House in Kent, where the latter lived from 1859 to 1865, before relocating to Bloomsbury, central London. Morris founded his firm Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co in 1861 with Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Webb, and others. They were a group of like-minded artists and craftsmen responding to the shoddy practises of much of the Victorian manufacturing. The firm fast became highly fashionable and much in demand, and it profoundly influenced interior decoration throughout the Victorian period, with Morris designing tapestries, wallpaper, fabrics, furniture, and stained glass windows. In 1875, Morris assumed total control of the company, which was renamed Morris & Co and it subsequently traded until 1940, its longevity a testament to the success of Morris’s designs,

From 1871 Morris rented the rural retreat of Kelmscott Manor, Oxfordshire. He moved his London home to Kelmscott House, the current home of the Society, in 1878. Alongside his work for the firm, Morris produced a series of English-language translations of Icelandic sagas with Eiríkr Magnússon, as he was greatly inspired by his visits to Iceland. He also achieved success with the publication of his epic poems and novels, namely 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). In 1877 he founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings to campaign against the damage caused by Victorian architectural ‘restoration’.

Embracing Marxism and influenced by anarchism, in the 1880s Morris became a committed revolutionary socialist activist. In 1883 Morris joined the Democratic Federation (soon to be renamed the Social Democratic Federation (S.D.F.)). In December 1884, with the support of Friedrich Engels, Morris and eight out of the ten members of the executive of the S.D.F. resigned and set up the Socialist League. Morris’s Coach House at Kelmscott House then became the meeting place of the Hammersmith Socialist League, where speakers such as Peter Kropotkin, George Bernard Shaw and many other socialist pioneers lectured, usually followed by a rigorous debate lead by Morris. Morris left the Socialist League at the end of 1890 and continued to work in the Hammersmith Socialist Society, which was formed around the Hammersmith branch of the Socialist League.

In 1891 he founded the Kelmscott Press to publish limited-edition illustrated books. It was a cause that he devoted his last years to, and the Kelmscott Chaucer, the press’s greatest book, was completed shortly before he died.

 

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