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

A taster: 

This is a short taster of our first online exhibition, Highlights from the William Morris Society’s Collection, that ran from May to September 2020. This exhibition explored twenty unique objects from our collection that illustrate how Morris became one of the most significant figures in the Arts and Crafts Movement.

“History has remembered the kings and warriors, because they destroyed; art has remembered the people, because they created.” – William Morris

William Morris (1834 – 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. Morris was born to an affluent family in Walthamstow, near London. He studied at the University of Oxford with the initial intention of joining the clergy, but altered course to a life of creative occupation. Morris developed friendships with the Pre-Raphaelite artists Philip Webb and Edward Burne-Jones, both of whom fostered and would contribute to Morris’s artistic pursuits.

In 1861, Morris and a group of like-minded individuals founded the design company Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. The firm was born out of a desire to improve poor practises in Victorian decorative manufacturing and produced a wide range of goods, including tapestries, wallpaper, fabrics, furniture, and stained-glass windows. The company saw great success and was influential in establishing the Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain. Morris assumed sole control in 1875, at which point it was renamed Morris & Co. and it subsequently traded until 1940. Included in this exhibition are several rare original designs by Morris, such as ‘Windrush’, which encapsulates his emphasis on creating hand-crafted works, a principle held firmly against the mainstream focus on industrialised ‘progress’ of the time.

Alongside his work for the firm, Morris achieved success as an author, publishing poetry and novels, such as News from Nowhere. In later life Morris became a seminal force in the private press movement, founding the Kelmscott Press in 1891 to publish limited-edition books, including the Kelmscott Chaucer. Morris sought to show that by adding “beautiful ornament and pictures, printed books might once again illustrate that a work of utility might also be a work of art”.

Highlights from the William Morris Society’s Collection illustrates the diverse interests that William Morris passionately pursued in his lifetime. Morris had a profound admiration for craftsmanship, utilising and reviving traditional methods of dyeing and printing. Morris’s process of making extended to more than an idea of material craft; he believed that labour itself should be valued and that the learning of manual skills made for a well-rounded life. He believed in the value of good design for the maker as well as the consumer.

The attention to craft and making animate Morris’s patterns, poems, literature, politics and printing, and a belief that the designer should have a working knowledge of a wide variety of mediums. He was constantly teaching himself different processes and experimenting with new techniques. Morris’s ideas about how we might live and work creatively remain relevant in our own age.

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