William Morris – A History
© Stuart Stark, Heritage Consultant
The talents and many accomplishments of William Morris (1834 – 1896) defy easy summary. He was a remarkable designer of home furnishings, and he is generally acknowledged as the father of the Arts & Crafts movement in both Britain and America. His designs are still in production over 100 years after his death and they still influence people today.
William Morris was born into a well-off family on March 24, 1834, at Elm House, Walthamstow, England.
In September 1848 The Morris family moved to Water House, in what is now Forest Road, Walthamstow, Essex. Since 1950 Water House has housed the William Morris Gallery.
Meeting Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rosetti
In January 1853 Morris went to Exeter College, Oxford, to study theology. He met Edward Burne-Jones who became a life-long friend and design collaborator in many design projects.
The two of them, with another friend, traveled in 1855 to France visiting cathedrals and enjoying French life.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti had occupied the same rooms in the days of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Morris and Burne-Jones later designed – and had made – their own furniture for their lodgings. This endeavor presaged the two friends’ later collaborations.
Shortly after they moved in Rossetti wrote:
“Morris is rather doing the magnificent there, and is having some intensely medieval furniture made – tables and chairs like incubi and succubi. He and I have painted the back of a chair with figures and inscriptions in gules and vert and azure, and we are all three going to cover a cabinet with pictures.”
Burne-Jones wrote (in November):
“Topsy [Morris] has had some furniture (chairs and table) made after his own design; they are as beautiful as medieval work, and when we have painted designs of knights and ladies upon them they will be perfect marvels.”
Marrying Jane Burden
In 1858, Morris proposed to Jane Burden, the daughter of a local stableman, They married on April 26, 1859 and embarked on a six week honeymoon. At the time of their marriage, Morris was living at 13 George Street.
In 1859, Phillip Webb, friend and architect designed Red House for the Morris family. They moved into the house at Bexleyheath, Kent in June of 1860. Only ten miles from London, the house was built on an acre in a rural setting, and cost £ 4,000. to build.
Red House, due to its innovative design, became a starting point for the Arts & Crafts movement in England.
The front door at Red House. Over the door is a painted Latin inscription: “Dominus custodiat exitum tuum et introitum tuum” which is a verse from the Psalms 128:8. It translates as follows: The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in.
The few years that the Morris’ lived at Red House were busy and productive. It was the time for the cooperation of friends in what became one of the major and most influential design firms in the world.
Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co.
In January of 1861, Rossetti wrote to William Allingham:
“We are organising … a company for the production of furniture and decoration of all kinds, for the sale of which we are going to open an actual shop! The men concerned are Madox Brown, Jones, Topsy [William Morris], Webb (the architect of T[opsy]’s house), P P Marshall, Faulkner, and myself…. We expect to start in some shape about May or June, but not to go to any expense in premises at first.”
Burne-Jones, in Mackail’s Notebooks, is recorded as saying
“It was DGR’s [Rosetti’s] idea; he saw money in it.”
On April 11, 1861 Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. opened for business.
In 1862 The Firm took two stands at the International Exhibition held at the South Kensington Museum. They exhibited stained-glass at one stand, and furniture, tapestries and embroideries at the other, in “the style of the Middle Ages”, a harbinger for the direction of the future direction of the Firm
By early 1864 Morris’ contribution and leadership was becoming evident. He was suggesting that the Firm could move from Red Lion Square to Red House. He also planned to build an extension to Red House for the Burne-Joneses to live in.
The First Wallpapers
Shortly afterwards, in February of 1864, the designs for the first Morris wallpapers were registered. Trellis was based on the rose trellis at Red House, with Burne-Jones supplying the drawings for the birds, and Daisy, undoubtedly influenced by the flowers in the surrounding fields. Jeffery & Co. of Islington in London were contracted to print these wallpapers.
Red House is now owned by The National Trust. Red House is being restored, and is open for visiting.