William Morris – A History

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The Firm Expands: Shops and Exhibitions

Morris & Co. opened shops in Manchester in 1883, and in May of 1887 the firm exhibited at The Manchester Royal Jubilee Exhibition, where they exhibited a number of Morris & Co. designs, including two tapestry panels: St Cecilia and St Agnes. The Manchester Guardian (28 June) recorded:

“William Morris, poet, designer, manufacturer and socialist [is showing] his wares… To walk through the rooms which he has furnished is to be converted on the spot to any theories that such a magician may happen to hold.”

The Firm’s commissions for stained glass took them all over Britain. In September 1886 Morris visited Edinburgh where he went to visit the recently installed Morris & Co. window `Crossing the River Jordan’ in St Giles Cathedral.  Morris himself observed:

“Our window is fine & looks a queer contrast with its glittering jewel-like colour to the daubs about it.”

The first Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society show opened at the New Gallery in Regent Street. The exhibit opened on October 4, 1888 and ran until December 15. Morris & Co. exhibited furniture, fabrics, carpets and embroideries.

Morris visited Kelmscott Manor in October of 1888 where he had trees delivered for a new orchard. In December the same year, he visited Stanmore Hall near Harrow on business:

“Our client sent his carriage to meet me and I couldn’t help laughing to see the men I met touching their hats, clearly not to me, but to it.”

Morris & Co.’s work on Stanmore Hall was to continue from 1888 to 1896. They redecorated several rooms, and used St. James’s Damask silk wallcovering, among other designs. In the mid-1890s the company’s weavers were at work on Burne-Jones designs for a series of six Arthurian tapestries for Stanmore Hall.

Morris in later life

Morris in later life

Throughout the 1880’s Morris was a passionate speechmaker. He delivered lectures regularly at Clubs, institutions and in the open air on the topics of art and design, architectural restoration and building preservation, and Socialism.

The Kelmscott Press

Morris’ interests in writing and typography went back as far as the 1860’s. Morris started the Kelmscott Press in 1890, both for publishing his own work, and providing an outlet for his passionate interest in graphic design. He drew the elaborate borders and initials for the books himself, though he would ask others to provide illustrations for the publications.

A page printed by the Kelmscott Press.  Morris wrote the poems, and drew the decorative border and initials that graced the pages.

A page printed by the Kelmscott Press. Morris wrote the poems, and drew the decorative border and initials that graced the pages.

By 1890, with his interests diverted by his publishing projects, Morris started to withdraw from regular participation in the work of Morris & Co. though he carried on with special projects.

Morris and Burne-Jones completed the tapestry Adoration of the Magi in 1890, though it had been commissioned four years previously by Exeter College, Oxford, for their chapel. During the early 1890’s Morris kept up with a busy lecturing schedule, his own writing and his many publishing interests at the Kelmscott Press.

Family Concerns

Morris’ personal life also began to take its toll on his health. His marriage to Jane was never stable, and did not provide a good foundation for a happy home.

He had two daughters. The first was Jenny, an epileptic in poor health who had several serious health scares. His second daughter, May, married in 1890, but her marriage had broken down by 1894 and she was divorced in 1898. May was a talented artist, and managed Morris & Co.’s embroidery department.  She also designed one version of Honeysuckle wallpaper in 1883 (Morris himself designed another version) and later lectured in the United States. Neither of the daughters had children.

By 1891, Morris’ health was deteriorating. Jane wrote:

“My husband has been very ill, the shock of Jenny’s illness was too much for him, and he broke down entirely a few days afterwards – he is much better, but not nearly recovered… Jenny has made a miraculous recovery.”

Morris himself noted his general weakness and expressed anxiety about his own health:

“I am ashamed to say that I am not as well as I should like, and am even such a fool as to be rather anxious – about myself this time.”

Even with feeling poorly, Morris kept up his activities, catching over fifty fish from a punt in the Thames in 1892, going to dinner with friends, and trying out new wallpaper backgrounds with colleagues. The Firm continued its production, including weaving.

This tapestry, which is known as “The Arming and Departure of the Knights”, was one of three woven tapestries from 1895-96, and installed at Compton Hall near Wolverhampton.

The original of this tapestry is at the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery.  It is available in reproduction from www.CharlesRupertDesigns.com

The original of this tapestry is at the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery. 

Even with failing health, Morris kept busy. On June 18, 1896, he and a friend went to France for the day, and in late July, he took a steamer to Norway for a trip of nearly four weeks that proved detrimental to his health.

Throughout 1896 Morris’ health was becoming worse. Jane Morris wrote again:

“My husband has been unwell all winter, but the last few weeks there seemed fresh cause for anxiety he looked so very ill, and the worst is that no doctor has discovered anything very wrong with him.”

In June of that year, Jane again wrote:

“the fits of prostration are startling from time to time and the loss of flesh goes on”.

She visited Dr. Playfair who said in his view:

“the disease was being William Morris and working 18 hours a day”.

Death of a Great Man

William Morris died peacefully at eleven-fifteen in the morning of Saturday, October 3, 1896 at Kelmscott House in London.

The family doctor pronounced that he had:

“died a victim of his enthusiasm for spreading the principles of Socialism”.

Another doctor stated:

“The Disease is simple being William Morris, and having done more work than most ten men.”

Georgiana Burne-Jones who – along with wife Jane, daughter May, Detmar Blow, and Mary De Morgan – was by his bedside, said he died “as gently, as quietly as a babe who is satisfied drops from its mother’s breast.”

Mary De Morgan and Emery Walker traveled to Kelmscott to break the news to Morris’ daughter Jenny. Later in the day Fairfax Murray made two drawings of the body.

On Tuesday October 6, 1896, Morris’s remains were transported by a privately hired train to Lechlade station. There, four countrymen dressed in moleskin bore the body to an open cart festooned with vines,  alder and bulrushes.

William Morris’ coffin was of unpolished oak with wrought-iron handles. He was buried in the churchyard at Kelmscott.

William Morris' Grave at Kelmscott churchyard. Jane is buried with him.

William Morris’ Grave at Kelmscott churchyard. Jane is buried with him.

Cunninghame Graham, in remembering Morris’ passing, wrote:

“dust to dust fell idly on my ears, and in its stead a vision of the England which he dreamed of filled my mind.”