William Morris (1834-1896) was one of the most celebrated designers in British history, and his influence still lives with us today. He was a master of many areas of Victorian design, including textiles. Many fine stately homes display examples of his embroidery, carpets, tapestry, and wallpapers.
What influence did William Morris’ values have on his work?
Morris was one of the founding figures of the Arts and Crafts Movement, which rejected mass-produced goods in favour of hand-crafted products. He objected to the rapid industrialisation of the era, where machinery was used on a large scale for the first time in factories.
Employees often endured inhumane working conditions, with low wages, long hours, few if any health and safety measures, and few legal protections and rights. There was also little in the way of environmental regulation, and cities were choked with smoke and smog, and rivers filled with sewage from the influx of migrating populations.
Morris and his group of likeminded contemporaries believed in social justice, and also the superiority of products that had been made with some creative input from the worker. There is a revival of these attitudes today, as the climate emergency and the inequities of the fast fashion industry are driving the trend for artisan or vintage clothes and homeware.
The first artisan interior design company?
Initially Morris, who was from a wealthy London family, studied at Oxford University with the intention of taking up a career in the Church. However, while at Oxford, Morris met the painter Edward Burne-Jones, who introduced him to the forward-thinking artistic set who would go down in history as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
Morris then embarked on a career as an artist, and married a woman named Jane Burden. They moved to Red House in rural Kent, and set about furnishing and decorating it themselves, and with the help of their social circle. The house was decorated with hand-embroidered curtains, wall-hangings, fire-screens, cushion covers, bed covers, and murals.
Out of this endeavour, the Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co interiors company was born. They steadily built up a good reputation, and acquired commissions to decorate churches, homes, and public buildings with their distinctive medieval-inspired craftwork.
Inspiration from nature
Eventually, it became impractical to run the business from Kent, so Morris and his wife moved back to London. However, he continued to be inspired by nature in his work. He meticulously researched historical printing and dyeing methods in order to produce his wallpapers, which are influenced by the English countryside and gardens.
By now, the highly successful business was renamed Morris & Company, the V&A website explains. From 1875 onwards, he fully committed himself to interior design, producing 32 printed fabrics, 23 woven fabrics and 21 wallpapers, as well as other textile designs for carpets and rugs.
The flowers which are a recurring motif in many of Morris’ designs are common varieties that can be typically seen in any British garden, such as tulips, irises, delphinium, larkspur, thistles, honeysuckles, and roses. Other designs feature fruits, leaves, and garden birds.
Experiments with woven cloth
Morris acquired a proficiency with the looms required to produce woven textiles for carpets, curtains, and furniture coverings. He experimented with silk, mohair, and wool to great success, and his designs proved popular with the public. His influences ranged from early medieval tapestries to 16th century Italian silks.
Morris also had a passion for tapestry, and painstakingly taught himself the art, on top of all his other work commitments, often getting up at first light to work in his bedroom. According to the V&A, his first completed tapestry was Acanthus and Vine, which took him 516 hours!
William Morris’ lasting legacy
Today, textiles influenced by Morris’ exquisite natural patterns and rich use of colour are enjoying a revival. Some commentators have described this trend as ‘cottagecore’ or ‘granny chic’. The theme can be seen in the style of window dressings, bedding, cushions, and kitchenware, as well as in a wider focus on sustainability and social consciousness.
The chicest British hotels proudly display William Morris wallpaper prints, and the appetite for his beautiful nature inspired designs seems to be insatiable.
A famous and often repeated Morris quote is: 'Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.' This advice seems to be chiming with people more than ever before.
Although Morris was also an acclaimed writer, poet, political campaigner and thinker, he will always be most celebrated for his enduring contribution to the world of textile design.
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