William Morris

William Morris (1834-1896), one of the most versatile and influential men of his age, was the last of the major English romantics and a leading champion and promoter of revolutionary ideas as poet, critic, artist, designer, manufacturer, and socialist.

Born at Walthamstow, Essex, on March 24, 1834, William Morris was the eldest son of a bill and discount broker with wealth and status approaching those of a private banker. Nature and reading were the passions of William's childhood, and the novels of Walter Scott inspired him with an abiding love of the Middle Ages. Morris was educated at Marlborough and Exeter College, Oxford, where he formed a close friendship with Edward Burne-Jones.

Originally intended for holy orders, Morris decided to take up the "useful trade" of architect after reading Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin, and he was apprenticed to G.E. Street, who had a considerable ecclesiastical practice, in 1856. But Burne-Jones introduced him to the group of artists known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and by the end of the year Dante Gabriel Rossetti had advised him to become a painter, which he did.

In 1859 Morris married Jane Burden, a Rossetti-type beauty; they had two daughters, Jane and Mary (May). In 1861 he founded the firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company to carry out in furniture, decoration, and the applied arts the artistic concepts of his friends. In 1875 Morris reorganized the firm and became sole owner. He himself designed furniture (the Morris chair has become a classic), wallpaper, and textiles.

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Literary Career

Morris's literary career had commenced at Oxford, where he wrote prose romances for the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine. His fame was confined to a small circle of admirers until The Earthy Paradise (3 vols., 1868-1870) established him as a major romantic poet. He chose the device of legendary poems from classical and medieval sources recited by Norwegian seamen who had sailed westward to find the earthly paradise.

In 1868 Morris took up the study of Icelandic, published a translation of the Grettis Saga with the assistance of Eiríkr Magnússon (1869), and visited Iceland in 1871 and 1873. Morris also translated The Aeneids (sic; 1875), the Odyssey (1887), Beowulf (1895), and Old French Romances (1896). He regarded as his finest literary achievement Sigurd the Volsung, and Fall of the Niblungs (1876), his own retelling in verse of the Icelandic prose Volsunga saga, a version J. W. Mackail (1899) described as "the most Homeric poem which has been written since Homer."

His Politics

Morris first entered the arena of politics in 1876 to attack Disraeli's Tory government and call for British intervention against the Turks for savagely suppressing a nationalist revolt of oppressed Bulgarians. In his appeal To the Working Men of England (1877) he denounced capitalist selfishness on grounds that appealed to both Liberals and Communists. The debate on Morris as a Socialist has given rise to a considerable literature, for the nobility of his utterances led almost every political camp to claim him, including orthodox Marxists. In 1886 Friedrich Engels described him scornfully as "a settled sentimental Socialist." A year later, in ignorance of this criticism, Morris wrote to a friend that he had an Englishman's horror of government interference and centralization, "which some of our friends who are built in the German pattern are not quite enough afraid of I think."

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Arts and Crafts Movement

From a series of notable homes—the Red House, Upton, Kent; Kelmscott Manor on the upper Thames; and Kelmscott House, Morris's London house from 1878—he carried on a prodigious activity as a public speaker, member of committees and radical organizations, and leader of the Arts and Craft movement. He founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877 and the Kelmscott press in 1890. He died at Kelmscott House on Oct. 3, 1896.

Morris's plea for an integrated society in which everything made by man should be beautiful radically distinguishes him from other social theorists. His insistence on beauty as a central goal makes most modern approaches to a welfare society seem lacking in an essential nobility. For him art was the very highest of realities, the spontaneous expression of the pleasure of life innate in the whole people. An esthetic doctrine underlies his most political writings, like The Dream of John Ball (1888). Paradoxically, the designer-manufacturer who failed to grasp the esthetic possibilities of the machine was the father of modern industrial design, which aims to create a beautiful environment for mankind freed from poverty. A notable advance on his theory was made by the Bauhaus, the famed school of architecture and applied art in Germany, where Walter Gropius and his colleagues applied Morris's principles to the machine and scientific technology.

Further Reading on William Morris

The Collected Works of William Morris (24 vols., 1910-1915) was edited by his daughter May, and The Letters of William Morris to His Family and Friends (1950) was edited by Philip Henderson. The classic work on Morris is J. W. Mackail, The Life of William Morris (2 vols., 1899; repr. 1968, 1995). A readable narrative biography with excellent illustrations is Philip Henderson, William Morris: His Life, Work and Friends (1967). An outstanding, comprehensive study is Edward P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (1955). Paul Thompson, The Work of William Morris (1967), deals especially with Morris's art in relation to its Victorian background and discusses his writings and social theory in the light of recent research. R. Page Arnot, William Morris: The Man and His Myth (1964), is an ingenious attempt to claim Morris as an orthodox Marxist.

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Additional Biography Sources

Bloomfield, Paul, William Morris, Philadelphia: R. West, 1978.

Bradley, Ian C., William Morris and his world, London: Thames and Hudson, 1978.

Cary, Elisabeth Luther, William Morris, poet, craftsman, socialist, Philadelphia: R. West, 1978, 1902.

Faulkner, Peter, Against the age: an introduction to William Morris, London; Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1980.

Harvey, Charles, William Morris: design and enterprise in Victorian Britain, Manchester England; New York: Manchester University Press; New York, NY, USA: Distributed exclusively in the USA and Canada by St. Martin's Press, 1991.

Lindsay, Jack, William Morris: his life and work, New York: Taplinger Pub. Co., 1979, 1975.

MacCarthy, Fiona, William Morris: a life for our time, New York: Knopf, 1995.

Vallance, Aymer, William Morris, his art, his writings, and his public life: a record, Boston: Longwood Press, 1977.