William Morris, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Arts and Crafts Movement

3 October 1896: The artistic all-rounder William Morris, associate of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood and father of the Arts and Crafts Movement, died in London.

“With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on.“ (William Morris)

William Morris: "The Attainment: The Vision of the Holy Grail to Sir Galahad, Sir Bors, and Sir Perceval ", the last of the six "Holy Grail Tapestries" woven by Morris & co between 1891 - 1894

If it wouldn’t mean to make a severe faux pas calling a Pre-Raphaelite artist a Renaissance man, Morris can at least be described as a polymath. He was an architect and a textile designer and cabinetmaker who designed wall papers and furniture on top of it, a painter and illustrator, a poet and author, had enough engineering skills to build his own printing press, a successful businessman and factory owner and founder of the British Socialist League. And almost every artistic and even political venture he undertook was inspired by his notion of the highly romanticised and idealised Middle Ages, not only in depicting scenes of courtly love and chivalry and quasi-medieval pattern in various media, but especially by taking pride in every aspect of high-skilled craftsmanship that contributed to create a thing of magnificent beauty, epitomised in the Gothic cathedral as a counterdraft to the alienated and degradingly mechanised division of labour in the fabrication process of the rampant Industrial Age and its mass production of disposable articles.

Frontispiece and opening page of William Morris' "The Wood Beyond the World" (1894)

Morris was born into money, had his head full of Romantic ideas already at an early age and actually was designated to study theology in Oxford, where he met with his lifelong friend, the artist Edward Burne-Jones and both fell for the Pre-Raphaelite movement, Morris decided to become an architect, they met Rossetti in London who was of the opinion that he should rather paint than build and Morris did both. And write and design. He was a man of nearly inexhaustible energy. In 1857, he met the working class beauty Jane Burden who already had attracted the attention of both Burne-Jones and Rossetti, she became the model for the murals of the Old Library of the Oxford Union building, Morris was immediately smitten and the rich gentleman made the girl, who was destined to be a domestic servant at best, an offer she simply couldn’t refuse – they married in 1858, even though she admittedly never loved him. Mrs Morris remained the muse of her husband as well as Rossetti’s and became an icon of Pre-Raphaelite paintings as well as something of an Eliza Doolittle in the Pygmalion-like relationship with all the highly educated and overexcited artists in her immediate vicinity.

 A view of his Red House, Bexleyheath, London, the family home he designed, built and furnished along the lines of his vision of the beauty of a medieval image transported into the late 19th century, together with his friends, the architect Philip Webb and Edward Burn-Jones, summing up his maxim “If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.*

The fascination for the Middle Ages that lead to follies like dining in a mail hauberk Morris had manufactured from a local blacksmith found, of course, expression in his writing of poems and novels as well and his prose romances made him a pioneer of fantastic literature. C.S. Lewis and Tolkien were highly influenced and even Joyce didn’t turn a blind eye to it. His social romantics were probably motivated by similar motives as many of his artistic ideas – to create a beautiful society with craftsmen instead of alienated workers who created things of beauty. He remained an entrepreneur though and production processes of his profitable firm Morris & Co. that produced furnishings and decorative arts until 1940 were usually up to date and neither medieval workshop-like nor a socialist cooperative. All in all, the appreciation and reception of Morris, who was trendsetting in many directions, gets a bit lost in the sum of all his endeavours and achievements, the fate of many jacks of all trades.

* picture form wikimedia commons -http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Red_House_home_of_William_Morris_(1).jpg)

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