The Timeless Designs of William Morris

Textiles play a vital role in decorating our homes. How different a house would look without rugs, quilts, pillows, and gorgeous fabrics on chairs, couches, ottomans, and hanging from windows. It was William Morris who brought an expanded understanding of how textiles could beautify a home’s interior. Morris’ designs were a dramatic contrast to the stuffy and sometimes overwrought heaviness of Victorian interiors, and today they remain as vivid and fashionable as when he first produced them. Morris famously advised, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

William Morris

If ever a creative artist embodied the precepts of the Arts and Crafts movement, it was its leader, William Morris (1834-96). He was a tremendously gifted, multi-talented Englishman who was equally adept at designing textiles, embroidering a wall hanging, or doing a cutting-edge interior design. He was also an accomplished dyer, calligrapher, and architectural preservationist (more than a century before it became popular). To that we can add that Morris was a poet and translated as well as wrote books, designed type, typeset, and bound books for the Kelmscott Press, the book company he founded in 1891. William Morris was a Victorian Renaissance man.

Born into a well-to-do family (his businessman father died when he was just 13), Morris attended Exeter College, Oxford. It was there that he met painters Edward Burne-Jones and then Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and together they founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of idealists and creative artists who looked for inspiration to the art and culture of the Middle Ages before the time of Renaissance painter Raphael.

The Brotherhood was focused on the importance of studying nature; having a deep sympathy for art from an earlier time; and the desire to create and elevate art through their paintings. Finally, the Pre-Raphaelites were also deeply concerned about contemporary social ills, particularly those of the new industrialization and wanted to create art that would inspire the best in people. All these ideas became the center of Morris’s own creative quest.

Morris the Designer

In 1855, Morris traveled to France for the first time and visited many of the great medieval cathedrals, including Bayeaux, Châtres, Amiens, Rouen, and Beauvais. This enhanced his love of medieval times; and the following year he was writing about “medieval style” – as he saw it through the prism of his Victorian eyes.

That same year, in a letter to his mother, the 21-year-old William Morris wrote: “I do not hope to be great at all in anything, but perhaps I might reasonably hope to be happy in my work, and sometimes when I am idle and doing nothing, pleasant visions go past me of the things that might be.”

As he began formulating his ideas and his “visions that…might be,” Morris evolved deep concerns about social issues, how society was structured, and how the Industrial Revolution was changing the way things were made. He felt workers no longer took pride in their work, leading to an abundance of poorly made items. Later, Morris would become the founder of the Socialist League.

In 1856, Morris and Burne-Jones rented unfurnished rooms in Red Lion Square in London. Unable to find furniture that met their aesthetic tastes, they began designing and making their own. This project got Morris involved in embroidery.

Morris believed that a designer had to be thoroughly familiar with all the necessary techniques for any given medium, so he learned the techniques of embroidery including how to dye wool with plant-based colors so that a piece would look like a medieval wall hanging.

In 1857, Morris designed and embroidered “If I Can,” an early wall hanging, in wools that he had dyed himself and then embroidered on a linen canvas. The title expressed Morris’s lifelong determination to see his creations through from idea to finished work, and to become skilled in every stage of the process.

Morris’ vision of the decorative arts continued to expand, as he saw how people lived with everyday objects. He repeatedly looked to medieval times and to nature’s bounty, and desired to bring their spirit into the life of his day. It was these creative projects that led Morris and his friends to establishing their decorative arts firm.

The “Firm”

In 1861, Morris and a group of friends formed a business that they called Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company. “The Firm,” as the company was known, was composed of co-founders of the Pre-Raphaelite movement and became a collective of artists and craftsman. The Firm created its own highly skilled cooperative workshop to exemplify everything that was outstanding in the decorative arts. This gave Morris added creative outlets for designing and producing wallpaper, stained glass, textiles, tapestries, ceramic tiles, furniture, and carpets.

Morris’s ideas were turned into exquisite, stylized designs that became his “signature.” He noted: “the rose, the lily, the tulip, the oak, the vine, and all herbs and trees…will serve our turn better than…upside down growths. If we can’t be original with these simple things, we shan’t help ourselves to uncouth ones.”

This was the realization of Morris’ dream to have a business that would elevate craftsmanship and beauty as the common goals for decorating a home. He wrote that he “wished to revive a sense of beauty in home life, to restore the dignity of art to ordinary household decoration.” It was here that the Firm’s creativity took on an expanded, new meaning for Victorians. The Firm’s first flyer noted:
“The growth of Decorative Art in this country…has now reached a point at which it seems desirable that Artists of reputation should devote their time to it…The Artists having for many years been deeply attached to the study of Decorative Art of all times and countries, have felt more than most people the want of some one place where they could obtain…works of a genuine and beautiful character. [We] have, therefore, established…as a firm for the production of Mural Decoration, Carving, Stained Glass, Metal Work, and Furniture.”

The Firm also expanded the traditional Victorian view that only men should be involved in business. From the very beginning, wives, sisters, and daughters all became part of the decorating team; and they were actively occupied with design projects.

A customer could come to the Firm for complete interior design services – an early version of one-stop shopping. It was a new and ambitious concept. Visitors flocked to see what was then a cutting-edge public space. “The Green Room,” designed between 1866 and 1869 for the South Kensington Museum, now the Victoria and Albert Museum, is one of the few surviving examples.

The room shows a series of three-paneled divisions, above which are four smaller panels of various wallpaper designs. The unifying motifs (beside the color) are the variety of plant designs: leaves, berries, branches, and flowers. Glass chandeliers above and stained-glass panels bring a lightness to the room, so that visitors felt “at home” in a public space.
The year after the Firm was established, in 1862, the company won gold medals for embroideries and stained glass at the International Exhibition. These were followed by a new line of exquisite, hand-made wallpaper and hand-painted tiles, metal work, and jewelry.

The Firm was a collaborative effort that from the beginning included Morris’ own family. He had married Jane Burden in 1858, and soon she, and later their daughter May, and other friends, embroidered many of the home furnishings that were part of the Firm’s stock.
As the company expanded, it experienced financial problems. Finally, Morris re-organized it, becoming the sole owner in 1875 under the new name of Morris and Company. This change in leadership gave Morris the opportunity to see his creative visions completed in exactly the way he wanted. He put his daughter May, a gifted designer and embroiderer herself, in charge of the embroidery department. She wrote and lectured extensively about embroidery. In 1893, her book for beginners, Decorative Needlework, was published. May championed women as independent artists, and in 1907 was a founder of the Women’s Guild of Arts.

Textiles

From the very beginning of his career, Morris saw that a home needed to have a larger palette of decorative ideas. For Morris and the Firm that meant using textiles in new ways: embroidered bed-hangings, screens, and coverings for chairs, settees, beds, and windows.
Hand-loomed tapestries were a popular product of the Firm. Morris, who abhorred mechanically made tapestries, was keen to learn how to weave on old looms to revive this ancient craft. This was another one of his passions. From 1878 until four years before his death, Morris exerted much of his creative energy to learn all he could about warp-tapestry weaving. It was a slow process and production costs were high. Nonetheless, Morris thought it was “the noblest of the weaving arts.”

On his earlier visit to France, Morris had seen medieval tapestries, whose original purpose had been to insulate cold stone walls, as well as to bring beauty into the house. To research these lost warp-loom techniques, Morris traveled again to France to visit the famed Gobelins factory. Not satisfied with what he learned, William Morris then read an old French weaving book to find more answers. He returned to London and taught several apprentices on looms he bought.

After 1881, Morris and Company was able to increase its production of textiles and tapestries when they acquired a rural site at Merton Abbey (near Wimbledon). “The Orchard” is an example of one of the tapestries woven in 1890. Done in wool on silk, it depicts four medieval maidens surrounded by the beauty of plants. As with all Morris’ textiles, this tapestry shows the vibrancy of plant colors with botanical accuracy in a beautiful design.

Morris continued to experiment with natural, plant-based dyes, which were then becoming endangered by the expanding use of aniline chemical dyes. Morris needed specific shades for the wools and silk embroidery yarns that kept the vivid plant hues. He used old dyer’s manuals from France and England to source original recipes for vegetable dyes. One of his favorite books was the famous 1597 Herball by John Gerard. Later in her life, May Morris remembered, as a small child, poring over pager after page of the Herball, with its woodcut botanical drawings, with her famous father.

In this textile research, William Morris revived an ancient art and created his own dye recipes. Plants became a valuable source for the vibrant textile colors he developed, such as brown from walnut hulls and roots; yellow from poplar and birch trees; and marvelous blues from indigo and woad plants.

The Royal School of Needlework

At the time that Morris and Company was getting under way, the Royal School of Needlework was established, and the association between the two institutions was to prove close and productive.

As the Industrial Revolution belched out its pollution, the poor had to work long hours in terrible conditions. Wages were abysmally low. The Royal School of Needlework was founded in 1872 for poor girls and women to provide a means of support in a safer and healthier environment. The founder was Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Christian of Schleswig-Holstein, and only three years after opening its doors, the school employed more than 100 women embroidering new designs, repairing old pieces of needlework and completing commissions of new ecclesiastical embroideries. It also embroidered designs by Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, and others within the Arts and Crafts Movement.

William Morris was an advisor to the school and visited regularly. The core mission of the school was “to restore ornamental needlework for secular places and the high place it once held among the decorative arts.” Its standard of excellence helped bring about an international movement for the fine art of needlework. In 1876, the Royal School of Needlework exhibited at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. The excitement the school’s presence generated there was so great for American needlewomen that it helped to establish the first New York Society of Decorative Arts – among whose founders was Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Morris and Today’s Interiors

William Morris died in 1896, but Morris and Company stayed in business into the twentieth century, and eventually Sanderson bought all the archives and woodblocks of his designs. Today, we can still buy Morris’ original textile and wallpaper designs. For anyone contemplating decorating either a Victorian or a contemporary interior, there is an abundance of exquisite textiles from which to choose. Morris’ textiles and wallpapers transcend the Victorian era, yet remain a beautiful backdrop for antiques. All the wallpapers, drapes and upholstery fabrics shown in the illustrations are still available today. All fit as well into contemporary settings as into period ones.

Morris’ principles were solidly based in the Victorian era. They were in tune with Gothic revivalism, and with the work of the other artists and writers, such as Charles Dickens, who became acutely aware of the ill effects of the Industrial Revolution. Yet his artistry was such that his designs have a universal appeal that transcends their nineteenth-century roots and extends into the twenty-first century.

Dr. Ilya Sandra Perlingieri is the author of Sofonisba Anguissola: The First Great Woman Artist of the Renaissance, and is the owner of ISP Designs. She has published widely on textiles. She is listed in Who's Who of American Women (2006-7).

Written By: Dr. Ilya Sandra Perlingieri - Copyright Dr. Ilya Sandra Perlingieri
Source: New England Antiques Journal