William Morris by Nicholas Fabian.
The great visionary-craftsman
William Morris

by Nicholas Fabian

William Morris, one of nine children of William and Emma Shelton Morris, was born to wealth on March 24, 1834 in Walthamstow, England. In 1848, he began his formal education at Marlborough College and completed it at Exeter College at Oxford, where he studied architecture, art, and religion. Morris began work in 1856 with the architectural firm of G. E. Street and the following year he became a professional painter (1857-62).

With Morris's background in architecture and art, he founded, in 1861, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., an architectural and industrial design firm which he himself personally financed. Morris had created a cultural revival in Victorian England and because of him the medieval arts and crafts rebirth movement had finally had a clear focus and an intellectual leader. People from every part of the globe were scrambling to his door to be a part of this cultural renaissance. In 1875 the company was renamed Morris and Co. with Morris being the sole proprietor.

The 'Golden Type' sample
Text fragment of the Golden Type by William Morris. His design
was a controversial rework of Nicholas Jenson's classic typeface.

William Morris was a craftsman, designer, printer, poet, writer, political activist as well as an incurable neo-romantic. He was a temperamental man with very strong convictions and one who did not suffer fools gladly. During most of his life, he was intensely pre-occupied with the preservation of medieval arts and crafts, and found capitalism and the resulting mechanized mass-production of goods intolerable. In 1883, he joined the Social Democratic Federation and later organized the Socialist League.

William Morris founded Kelmscott Press in 1891 where he produced both original works (The Story of Sigurd the Volsung, the Fall of the Nibelungs, etc.) and re-prints of the classics. His best known design work was The Chaucer which was illustrated by Burne-Jones and printed at Kelmscott Press in 1896.

Troy type sample
Text fragment set in the Troy type designed by William Morris. From the The Romance of Sir Degrevant printed by the Kelmscott Press.

Morris had studied the medieval art period in painstaking detail, therefore, it is not surprising that the famous "white wine" initials and borders in his books are a close revival of the works of Peter Löslein and Bernhard Maler, the associates of Erhard Ratdolt who was a master printer and type designer in Augsburg, Germany (1474-84). Morris's root references of embellished decorative borders and initials can be seen in the first printing produced in Venice in 1482 of Euclid's Elements of Geometry which was also printed by Ratdolt. (The original sources of the designs were 12th century Tuscan decorative artwork.)

Troy page sample
Page layout using the Troy type designed by William Morris.
Border and initial letter designed by Edward Burne-Jones.

Morris referred to the work of Johann Zainer of Ulm as well, in fact, all his inspiration came from medieval times. That was the age he was yearning for, the bygone age of King Arthur, the age where he felt most secure, comfortable, and fully civilized. Three of his closest friends, Edward Burne-Jones, Philip Webb, and Emery Walker had the greatest intellectual and artistic influence on Morris's life which lasted until his death at Kelmscott House on October 3, 1896.

Elements of Geometry

Page fragment from Euclid's Elements of Geometry printed by Erhard Ratdolt in 1482, which became William Morris's reference source for his "while-wine" initials and decorative borders.

Typefaces designed by William Morris are the Kelmscott Golden (1889-1890), a bolder and less elegant re-design of the classical Jenson face; Troy (1891-1892), based on the gothic type of Schöeffer, Zainer and Koberger; and Chaucer (1892), a 12 point re-cut of Troy which had to be made to fit to the design of the mesmerizing Chaucer pages.

William Morris, without any doubt, had the greatest historical influence on the visual arts, crafts, and industrial design of the 19th century. His designs actually affected the lives and environments of people, from wallpapers, textile, furniture, and household utensils to stained glass windows, poetry and fiction printed in magnificently produced volumes. William Morris not only created art, but literally changed the direction of art history.

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