9 - September 22, 2002
When I first knew Morris nothing would content him but being a monk, and getting to Rome, and then he must be an architect, and apprenticed himself to [G.E.] Street, and worked for two years, but when I came to London and began to paint he threw it all up, and must paint too, and then he must give it up and make poems,
and then he must give it up and make window hangings and pretty things, and when he had achieved that, he must be a poet again, and then after two or three years of Earthly Paradise time, he must learn dyeing, and lived in a
vat, and learned weaving, and knew all about looms, and then made more books, and learned tapestry,
and then wanted to smash everything up and begin the world anew, and now it is printing he cares for, and to < make wonderful rich-looking books – and all things he does splendidly – and if he lives the printing will have an end – but not I hope, before Chaucer and the Morte d'Arthur are done; then he'll do I don't know
what, but every minute will be alive.
As described by his closest friend and fellow artist Burne-Jones, William Morris (1834-1896) was a Renaissance man of astonishing versatility, at once an artist-craftsman, decorator, poet, Socialist, and businessman. An innate curiosity and awareness of beautiful objects inspired Morris to explore the creative processes entailed in their production. His extensive research into almost every craft he undertook, as well as his lectures, is testimony of his desire not only to create works of beauty, but also to make them accessible to others.
During his undergraduate years at Oxford, Morris developed a passion for medieval literature and architecture, which played an integral role in the formation of his philosophies about the purpose and production of the decorative arts. Morris discovered the foundations of his life's work when he began to decorate Red House, the honeymoon cottage he commissioned from his architect friend Philip Webb (1831-1915)for himself and his new wife, Jane Burden (1839-1914), in Kent. Subsequently, in April 1861, Morris and a group of fellow artists, including Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893),and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), formed the firm Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Company, whose aim was to improve the quality of the decorative arts. Initially describing themselves as "Fine Art Workmen in Painting, Carving, Furniture and Metals," the firm's partners expanded their interests to include stained glass, wallpaper, printed and woven textiles, carpets, tapestries, and ceramics.
The partnership was dissolved in 1874 when it was agreed that the firm should continue operation solely under Morris's direction as the newly renamed Morris & Company. At this time, the firm's workshops and showrooms were located at 26 Queen Square, Bloomsbury. In 1881, the firm changed location when Morris signed the lease for a seven-acre site in Surrey at Merton Abbey, situated on the banks of the river Wandle which was ideal for washing fabrics. John Henry Dearle (1860-1932) joined Morris & Co. in 1878 as an assistant in the firm's retail shop, later employed in the stained glass workshop where his talents as a draftsman were recognized. Dearle contributed designs for wallpaper, textiles, and tapestry and eventually took over as artistic director of the firm after Morris's death in 1896.
Throughout his life, Morris was not only a skilled craftsman and designer, he was also a successful author, publishing prose romances, short stories, poetry, Socialist tracts, and creative translations of French, Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Icelandic texts. One of his earliest poetic achievements, The Earthly Paradise (1868-69), his homage to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, brought him renown as a poet. In 1890, he founded the Kelmscott Press in order to publish beautifully crafted editions of famous works that included many of his own writings.
Stained glass was the most lucrative section of the firm and would continue to be a mainstay of the business throughout its seventy-nine years of activity. As a result, Morris & Company windows can be found all over the world. Morris had strong convictions concerning the ideal appearance and construction of stained glass. White glass painted with enamel had been popular in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but mid-nineteenth-century firms experimented in reproducing medieval-style, colored glass, or "pot metal" glass. Thus, while not innovative, Morris's firm contributed to the revolution in the design of stained glass windows, particularly in its manipulation of color. In the firm's early history, Burne-Jones emerged as the most talented designer for the medium. Following the dissolution of the partnership in 1874, the firm relied almost exclusively on his cartoons until his death, and these continued to be adapted for twentieth-century commissions.
To fulfill a particular commission for stained glass, the designer made figure sketches, and Morris, Webb, or Dearle added the background details. The firm's workshop integrated the sketches into small-scale watercolor mock-ups of the window for final approval by the client. Full-scale drawings, called cartoons, would then be drawn with the lead lines added before the glass was traced and cut. The firm subsequently used photography to record the designs. This process facilitated the re-use of the designs for later commissions by allowing them to be reproduced to fit any size of window.
In an 1862 advertisement, the firm announced the addition of "Painted Earthenware including wall Tiles with pictured subjects, figures or patterns." The blank tiles were imported from Holland and colored by hand (often by the wives and sisters of the partners) before being fired again at the firm's first premises at 8 Red Lion Square in London. Early commissions included three whimsical, narrative panels designed by Burne-Jones for the Surrey home of the painter Myles Birket Foster(1825-1899), including the panel in The Huntington's collection which illustrates the tale of Cinderella. The firm also sold tiles for use in both wall and fireplace decoration by William De Morgan (1839-1917), famed nineteenth-century ceramicist known for his revival of the technique of luster glazing, which gave his ceramic ware an iridescent sheen.
Whatever you have in your room, think first of the walls, for they are that which makes your house and home. (William Morris, 1882)
Morris also spent his early years designing wallpaper, producing his first design, Daisy, in 1864. The firm eventually generated over eighty designs for wallpaper, half of which were created by Morris. While most of the wallpaper patterns available at the time were characterized by a degree of formality, Morris's designs returned to a more naturalistic style. Morris hoped that the pomegranates, daisies, birds, honeysuckle, acanthus vines and other natural motifs he employed would combine to create patterns that could "fill the eye and satisfy the mind."
Wallpaper was one of the only crafts that the firm contracted out to another company to produce. The engraver first traced the designs onto blocks of grained pearwood and cut away the areas not being printed. Wooden or metal strips and studs were added to create fine lines or dots in the pattern. Each color required its own woodblock and was printed separately onto the paper that was then hung to dry before application of the next shade. Morris achieved a suggestion of depth in his designs by either applying larger designs over smaller ones or by overlaying shades of the same color. His complex patterns might use from four to sixty-two woodblocks.
The aim [of designing for textiles] should be to combine clearness of form and firmness of structure with the mystery which comes of abundance and richness of detail. (William Morris, 1893)
Morris's attention to detail is evident in every aspect of the firm's textile production, from embroidery and printed textiles to carpets and tapestry. At Queen Square, Morris had begun investigating various dyeing techniques in order to color silk embroidery threads. He had taken up needlework even before the firm's foundation, when he and his wife jointly designed and embroidered several wall hangings for Red House. Embroidered fire screens, pillow covers, wall hangings, and coverlets were all designed by the firm and worked in silk by members of the Morris family and their friends. In the early 1870s, Morris extended his dyeing experiments to include full lengths of cloth for use in printed textiles, after an unsuccessful search for an outside firm that could reproduce both the colors and nuances of his designs to his satisfaction. His efforts in dyeing were in part a response to the use of new chemical dyes by the textile industry, whose colors faded rapidly, and Morris hailed them as "the doom of cheap and nasty which has overtaken us."
The firm also began to weave carpets at Queen Square, but, due to limited space, the large looms were eventually installed in the coach houses in Morris's own backyard in Hammersmith, where Morris and his family had moved in the late 1870s. In this new branch of the business Morris attempted "to make England independent of the East for carpets which may claim to be considered works of art." His close examination of the unique collection of Persian carpets and other eastern textiles at the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria & Albert Museum), an institution founded to promote an interest and awareness of international design, had helped to inspire his quest for quality in carpet-weaving.
The influence of eastern sources was also apparent in Morris's designs for woven textiles during the 1870s. Unlike the visual effect of mingled organic forms achieved in his previous designs for printed textiles and wallpaper, the mechanical nature of the woven fabrics demanded a more geometrical structure. For the decoration of his own home, Morris preferred the soft folds of woven textiles to the flat surface of printed wallpaper. These fabrics were produced on hand-powered jacquard looms that used a system of punched cards to raise and lower the warp threads.
Of all the textiles produced by the firm, Morris reserved his highest praise for tapestry, calling it "the noblest of the weaving arts…in which there is nothing mechanical: it may be looked upon as a mosaic of pieces of color made up of dyed threads." Using an eighteenth-century French manual as his guide, Morris wove his first tapestry panel in 1879 at a high-warp, or vertical, loom constructed in his bedroom at Hammersmith. As a result of Morris's enthusiasm for medieval literature, his firm produced a stunning series of hand-woven tapestries illustrating the Arthurian quest for the Holy Grail for the dining room of Stanmore Hall in Middlesex.
If I were asked to say what is at once the most important production of Art and the thing most to be longed for, I should answer, A beautiful House; and if I were further asked to name the production next in importance and the thing next to be longed for, I should answer, A beautiful Book. To enjoy good houses and good books in self-respect and decent comfort, seems to me to be the pleasurable end towards which all societies of human beings ought now to struggle.
Morris's career had begun with the building of a house and the love of medieval architecture, and it ended with the founding of his own printing press in 1890, fittingly named after Kelmscott Manor, his beloved sixteenth-century house in the Oxfordshire countryside. Over the next six years, the Kelmscott Press published sixty-six editions, each printed on handmade paper with ink imported from Hanover and the typefaces and decorative work designed by Morris. The press's crowning achievement was the publication of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer in June 1896, fulfilling the cherished dream of Morris and Burne-Jones, held since their Oxford days when they had first discovered the great English epic poet.
In the last decade of his life, Morris began to devote more of his time and energy to social activism. His conviction that art could play a redemptive social role gradually developed into a belief in the need for a socialist revolution. In 1883, he joined the Democratic Federation and later formed the Socialist League (with branches at Merton and Hammersmith), for which he wrote and published numerous pamphlets and lectured across the country. In his utopian novel, News from Nowhere (1891), Morris's hero dreams of a future England in which "the deftness and abundance of beauty of the work of men" is everywhere apparent.
When he died in October 1896 at the age of sixty-two, Morris was surrounded by works of beauty, the symbols of his life's achievement. Although he sought to transform the world at large and bring that beauty to the many rather than the few, his project was ambitious even for a man described as "having done more work than most ten men." Yet the legacy of his theories of design continued to play a major role in the development of the Arts and Crafts Movement in Europe and America, deeply influencing succeeding generations of designers and architects.
Have nothing in your houses that
you do not know to be useful
or believe to be beautiful.
(William Morris, 1882)
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