William Morris was born in Walthamstow on 24 March, 1834. At that time it was a pretty little village on the outskirts of the capital, now it is one of the busier parts of London's East End. Morris and his siblings grew up in LLoyd Park, which is now home to the William Morris Galleries. His family were prosperous for the time and as a result, the talented and precocious Morris was sent to Marlborough and Exeter college at Oxford. Upon entering the university, he had intended to study to enter the Church, but the young man was fired by the intense and passionate writing of art critic John Ruskin. Ruskin abhorred the high Gothic art and literature of his time and often harked back to the simpler and elegant styles of the Medieval period. It was this passion that inspired William Morris to dedicate his life and career to the arts.
Having graduated from Oxford, Morris embarked on his chosen métier with aplomb and set about redecorating and refurbishing his newly acquired Red House, Bexleyheath, Kent. It was at this time - 1861 - that he set up a company called Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co - affectionately called the 'Firm'. Among the partners were prominent members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood1: Burne-Jones, Rosetti and Ford-Maddox-Brown as well as Phillip Web, the architect of Red House. The foundation of the Firm was also the establishment of the Arts and Crafts movement that Morris would be remembered for.
Arts and Craft
Morris, like his partners, had a particular penchant for the finesse and simplicity of the Medieval era. The elegant contours and simplicity of the art of that era inspired him more than the high Gothic camp of his own. Thanks to his family fortune, he was able to buy out the rest of his partners and established his own showroom, kiln and workshop in Lion Square, central London. From here he supervised the creation of:
Even though the ambitious Morris had bought out the other partners, he still remained friends with the Pre-Raphaelite movement and the artists and former partners still submitted designs to the workshop. Morris and Co, as the firm was now called, flourished.
Although Morris achieved a lot of fame in his own life time through the Arts and Craft movement, to the population at large, he was more famous for his literature and poems. These seem to have fallen from favour and taking a look at an example, we can see why. The Defence of Guenevere was his first published work and unlike his designs, is typical of its era:
But, knowing now that they would have her speak,
She threw her wet hair backward from her brow,
Her hand close to her mouth touching her cheek,
As though she had had there a shameful blow,
And feeling it shameful to feel ought but shame
All through her heart, yet felt her cheek burned so.
Although the poem takes a popular Medieval theme (Arthurian legend), it is presented in the typically ornate and effusive Victorian fashion and over romanticises the story. His style and popularity were further galvanized with the publication of The Earthly Paradise which was published in 1870.
Morris' literary talents stretched a lot further than just poetry - like other Victorian gentlemen of a similar stature, he had a great interest in the classics and translated many texts into English. Perhaps his greatest linguistic accomplishment, though, is successfully translating one of the Icelandic sagas - Sigurd the Volsung - into English.
Not only was Morris revered as a designer and respected as a poet, he was also renowned as a good political speaker. In this, again, he was typical of a Victorian man of means, but what sets him apart is that he was good at it. His political career kicked off when he was appointed treasurer of the Eastern Question Association, which was set up to protect Christian interests in Islamic Turkey. He moved from position to position within various Liberal circles but always ended up leaving under a cloud after one clash or another. So, being a man of money, he set up the Hammersmith Socialist Society and toured the country giving lectures and talks in universities and centres of learning.
The Kelmscott Press
What made William Morris' life so intriguing is that he continued to be innovative right until his demise. From 1890 to his death in 1896, Morris devoted his time to the Kelmscott Press which he established in his Hammersmith home (which incidentally currently houses the William Morris Society). During this time he created three typefaces which were inspired by 15th Century manuscripts. He used these to publish 66 different volumes of work.