Who was William Morris?

You probably know something about William Morris; you might have something in your home that bears one of the patterns he designed – a mug, a notebook, even wallpaper or curtains. You may know that he said, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be beautiful or believe to be useful.” So far, so predictable. But come with me beyond the Wikipedia entry and discover the man behind the myth. For his designs may be a byword for restrained good taste now, but at the time Morris’s ideas and designs were viewed as revolutionary.


Morris had a conventional start in life; he was born into a prosperous family in London in 1834. At Oxford he met Burne-Jones and the two instantly became friends, bonded by a shared love of Anglo-Catholicism, Arthurian legends and Shakespeare. Morris was a man of passions, including church architecture, embroidery and medievalism, which would become a central motif of the Arts and Crafts Movement. He had a fearsome temper, and many accounts survive in his friends’ letters of the short, portly Morris with his mop of curly hair stamping around a room in a temper.


Morris worked best in the companionship of other like-minded people and after Oxford became part of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of painters and poets which included Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt. The Pre-Raphaelites disliked modern fashionable artists such as Sir Joshua Reynolds and were instead inspired by the colours, detail and intensity of Italian art of the 1400s. One of Rossetti’s models was the beautiful Jane Burden, with whom Morris fell deeply in love; the story goes that he was too shy to declare himself so, while painting her portrait, wrote on the canvas “I cannot paint you but I love you.” It clearly worked because they married in 1859. Janey played an important role in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and was an accomplished artist in her own right, becoming an expert embroiderer.


In 1861 Morris founded the company that would become Morris & Co, with Burne-Jones as one of the partners. The aim was to provide furniture and furnishings produced using techniques as close as possible to traditional hand craftsmanship, in reaction to the increasing mechanisation and industrialisation of the Victorian period. The company also capitalised on the fashion for stained glass by offering a design and making service for private houses and churches. Morris’ father was in business and he had a strong commercial sense, making him unusual amongst designers and enabling him to build Morris & Co into a company that changed the face of Victorian interiors.

Morris had always been fascinated by architecture, though after an unhappy period working with a church architect in Oxford after he graduated, recognised that his own talents lay elsewhere. So he asked his friend and fellow partner in Morris & Co, Philip Webb, to design The Red House in Kent, with a steep roof and turrets, which Edward Burne-Jones called “the beautifullest place on Earth.” Later he lived at Kelmscott Manor, and both houses were filled with a constantly changing variety of tapestries, furniture, paintings, murals and embroideries by Morris, his family and friends.

Morris was a man of extraordinary energies and talents. As well as a designer he was a poet, fantasy writer and social activist. Though little read now, his poetry was celebrated in his lifetime and his Utopian novel “News from Nowhere” had a profound influence on later fantasy and science fiction writers.


All polymaths are inevitably reduced to less than the sum of their parts and Morris, along with other giants of the nineteenth century such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, has certainly suffered that fate. But it’s hard to feel that the man who found such delight in colour and pattern, and for whom the imaginative and spiritual life was so central, would mind that Birmingham Cathedral’s windows are one of his greatest memorials.