William Morris (1834-1896), an Englishman of distant Welsh origins, was a writer, a businessman, a pioneer of the Arts and Crafts movement, and an early socialist. As a writer, he produced poetry, translations of Nordic literature, historical and fantasy novels, and socialist propaganda, which included journalism, pamphleteering, verse, and two novels.
His business, Morris & Co, produced individually crafted furniture, stained glass, carpets, tapestries, and wallpaper, using techniques he had mastered himself, design being shared with a small group of others. It won contracts for the complete fitting out of rooms and even buildings, as well as making retail sales through a shop in Oxford Street, London. He also founded the Kelmscott Press. Both these enterprises were perfectionist and elitist in nature. He recognised that the elitism was contrary to his principles, but defended himself on the grounds that the revolution could not come immediately. The perfectionism was one of the guiding inspirations of the Arts and Crafts movement.
William Morris was born into a prosperous middle class family. After a mix of private tutoring and partly chaotic schooling, he went up to Exeter College, Oxford. Here he met Edward Burne-Jones and became part of a group of men much influenced by John Ruskin, a certain type of mediaevalism, and Arthurianism, particularly that propagated by Tennyson. He helped to start and contributed to a university magazine. Of a naturally artistic bent, he came to consider architecture as the basis of all other arts, and after obtaining his pass degree, was articled to one of the leading architects of the time, G E Street.
Poetry and furnishings
After moving to London with Street, he turned to painting, partly under the influence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who became the focus of a second-phase group of Pre-Raphaelite painters. As in Oxford, Morris became one of a strongly-knit male group, though he produced few paintings. In 1858 he published The Defence of Guenevere and other poems, described as the first pre-Raphaelite poetry. This received hostile reviews and had few sales, though today it is considered as containing much of his best work. In the following year he married Jane (Janey) Burden, an uneducated ostler's daughter, of great and unconventional beauty. In 1860 they moved to Bexleyheath, to the newly built Red House, which had been designed for him by Philip Webb. Furnishing this ideal house with the ideal furniture was one of the stimulants to setting up the firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co, producing furniture and furnishings, the other partners being Ford Madox Brown, Rossetti, Webb and Burne-Jones. Its first great success was in producing stained glass windows. In 1865 the firm set up in premises in London, and Morris put the Red House up for sale and moved to be at the premises. In 1867 he published The Life and Death of Jason, a poem of 13,000 lines, which this time was well received.
Between 1868 and 1870 he published The Earthly Paradise, a series of narrative poems, linked by an overall plot, rather like the Canterbury Tales, though the linking plot was fantasy-based, with a Nordic background and was fairly elaborate. This escapist work sold well and was the poem which established his reputation for the rest of his lifetime. Morris had also, at this time, taught himself Icelandic and begun to translate Icelandic sagas, without having yet visited Iceland. In 1871 he provided himself with a base outside London by renting Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire with Rossetti, effectively setting up a ménage à trois with Janey. Then he immediately went on a trip to Iceland, where the starkness of the landscape and the places associated with saga events made a deep impression on him. He was subsequently to produce a narrative poem on Sigurd the Volsung, basically a loose translation.
On reaching the age of 21, Morris had been given some of the family shares in Devonshire Great Consolidated Mining Co. Ltd (Devon Great Consols), a copper-mining business where his uncle Thomas Morris was the resident Director. This provided him with a substantial though declining income. In 1871, in order to boost that income, he became a Director of the company and continued until 1876. During this period the profit from copper mining was declining, but arsenic had been found in one of the mines, and the dividend payments became increasingly dependent on this. Arsenic was also used in the wallpapers produced by his firm. He was certainly aware of fears about the mining and using of arsenic, but was dismissive of the dangers. There was some justification for this, as certain scares were baseless, but in dismissing the dangers he seems to have been giving in to what he wished rather than looking into the matter. He may have been uneasy because after giving up his directorship he also sold his shares, though he continued to use arsenic in his dyes.
After his second visit to Iceland, Morris succeeded both in ousting Rossetti from Kelmscott Manor and in persuading (with difficulty and animosity) the other partners to withdraw from his firm, which was henceforth known as Morris & Co. Despite the views on egalitarianism and the potentially creative nature of labour which Ruskin had impressed on him, and despite his developing socialism, the structure and functioning of his company were those of a conventional capitalist enterprise, albeit a benign one, the workers simply taking orders from him or his manager.
Morris hated many of the large-scale changes being made to older buildings, particularly churches, under the name of restoration, and in 1877 he took a lead in founding the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and was active and systematic in campaigning and lobbying.
He first engaged in politics over the Eastern Question, but soon became disillusioned with the Liberals, and in 1883 he joined the Democratic Federation (later the Social-Democratic Federation), of which he became treasurer. He undertook street-preaching, formal talks and "agitation" - using issues of the moment to persuade people to the cause. After conflict with the Federation's leader, H.M. Hyndman over strategy, he withdrew from it and formed the Socialist League, which had more of an internationalist outlook. One of Morris's chief contributions to this was his support for its paper The Commonweal, which he originally edited, partly funded, and contributed to. In 1886-7 he published his novel A Dream of John Ball; and in 1890, though he was by then being sidelined by the League's anarchist element, he serialised News from Nowhere in The Commonweal. He never gave up his socialism and eventually reverted to supporting the Social-Democratic Federation.
Fantasy literature and the Kelmscott Press
Morris's interest in Nordic literature continued in the form of a couple of historical novels with a Germanic background; but from there he moved on to writing vaguely mediaevelist fantasy, with The Wood Beyond the World and The Well at the World's End (still available in print).
In 1891 he started the Kelmscott Press, another of his perfectionist enterprises. He helped to design typefaces, and took great care over the paper used.
Friends and family
Rossetti died in 1882. In the following year Janey took another lover, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, traveller, poet and philanderer. Burne-Jones had been alienated by Morris's socialism, but was gradually reconciled. Morris's marriage had produced two daughters, Jenny, who proved to have epilepsy, and May, who married one of Morris's socialist allies, but was seduced and abandoned by George Bernard Shaw, and eventually became, in effect, her father's literary executor.
Morris died in 1896 shortly after a trip to Norway.
Morris was an inspiration for the Arts and Crafts movement, having put into practice many of Ruskin's ideas. This was acknowledged by founders of the Art Workers' Guild (1884). His dense Victorian concept of design has found little favour in recent years, and the same could be said of his easy-rhyming style of poetry, though this was particularly suited to a narrative flow. In fantasy literature J.R.R. Tolkien acknowledged his influence.
The bulk of this article is dependent on MacCarthy, F. William Morris: a life for our time. Faber & Faber. 1994 There are additions from The Oxford Companion to English Literature and introductions to various works. Fiona MacCarthy is also the author of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article.
- Drabble, M, ed. The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Oxford University Press. 1985
- Tolkien, J. Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed H. Carpenter. George Allen & Unwin. 1981