William Morris (1834-1896):
Any decoration is futile when it does not remind you of something beyond itself.
One of my favorite people in Art History, Morris is the most celebrated practitioners of the Arts and Crafts Movement. He firmly believed in Art for all people and embraced the ideal of craftspeople taking pride in their personal handiwork, as opposed to the dehumanizing manufacturing of the Industrial Revolution. In creating woven and printed textile patterns, Morris chose to work with the ancient technique of hand woodblock printing.
I first researched Morris as a youth when I heard a reference to a Morris Chair in popular songs. A Morris chair is an early type of reclining chair designed by Morris’s firm, Morris & Company around 1866. The chair is mentioned prominently in the Irving Berlin song You’d Be Surprised as follows:
At a party
Or at a ball
I’ve got to admit
He’s nothing at all
But in a Morris chair
You’d be surprised
The Morris chair is mentioned in another Berlin song, All By Myself (1921), as well as in the song My Honey’s Lovin’ Arms (1922), by Joseph Meyer:
A cozy Morris chair
Oh what a happy pair…
or, as Barbra Streisand sang in her recording of the song:
A cozy Morris chair
What kind of chair is a Morris chair?
Morris sought inspiration for his famous repeating patterns from the natural world around him, medieval tapestries and early prints of flowers and herbs as well as the crispness and abundance of exquisite detail in medieval painting. His versions of antique flowers and plants in all their profusion, depth of tone and magical gradation of tints have become design classics in the decorative arts. Even today, Morris’ influence is HUUUUUGE.
At college at Oxford, Morris met Edward Burne-Jones, who became his boyfriend and collaborator. Although from very different backgrounds, they found that they had a shared attitude to life. Both he and Burne-Jones were influenced by the Romanticist milieu and the Anglo-Catholicism and decided to become clergymen so they could start a monastery where they could live together in a life dedicated to artistic pursuit. However, as time went on Morris became increasingly critical of Christian doctrine and the idea faded away.
In summer 1854, Morris travelled to Belgium to look at Medieval paintings, and in July 1855 went with Burne-Jones across northern France, visiting Medieval churches and cathedrals. It was on this trip that he and Burne-Jones committed themselves to “a life of art”. For Morris, this decision resulted in a strained relationship with his family, who believed that he should have entered either commerce or the clergy.
Morris discovered Thomas Malory‘s Le Morte d’Arthur, which became a core Arthurian philosophy embraced by him and Burne-Jones. The boys enjoyed an enthusiasm for all things King Arthur for the rest of their lives. In January 1856, they began publication of The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, designed to contain “mainly Tales, Poetry, friendly critiques and social articles”. Mainly funded by Morris, who briefly served as editor and heavily contributed to it with his own stories, poems, reviews and articles, the magazine lasted for twelve issues.
If this wasn’t accomplishment enough, Morris was a wallpaper designer, poet, novelist, translator, and social activist. He was an outspoken Socialist, Atheist, Feminist, Preservationist, and an important forerunner of Modern Environmentalism.
His patterns and designs continue to be made and The William Morris Society is very active in continuing his work.
No work which cannot be done with pleasure in the doing is worth doing.