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date: 21 July 2024

Morris, Williamfree


Morris, Williamfree

  • Fiona MacCarthy

William Morris (1834–1896)

by George Frederic Watts, 1870

Morris, William (1834–1896), designer, author, and visionary socialist, was born at Elm House, Walthamstow, on 24 March 1834, eldest surviving son and fourth of the ten children of William Morris (1797–1847), financier in the City of London, and his wife, Emma (1805–1894), daughter of Joseph Shelton, a teacher of music in Worcester, and granddaughter of John Shelton, proctor of the consistory court of the diocese of Worcester. William Morris's paternal ancestors were Welsh; his grandfather was the first of this family to drop the Welsh ‘ap’ (‘son of’) from his surname, and moved to Worcester from the upper Severn valley late in the eighteenth century.

Childhood and Marlborough, 1834–1852

With the growing success of William Morris senior's dealings as a partner in the discount house of Sanderson & Co., which included speculation in copper mines in Devon, Morris was brought up in what he later referred to as 'the ordinary bourgeois style of comfort' (MacCarthy, 1). Rapidly the family accumulated wealth, and in 1840 moved to Woodford Hall in Essex, an imposing Georgian mansion on the edge of Epping Forest. William was a delicate child, cosseted by his mother and his older sisters Emma and Henrietta. He was a precocious reader, claiming to have started on the works of Sir Walter Scott at the age of four and to have completed the entire œuvre by the time he was seven. Already he was highly receptive to medievalism and romance.

From Woodford Hall, Morris would set out on his pony, sometimes dressed in a miniature suit of armour given to him by his parents, to explore the countryside and riverbank, seeking out small remote churches, early examples of the purist English architecture Morris was to champion all through his adult life. His visual memory was peculiarly retentive. From those first expeditions into the Essex countryside Morris's observations of birds, trees, and flowers began accumulating and he used them like a library to provide the sources for his later work in pattern design.

From the age of nine Morris attended a small local school, the Misses Arundale's Academy for Young Gentlemen. He quickly learned to write, but was always to regard spelling as superfluous. In 1848 he was sent to Marlborough College, then a new school, badly organized and prone to violence. A serious school riot broke out in 1851. Morris was unhappy, isolated, and claimed later to have learned next to nothing at Marlborough 'because next to nothing was taught' (P. Henderson, William Morris, his Life, Work and Friends, 1967, 7). His profound dislike of a system of tuition rooted in the classics, based on learning by rote, underlies his later educational theories, influential on the ‘new schools’ of the 1880s. Morris argued that children should acquire practical skills as well as intellectual knowledge, and that education should be lifelong.

At Marlborough, Morris made his own escape routes, reading antiquarian history in the new Adderley Library and exploring Savernake Forest and the prehistoric landscapes of Avebury and Silbury Hill. He was already developing the manual skills that were to become almost an addiction, weaving strings attached to his classroom desk to make fishing nets and traps for birds. He was also discovering his talents as a storyteller, transfixing his schoolfellows with rambling Gothic stories and establishing the persona of the oddball or outcast that clung to him in later life. Morris, having been brought up in what he called 'rich establishment puritanism' (MacCarthy, 11), veered towards the high church while he was at Marlborough, then a distinctly Anglo-Catholic school. The bishop of Salisbury confirmed him in Marlborough College chapel in March 1849.

In 1847 William Morris senior had died suddenly, leaving the family finances in turmoil. His widow moved to a smaller although still substantial home, Water House in Walthamstow (later the William Morris Gallery). Morris's emotional equilibrium was further threatened by the marriage of his eldest sister, Emma, on whom he had been especially dependent. The year 1852 was spent partly at home and partly as a pupil with the Revd Frederick Guy, a young high-church clergyman and an assistant master at the Forest School in Walthamstow. In June 1852 he took Oxford matriculation and he entered Exeter College in January 1853. Although he later became strongly anti-clerical Morris was at this stage intended for the church.

Oxford: early poetry, architecture, and crafts, 1853–1856

William Morris as a boy was in some respects mature for his years, widely read, with an enormous store of arcane knowledge. But he lacked direction and was prey to moodiness. At Oxford he began to orientate himself. For the first time he found friends who shared his interests. His closest Oxford companion was Ned Jones (later Sir Edward Burne-Jones), who was also at Exeter and also, at that time, a fervent Anglo-Catholic planning to take holy orders. They were to be lifelong friends and artistic collaborators.

Through Burne-Jones, Morris was introduced into the Set, a remarkable group of young men, most of whom had been at school with Burne-Jones in Birmingham. The Set consisted of William Fulford; Charles Faulkner, the Oxford mathematician; R. W. Dixon, later Canon Dixon, the Pre-Raphaelite poet; and Cormell Price, who founded the United Services Colleges and who is immortalized as the unconventional headmaster in the novel Stalky & Co. by his former pupil Rudyard Kipling. Such self-contained male groupings, with their robust humour and their private language of camaraderie, were always to be important to Morris, a socially awkward man who longed to be gregarious. His friends christened Morris Topsy, after the little slave girl in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, because of his uncontrollably curly hair.

The Set were literary men, worshippers of Tennyson. They read, recited, wrote. There is a well-known legend, which Morris himself helped to disseminate, that at Oxford he discovered almost overnight his fluency in composition, and that 'The Willow and the Red Cliff' was the first poem he ever wrote. In fact it seems probable he started writing earlier, perhaps even at Marlborough. But at Oxford, Morris began to write with a new obsessiveness. He later destroyed many of the poems of this period, but the surviving lyrics, though obviously influenced by Keats and by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, show that Morris was already finding his own poetic voice.

At the same time Morris's youthful inwardness was being challenged. His Oxford friends came from a midland industrial environment, and their awareness of social problems was more highly developed than Morris's own. He now had his indoctrination into reformist politics, reading the polemical novels of Charles Kingsley and attuning himself to Ruskin and Carlyle. Ruskin's writings on art and workmanship struck him as a 'sort of revelation' (MacCarthy, 69). He later described the impact of Ruskin's chapter in The Stones of Venice (1853) entitled 'On the nature of Gothic architecture': 'To some of us when we first read it … it seemed to point out a new road on which the world should travel' (MacCarthy, 69). In the summer vacation of 1855 Morris, Fulford, and Burne-Jones made a journey around the great Gothic cathedrals of northern France, and from then on he defended the Gothic as the only morally viable architectural style.

In the course of those travels Morris and Burne-Jones came to a joint decision. They would not, after all, be entering the church. Instead Morris would train as an architect and Burne-Jones as a painter. They were dismayed by the condition of England, its social complacency, and its visual squalor. They had recently discovered Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur. Full of Arthurian fervour they embarked on what they called a campaign 'against the age' (MacKail, 1.63).

Morris reluctantly returned to Exeter to take his pass degree before articling himself, on 25 January 1856, to G. E. Street, one of the leading English Gothicist architects, then diocesan architect for Oxford. In Street's office he made the second of his intimate and lifelong male friendships, with Street's senior clerk, the architect Philip Speakman Webb. Although Morris never practised as an architect, his two years in Street's office were crucial in terms of the experience he gained in techniques and materials as well as in his growing awareness of the psychological importance of buildings as orientation points within society, repositories of history, and keepers of the soul.

William Morris's personal practical involvement in handmaking was his radical departure. Ruskin had first explored the social dangers of separating intellectual and manual activity, arguing that class divisions were exacerbated by the traditional definitions of work for gentlemen and work for artisans. Ruskin himself was not a maker. It was Morris, in the next generation, who developed these perceptions in his own exuberant creative terms. His principle was to be that no work should be carried out in his workshops before he had mastered the technique of it himself.

While still in Street's office, Morris had begun to experiment with stone carving, clay modelling, wood carving, and the first of his illuminated manuscripts. In Oxford he had an embroidery frame made to an old design, and found a retired French dyer to dye worsteds for him. From a smith with a forge near Oxford Castle he ordered a mail surcoat and a bassinet (an Arthurian type of helmet), which closed on him when he first tried it on and trapped him. Burne-Jones described him 'embedded with iron, dancing with rage and roaring inside' (MacCarthy, 133).

Morris's notorious nervous irritability was probably a facet of an epileptic tendency inherited from his mother. Although his friends joked about his 'rages', contemporary descriptions suggest that Morris suffered from a serious medical condition, marked by fits in which he would lose consciousness temporarily. Later, when his daughter Jenny developed epilepsy in her mid-teens, this was a bitter grief, since Morris felt himself to blame.

Pre-Raphaelite London and The Defence of Guinevere, 1856–1858

In late summer 1856 Street's office moved to London and Morris moved with it, joining Burne-Jones who had preceded him to the place they came to call, in mingled despair and affection, 'the Great Wen' (MacCarthy, XV). They took temporary rooms at 1 Upper Gordon Street, Bloomsbury, then moved to 17 Red Lion Square. Here Morris commissioned the robust timber furniture described by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who assisted Morris and Burne-Jones in painting it, as 'intensely mediaeval … tables and chairs like incubi and succubi' (ibid., 118). Red Lion Square was the first of a long sequence of Victorian interiors that Morris imbued with his highly personal decorative style. In his serious attentiveness to domestic detail, and in particular his sensitivity to the colour, sheen, and tactility of textiles, Morris can be seen as entering what, in his class and culture, was the traditional female domain. He was later to become an accomplished cook.

In London, Morris was absorbed into Pre-Raphaelite circles. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite brothers and already established as a painter and a poet, was influential on the two less sophisticated young men. He persuaded William Morris he too ought to be a painter. At the end of 1856 Morris left Street's office. He had already started taking life classes. Although he was never to feel confident in drawing from life, he was always insistent that drawing skills were the basis of design.

Simultaneously Morris continued with his writing. Through 1856 his main outlet was the short-lived but intellectually ambitious publication he financed, the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine. The chief contributors were former members of the Oxford Set, later reconstituted as the Brotherhood. For the twelve issues Morris provided at least five poems; eight prose tales, including 'The Story of the Unknown Church' and 'The Hollow Land'; reviews of Alfred Rethel's engravings and Robert Browning's Men and Women; and an article on Amiens Cathedral which suggests themes developed more fully in his mature lectures on the politics of art.

In London the next year Morris wrote the majority of the thirty poems included in The Defence of Guinevere, and Other Poems published in 1858 by Bell and Daldy (again at Morris's expense). The volume was badly received, by critics who found Morris's subject matter wayward and his language jarring. It suffered from association with the notorious Pre-Raphaelite paintings of that time. But these small, spare, violent poems have always had admirers, from Gerard Manley Hopkins to the imagists.

One of the most lastingly persuasive of William Morris's tenets was that of the inherent joy in labour. He argued that without dignified, creative human occupation people became disconnected from life. In summer 1857, in the decoration of the newly built Oxford Union, Morris had his first experience of the 'working holiday'. Rossetti had negotiated the commission for the decoration of the walls of the debating hall. Morris decorated the ceiling and was responsible for one of the ten bays, on which he painted in tempera the tragic triangle of Sir Tristram, Sir Palomydes, and La Belle Iseult. Among his fellow artists were Burne-Jones, Spencer Stanhope, Arthur Hughes, and Val Prinsep. The atmosphere of unrelenting male badinage, with loud popping of soda water corks, caused the episode to enter history as 'the jovial campaign' (MacCarthy, 129).

Marriage, Red House, and ‘the Firm’, 1859–1865

In the winter of 1857 Morris met, and fell in love with, Jane Burden (d. 1914) [see Morris, Jane], daughter of an Oxford stableman. Janey, then eighteen, dark, and exotic, soon to be the ideal of a Pre-Raphaelite 'stunner', was spotted at the theatre by Rossetti and Burne-Jones. Originally she modelled for Rossetti. Morris then used her as his model for La Belle Iseult, the painting now in the Tate collection, his only surviving work in oils. His family were not, apparently, present at the marriage, held on 26 April 1859 in St Michael's parish church in Oxford. The honeymoon was spent in Bruges.

Philip Webb designed Red House, in close collaboration with Morris, for his marriage. This famous red-brick building, at Upton, near Bexleyheath, in Kent, was a creative reworking of the architectural style of the thirteenth century, with a steep red-tiled roof and a well in the courtyard. During construction Morris and his bride lived temporarily at Aberley Lodge, close to the site, and they moved into Red House in June 1860. The house lay along the ancient pilgrims' route to Canterbury and Morris cast himself in the role of genial Chaucerian host. His artist friends, including Edward Burne-Jones (now married to Georgiana Macdonald), came to assist with decorations in another working holiday that gave the impetus for the foundation of the decorating company eventually known as Morris & Co.

Red House was the first tangible expression of the reductionist principles for which Morris became famous: 'Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful' (MacCarthy, 185). In its time Red House was seen as startling in its fluidity of planning and its brilliant clashing colour. This quasi-medieval building was to become the paradigm of all arts and crafts houses and a potent influence on twentieth-century modernist architecture.

William Morris's decorating company—originally Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co.—was founded in 1861. Unofficially, it was referred to as the Firm. From this time on, Morris's energies as a designer were focused on the 'lesser' or domestic arts, and their gradual rise in status in Europe and America through the nineteenth century was largely due to his proselytizing fervour.

The Firm, as originally constituted, was an artistic brotherhood with seven partners. Besides Morris himself, Peter Paul Marshall, and Charles Faulkner, the partners were Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, Philip Webb, and the Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown. At a period of widespread ritualist revival, work for new and restored churches was the basis of their early success.

The Firm first exhibited at the International Exhibition at South Kensington in 1862, winning two gold medals and a special jury mention for the colour and design of its stained glass. The Firm's catalogues offered painted furniture, mural decoration, metalware and glass, embroidery and hangings, jewellery, and hand-painted tiles. Some of these products were made in the Firm's workshops, some were subcontracted. The first of William Morris's wallpapers, always to be one of the Firm's staples, were produced by the Islington firm of Jeffrey & Co. from 1862. The Firm's original workshops were at 8 Red Lion Square, with a retail shop attached, reflecting Morris's faith in the face-to-face transaction (though he was shy of dealing with customers himself). By 1865 the exhaustion of daily commuting and his own financial problems, caused by decrease in value of his family shares, forced Morris to sell Red House. The building remained in sympathetic private ownership until its acquisition by the National Trust (for £2 million) in January 2003. Morris moved his home and workshop to 26 Queen Square, Bloomsbury, now living literally above the shop.

The Earthly Paradise and Iceland, 1865–1871

Since The Defence of Guinevere Morris had written little, partly out of depression at its critical reception, mainly because he was preoccupied with decorating Red House and establishing the Firm. But, as Burne-Jones noted, Morris's life went on in cycles, one immense enthusiasm taking over from another, and in the mid-1860s Morris entered a vigorous new poetic phase which established him as one of the most popular poets of his period, regarded as being on a par with Browning, Tennyson, and Swinburne. In 1877 he was offered nomination to the Oxford professorship of poetry. In 1892 he was sounded out discreetly as to whether, if offered the poet laureateship (left vacant by Tennyson's death), he was likely to accept it. Both honours Morris rejected scornfully.

The poem that made Morris famous, The Earthly Paradise (1866–70), is a large, highly coloured, hugely energetic sequence of narrative poems, a Victorian reworking of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. It was originally envisaged as an illustrated poem with woodcuts by Burne-Jones published in a folio volume. Morris's friends, whose loyalties were tested by his late-night readings of his work in progress, referred to it as 'the big story book'. A foretaste, in the form of The Life and Death of Jason, a 13,000-line poem too long to be included in the major enterprise, was published on its own in 1867. This time the reviews were unanimously good. Critics judged that in comparison Tennyson sounded orotund. Morris seemed to have invented 'an entirely new fashion of telling a story in verse' (MacCarthy, 204).

The first volume of The Earthly Paradise was published in 1868, and the final two volumes in 1870. The framework is the story of a band of late fourteenth-century Norsemen, fleeing the black death, setting sail in search of the reputed earthly paradise 'Where none grow old'. Failing to find it, they arrive at 'a nameless city in a nameless sea' where they are welcomed by the elders of the city. The twenty-four tales, exchanged by the wanderers and their hosts, draw on a variety of sources: classical, Norse, medieval, and the Icelandic literature which was beginning to fascinate Morris at this time. Intertwined with the tales is a more personal poetic narrative, in which Morris hints at the stresses in his own emotional life.

The first years of his marriage were apparently contented. At Red House, Janey gave birth to two daughters: Jane Alice (Jenny) in 1861 and Mary (May) Morris in 1862. But soon after the family removal to Queen Square, Janey began showing signs of a debilitating illness, possibly gynaecological in origin. In 1869 Morris accompanied her to the German spa town of Bad Ems. All her life she remained a semi-invalid. She appears in memoirs and cartoons of the period as the archetypal Victorian femme souffrante, supine on a couch. Janey nevertheless acquired two famous lovers, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, painter and poet, her husband's brother artworker and partner in the Firm, and later, after Rossetti's death in 1882, the aristocratic Victorian philanderer, orientalist, and maverick politician Wilfrid Scawen Blunt.

Morris responded with stoic generosity. It was part of his then radical morality to believe that we are not one another's keepers. Grieving for the loss of love he threw himself more avidly into the manual disciplines of craftwork. He returned with new intentness to illumination and calligraphy, reviving techniques that had been neglected since the fifteenth-century development of printing. The first of his manuscripts was A Book of Verse, written out in 1870 for Georgiana Burne-Jones, to whom he was now increasingly attached. Morris's ornate, labour-intensive manuscripts culminate in his magnificent Aeneid on vellum, begun in 1874.

Simultaneously Morris was immersed in the Icelandic. This was another aspect of his fortitude. He identified himself with the heroes of the nationalistic sagas of the tenth and thirteenth centuries, studying the language and beginning his long sequence of translations in collaboration with the Icelandic scholar Eiríkr Magnússon. Morris travelled very little outside Britain. His two voyages to Iceland, in 1871 and 1873, must rank with his undergraduate tour of the Gothic cathedrals of France as the most influential journeys of his life.

Morris's route in 1871 took him from Reykjavík around the saga sites of the western coast. He travelled by Icelandic pony, accompanied by Magnússon and his old Oxford friend Charles Faulkner. Edward Burne-Jones drew a delicious series of cartoons of his rotund friend Morris in the land of raw fish. On his second, and more arduous, journey Morris traversed the desolate, rocky interior of Iceland to Akureyri, on the northern coast. Iceland's wild volcanic landscape, lit with lurid sunsets, recurs frequently in Morris's later poetry and fiction. Morris was moved to find evidence of art and literature enduring in social conditions of such abject poverty.

Iceland braced Morris. He returned from his journeys in a new mood for experiment, exploring themes of possession and dispossession in a not wholly convincing quasi-medieval alliterative verse drama Love is Enough, published in 1873. In 1875 Morris and Magnússon completed their translation, entitled Three Northern Love Stories, from the Icelandic. Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs, Morris's own version of the Icelandic epic, his longest and most ambitious poem, was published in 1876. This four-book narrative in resounding rhyming couplets is constructed with the confidence of one of the great Victorian feats of engineering. Sigurd was Morris's own favourite of all his works.

Kelmscott and Merton Abbey: Morris's mature design, 1872–1882

In 1871, just before he left for Iceland, Morris had discovered Kelmscott Manor, near Lechlade on the borders of Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire. He took the house in joint tenancy with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, in effect establishing an unconventional rural ménage à trois.

Morris was never to live at Kelmscott permanently. His main family home was still in London. From 1872 to 1882 the Morrises lived at Horrington House, Turnham Green, then moved to Kelmscott House in Hammersmith. But Kelmscott Manor was the building that affected him most deeply. The mainly sixteenth-century gabled grey stone manor on the edge of the village was from then on William Morris's architectural ideal. Indeed he claimed to have seen the building in a dream before he located it in real life. To Morris, Kelmscott stood for Englishness, and permanence, and unpretentious excellence of craftsmanship. It appeared as the frontispiece to the Kelmscott Press edition of Morris's utopian novel News from Nowhere in 1893.

From his natural surroundings at Kelmscott, Morris drew direct inspiration for many of his wallpaper and textile designs of the 1870s and early 1880s. This was his most fecund period of pattern design. 'Strawberry thief' was taken from an incident in the Kelmscott garden, in which thrushes stole the fruit from underneath the strawberry nets. The best known of all Morris's patterns, 'Willow', derives from the leaves of the trees that edged the river where Morris used to fish for gudgeon and perch.

In March 1875, after much acrimonious argument, the Firm was reconstituted under William Morris's sole ownership. From this time the company was officially Morris & Co. Morris's family finances had not recovered, he earned little from his writing, and he was almost entirely dependent on his income from the Firm. The company had never lacked prestigious clients: it had received commissions from the South Kensington Museum (for the green dining-room) and, in its early years, even from St James's Palace. But the Firm had been under-capitalized and managerially disorganized. It now entered a new period of consolidation. Morris & Co. was both creating the style of the time and accruing profits from it as the aesthetic movement of the 1870s and 1880s got under way.

Morris's perfectionist standards made it difficult for him to rely on subcontractors. His aim was now to bring as many manufacturing processes as possible under his own control. First he tackled dyeing, developing his own vegetable dyes as an alternative to the alkaline dyes in general commercial use. He was determined to revive indigo dyeing, and in 1875 spent several weeks in Leek carrying out experiments at Thomas Wardle's Hencroft works, disconcerting his friends by returning to London with his arms dyed blue.

Morris next threw himself into the revival of hand-weaving, setting up a loom in his own bedroom at Hammersmith, rising at dawn to take advantage of the natural light. By 1881, when Morris & Co. moved out of Queen Square to much larger working premises at Merton Abbey in south London, they were independent in dyeing and block printing, and rug and carpet making, and were at the early stages of developing high-warp tapestry, which had for many years been Morris's 'bright dream' (MacCarthy, 401).

Concurrently Morris & Co.'s retailing activities were expanding. A shop was opened at 264 (later 449) Oxford Street in 1877 and a branch at 35 John Dalton Street, Manchester, in 1883. Morris perceived the bitter irony of his easy success with the discriminating middle classes while his aims of bringing art to the working people had so far failed. On a professional visit to one of his most faithful clients, the northern ironmaster Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, Morris could be heard storming through the rooms of Rounton Grange. When Bell asked for explanation Morris turned on him 'like a wild animal', exclaiming 'It is only that I spend my life ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich' (MacCarthy, 210).

From the mid-1870s Morris's growing despair at Britain's class divisiveness, and the almost universal apathy to art, had been propelling him into public action. In 1876 he became treasurer of the Eastern Question Association, a Liberal pressure group formed to prevent Disraeli's alliance with the Turks in the Russo-Turkish War. The following year Morris founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (known as SPAB or Anti-Scrape), the earliest conservation society, and gave the first of many hundreds of lectures in which, with characteristic common sense and passion, he related the aesthetic standards in any given country to its prevailing social conditions. The first collection of these lectures was published in 1882 as Hopes and Fears for Art.

Revolutionary London, 1883–1890

On 13 January 1883, three years after Morris & Co. had been commissioned to decorate the throne room at St James's Palace, Morris joined the Democratic Federation, a new revolutionary socialist party led by the Marxist Henry Mayers Hyndman. This was a decisive move out of his class, entailing rifts with many friends, professional opprobrium, and absence from many of the places and activities that Morris depended on and loved. His involvement in the socialist cause depleted his income and damaged his never robust health. At the age of almost fifty, at a time when the Firm was prospering and Morris's literary reputation was secure, it was an act of almost insane courage, and he wrote of it in terms of a homecoming, a final recognition of inevitable destiny. His 'conversion' (MacCarthy, 462), as he called it, came as an all-suffusing joy.

Morris taught himself socialism with the doggedness with which he acquired a handicraft. He read Marx's Das Kapital, in French, and studied Marx's theories of work and wages, admitting that he found them hard going. He was deeply affected by Sergey Stepniak's Underground Russia, and in taking upon himself the task of 'spreading discontent among all classes' (MacCarthy, 470) Morris saw himself as part of an international struggle for freedom from oppression. There was perhaps a strain of masochism in his insistence in sharing in all the mundane detail of the Democratic Federation's propaganda work, from 'street preaching' (MacCarthy, 474) in all weathers to writing and selling Justice, the federation's newsheet. In November 1883 Morris spoke in Oxford, in the hall of University College, with John Ruskin in the chair. His inflammatory speech, 'Art and democracy', was reported widely. It had the effect of a final declaration. Tennyson asked to see a copy of Justice and owned himself appalled.

In 1884 A Summary of the Principles of Socialism, written jointly by Morris and Hyndman, was published. But by now a serious rift had taken place in the Democratic Federation between the parliamentarians and more purist anti-parliamentarian socialists. Morris, who saw parliamentary government as essentially corrupt, emerged as the inevitable (though unwilling) leader of the breakaway group. The Socialist League was formally inaugurated on 30 December 1884. The manifesto was written by Morris and his fellow seceder E. Belfort Bax, and put forward a lucid and attractive argument for 'a change in the basis of Society—a change which would destroy the distinctions of classes and nationalities' (W. Morris, Socialist League Manifesto, 1885, 1). Morris, a man so rooted in the practicalities of designing and making, also had the imaginative range to envisage a new kind of society, a total overthrow of the status quo. The manifesto was signed by the twenty-two members of the league's provisional council, including Edward Aveling and his lover, Karl Marx's daughter, Eleanor Marx.

The Socialist League was relatively small, but Morris's personal charisma gave it a political importance far beyond its size. In 1885, at the end of the first year, membership stood at about 230. There were by then ten branches, most in southern England, with a London headquarters at 113 Farringdon Street. Over the next few years the league's membership expanded into the northern manufacturing cities. Its presence in Glasgow was particularly strong. Hammersmith was the most high profile of the branches. Its meetings were held in the coach house adjoining Kelmscott House, Morris's own home, where speakers and favoured guests would be entertained to dinner by Morris and his daughter May, who acted as his lieutenant in the league. The list of Hammersmith speakers is eclectic, including almost every important socialist thinker of the period: Graham Wallas, Annie Besant, John Burns, Sydney Olivier, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Sergey Stepniak, and Peter Kropotkin. Morris's links with the Russian anarchists in exile were important and affectionate. The most regular guest speaker was Bernard Shaw who, in Morris as I Knew him (1936), gives a vivid account of Hammersmith politics and his own 'mystic betrothal' (MacCarthy, 523) to May Morris.

In September 1885, after a wave of socialist arrests at Dod Street in Limehouse, Morris appeared before the magistrate at Thames police court charged with assaulting a policeman and breaking his helmet. To the question, 'What are you?', Morris replied, 'I am an artist, and a literary man, pretty well known, I think, throughout Europe' (MacCarthy, 527). He was immediately set free. A cartoon of the period shows Morris holding up a banner inscribed 'The earthly paradox' while a helmeted policeman blacks his boots. The paradox was all too clear to Morris, the capitalist owner of a decorating firm who was also a leader of the British revolutionaries. His letters of the period reveal his doubts and anguish. But Morris could never contemplate half measures. He was working for total social transformation. Abandoning his own 'special work' as a designer–manufacturer or resorting to palliatives such as profit sharing would, in his view, have been a worthless compromise.

Morris was at the centre of political protest in Britain in 1886 and 1887, years of exceptional public unrest exacerbated by a long trade depression and the effects of unemployment. As a prominent public figure he came under police surveillance and, on 18 July 1886, was issued with a summons for obstruction in Bell Street, Marylebone. Morris was fined 1s. plus costs. He drove himself hard, travelling the country, preaching insurrection in working men's clubs. He took part in at least 105 public protest meetings in 1887 alone. On Easter Monday of that year Morris addressed a crowd of 6000 striking miners and their families at Horton in Northumberland. On 13 November 1887, later known as ‘bloody Sunday’, Morris was marching in one of the protesters' processions broken up by the police as it was advancing towards Trafalgar Street. When, in the aftermath of bloody Sunday, a young radical law writer was knocked down by a police horse in Northumberland Avenue and subsequently died, Morris wrote 'A Death Song' for him and spoke at his funeral, ending by crying out 'Let us feel he is our brother!' (MacCarthy, 573).

In these socialist years his writing became more populist. William Morris, so bashful in expressing his personal emotions, articulated the aspirations of the emerging British working class. His Chants for Socialists (1885) continued to be sung well into the twentieth century. The Socialist Diary, kept by Morris for a few months in 1887, details his encounters with the underclass with a rage and accuracy prophetic of George Orwell's. True to form, Morris was the chief contributor, as well as financier and editor, of the Socialist League newspaper, The Commonweal. His editorials and reportage—urgent, angry, rough and ready—show what a proficient journalist he was. For his working-class readers he wrote The Pilgrims of Hope, a long narrative poem, ostensibly a love story of the Paris commune but also an account of Morris's own political rebirth. The most highly regarded of William Morris's prose writings—A Dream of John Ball (1888) and his utopian novel News from Nowhere (1890)—first appeared as serials in The Commonweal. At this period he wrote several satiric playlets, in one of which, The Tables Turned, or, Nupkins Awakened (1887), Morris took the part of the archbishop of Canterbury at a Socialist League benefit performance. He entertained himself on his socialist travels by translating Homer's Odyssey, published in two volumes in 1887. He also translated Virgil's Aeneid (1876), much of it accomplished while travelling on the London Underground, and, less successfully, the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf (1895).

By 1888, the year in which Morris's second volume of political essays, Signs of Change, was published, dissensions had developed in the Socialist League. The Bloomsbury branch, including Edward Aveling and Eleanor Marx, seceded on the parliamentarian issue, leaving Morris vulnerable to the increasingly extremist anarchist members of the league. Morris had accepted that a national revolution was unlikely to be achieved without violence, but was opposed to undirected violence that would undermine socialism's credibility.

Morris was gradually edged out of the league and removed from the editorship of The Commonweal. In 1890 the Hammersmith branch severed its connections, becoming the Hammersmith Socialist Society. Ironically, as his own political base dwindled, Morris's international standing had never been so high. As an English delegate to the International Socialist Working Men's Congress in Paris in 1889 he gave one of the key speeches. His socialist colleague Edward Carpenter described him on the platform, in his navy blue pilot shirt, 'hacking and hewing the stubborn English phrases out—his tangled grey mane tossing, his features reddening with the effort! But the effect was remarkable' (MacCarthy, 581).

Late prose romances and the Kelmscott Press, 1890–1896

In the last years of his life Morris entered a new creative phase. Far from abandoning his interest in politics he began appearing on the socialist inter-party platforms and was active in forming the Joint Committee of Socialist Bodies in 1893. His richness of experience gave new authority to his lectures of this period. His originality as a political thinker always stemmed from his belief in the supremacy of art.

Morris invented a new genre of fiction writing with his series of magic–realist romances, set in imaginary historic landscapes. The first of these, The House of the Wolfings (1889), combined verse with prose. Morris reverted to prose only for The Roots of the Mountains (1890), The Wood beyond the World (1894), Child Christopher (1895), and The Well at the World's End (1896). His final two romances, The Water of the Wondrous Isles (1897) and The Story of the Sundering Flood (1898), were published after his death. It appears that this sequence of highly coloured, supremely visual narratives of love, quest, and battle answered a deep need in him. 'I must have a story to write now as long as I live' (Collected Letters, 3.115), he wrote to his wife in 1889.

In the 1890s Morris was able to return to a fuller involvement with the Firm at its Merton Abbey factory, which by this time employed around a hundred men, women, and boys. Many of the projects set in motion thirty years before were now reaching their culminating phase. Morris & Co. stained glass achieved its height of technical perfection in Edward Burne-Jones's series of windows for St Philip's Cathedral, Birmingham. Morris & Co. interiors reached its apotheosis at Standen in Surrey (now a National Trust property) and at Stanmore Hall. The six huge tapestry panels commissioned for Stanmore, narrating the quest of the San Graal, are a tour de force of craftsmanship, and emphasize the quality of story-telling that was, for Morris, an essential component of democratic art.

Having at first viewed them with suspicion, Morris gradually began to play an active role in the arts and crafts societies that had developed as a direct result of his own championing of craftsmanship. In 1888 Morris's work was included in the first exhibition of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in London, where he gave a lecture on tapestry weaving. Morris seated at his loom demonstrating weaving to a reverential public is the subject of another of Burne-Jones's delicately malevolent cartoons. In 1891 Morris became president of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society and in 1892 master of the Art-Workers' Guild. Although acutely aware of the threat to society inherent in mechanization, Morris was by no means opposed to industry per se, seeing the potential of technical advances for freeing the operative from repetitive and deadening hand processes. He was involved in the first moves towards industrial design, attending the first conferences of the National Association for the Advancement of Art and its Application to Industry in Liverpool in 1888 and in Edinburgh in 1889.

In 1891 Morris embarked on his last great opus in practical designing, setting up the Kelmscott Press at 16 Upper Mall in Hammersmith. As he explained it, the essence of his undertaking was 'to produce books which it would be a pleasure to look upon as pieces of printing and arrangement of type' (MacCarthy, 609). He designed three Kelmscott typefaces—Golden, Troy, and Chaucer—besides numerous ornamental letters and borders. Morris supervised all the details of production and evolved his own idiosyncratic list, explaining that the books he wanted to print were those he most loved to read and own. Besides Morris's own works, beginning with a volume of his shorter poems, Poems by the Way (1891), the press specialized in reprints of medieval texts and English classics. The monumental Kelmscott Chaucer, with engravings from Burne-Jones and a binding by Douglas Cockerell, was completed just before Morris's death.

By early 1896 Morris was visibly failing. With his heightened nervous energy and tendency to gout, he had never been as robust as he appeared. The exertions of the socialist activist years had taken their toll. Diabetes was diagnosed. Morris endured long weeks of exile in Folkestone followed by a dismal cruise around the fjords of Norway in the cruise ship SS Garonne. He had by then developed lung trouble that proved to be tubercular, and congestion of the lung set in. His reduced energy was an immense ordeal to Morris, but he kept his curiosity and fondness for things as well as people. He still collected books and manuscripts with his former avidity, acquiring a magnificent twelfth-century English bestiary and buying a thirteenth-century illuminated psalter from Lord Aldenham in the weeks before he died. Morris retained a strange aura of innocence. A friend observed that in old age he looked like an ancient child.

Morris died at Kelmscott House in Hammersmith on 3 October 1896. Three days later his body was transported by train from Paddington to Lechlade. The coffin was then transferred into a traditional farmers' wagon, painted yellow and red and festooned with vine leaves, for the final few miles' journey to Kelmscott church, where Morris was buried on a stormy day. Philip Webb later designed his tomb.

Reputation and legacy

At the time of his death Morris's reputation stood highest as a poet, but his more enduring influence has been that of a social critic of peculiar insight and a designer of great sweetness and enormous versatility.

Morris's visionary novel News from Nowhere became one of the essential early twentieth-century socialist texts, translated into numerous languages and widely distributed in Russia in pre-revolutionary years. In Britain his political influence ran through from R. H. Tawney and G. D. H. Cole to Clement Attlee and the founders of the post-war welfare state. The full extent of Morris's revolutionary activism was played down by his executor and former secretary, Sir Sydney Cockerell, and by his first biographer, J. W. Mackail, son-in-law of Sir Edward Burne-Jones, but emerged with the publication of E. P. Thompson's William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (1955). From the 1970s onwards Morris's protectiveness of the environment led him to be recognized as a founding father of green politics.

Morris's tangible legacy is in his works of art. In spite of attempts by such modernist critics as Sir Nikolaus Pevsner to claim Morris as a modernist, he had come to be defined by the end of the twentieth century as a conservative radical designer. Morris's wallpapers and textiles, still in quantity production a hundred years after his death, make him arguably the most successful industrial designer ever known. Morris & Co. stained glass appears in retrospect as one of the wonders of Victorian church art. The Kelmscott Press generated the private press movement, important in its influence on twentieth-century European and American typography and book design.

William Morris's belief in the centrality of buildings profoundly influenced twentieth-century architectural theory and practice. His disciples W. R. Lethaby, C. F. A. Voysey, Ernest Gimson, and Edward Prior were the chief protagonists of what came to be known as English ‘free style’. Morris's views on truth to materials and ‘right-making’ became a fundamental tenet of the arts and crafts movement. His vision of the self-sufficient rural group of craft workers, an ideal Morris himself never fully put into practice, was pursued by such English entrepreneur craftsmen as C. R. Ashbee and Eric Gill. Under the influence of Morris, craft communities proliferated in the early years of the twentieth century, especially in Scandinavia and the United States.

In his grand and sympathetic view of human potential Morris was both of his own Victorian age and far beyond it. E. P. Thompson described him correctly as 'a man whom history will never overtake' (E. P. Thompson, 730).


  • The collected works of William Morris, ed. M. Morris, 24 vols. (1910–15)
  • F. MacCarthy, William Morris: a life for our time (1994)
  • The collected letters of William Morris, ed. N. Kelvin, 4 vols. (1984–96)
  • J. W. MacKail, The life of William Morris, 2 vols. (1899)
  • Introductions to the collected works of William Morris, ed. M. Morris, 2 vols. (1973)
  • M. Morris, ed., William Morris: artist, writer, socialist, 2 vols. (1936)
  • E. P. Thompson, William Morris: romantic to revolutionary (1955)
  • A. Vallance, The life and work of William Morris (1897)
  • R. Watkinson, William Morris as designer (1967)
  • P. Thompson, The work of William Morris (1967)
  • C. Harvey and J. Press, William Morris: design and enterprise in Victorian Britain (1991)
  • G. Burne-Jones, Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, 2 vols. (1904)
  • J. Marsh, Jane and May Morris (1986)
  • S. Cockerell, diaries, BL, Add. MSS 52623–52624


  • BL, corresp., literary MSS, and papers, Add. MSS 37497–37498, 45298–45353, 45407–45412, 45891–45894; M/1009; Ashley MSS A230, 4902; RP1355, 3957; Egerton MS 2866
  • BLPES, letters relating to the Social Democratic Federation
  • Cheltenham City Art Gallery and Museum, Emery Walker Library
  • FM Cam., literary MSS, incl. ‘The earthly paradise’, travel journals, and papers
  • Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, California, letters
  • Hammersmith and Fulham Archives and Local History Centre, London, letters and papers relating to Morris & Co.; letters and printed material relating to him; papers of trustees and executors of William Morris
  • Hunt. L., letters and literary MSS
  • Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis, Amsterdam, letters and MSS
  • Kelmscott House, Hammersmith
  • Kelmscott Manor, Oxfordshire
  • NRA, corresp. and papers
  • Ransom HRC, papers
  • S. Antiquaries, Lond., calligraphic fragments and notebook incl. corresp. of Mary Morris
  • S. Antiquaries, Lond., literary MSS and papers
  • S. Antiquaries, Lond., papers relating to Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings
  • Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, London, letters
  • V&A NAL, corresp. and literary MSS
  • V&A NAL, notebook, partly written by him, of technical notes relating to printing and dyeing techniques used by Morris & Co.
  • William Morris Gallery, London, corresp., designs, drawings, and other MSS
  • BL, letters to Philip Burne-Jones, Add. MS 52708
  • BL, letters to Joseph Lane, Add. MS 46345
  • BL, letters to George Bernard Shaw, Add. MS 50541
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters, postcards, and notes to Leightons
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Dante Gabriel Rossetti
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Messrs Whittingham and Messrs Leighton
  • Castle Howard, North Yorkshire, letters to ninth earl of Carlisle
  • FM Cam., Blunt MSS
  • FM Cam., Burne-Jones MSS
  • FM Cam., Lytton MSS
  • Harvard U., Houghton L., letters to Robert Thomson
  • Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis, Amsterdam, corresp. with Andreas Scheu
  • L. Cong., corresp. of Morris & Co. with James McNeill Whistler
  • priv. coll., Walpole MSS
  • Staffs. RO, letters to Sir Thomas Wardle [copies]
  • V&A NAL, letters to Wilfrid Scawen Blunt
  • V&A NAL, Philip Webb archive, corresp. with Cockerell and Warington Taylor


  • W. Morris, self-portraits, pencil, 1855, V&A
  • D. G. Rossetti, pencil study, 1856, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery
  • D. G. Rossetti, group portrait, oils, 1858–64 (The seed of David), Llandaff Cathedral
  • E. Burne-Jones, caricatures, 1860 (copies), William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow
  • D. G. Rossetti, caricatures, 1860–69, BM
  • E. Burne-Jones, group portrait, oils, 1861 (The adoration of the magi), Tate collection
  • C. F. Murray, oils, 1870, William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow
  • G. F. Watts, oils, 1870, NPG [see illus.]
  • Elliott & Fry, photograph, 1877, William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow
  • W. B. Richmond, oils, exh. 1882, NPG
  • Elliott & Fry, photograph, 1886–9, Hammersmith and Fulham Archive
  • F. Hollyer, double portrait, photograph, 1890 (with Edward Burne-Jones), William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow
  • E. Walker, photographs, 1890, NPG, V&A
  • C. Fairfax-Murray, two drawings, 1896, Tate collection
  • A. Walker, sculpture, 1909, V&A
  • M. Beerbohm, pencil and watercolour drawing, 1916, Tate collection
  • E. Burne-Jones, caricatures, BM
  • E. Burne-Jones, caricatures, Harvard U., Fogg Art Museum
  • W. Crane, caricature, William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow
  • G. Howard, double portrait, drawing (with Thomas Carlyle), Carlisle Art Gallery
  • D. G. Rossetti, caricatures, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery
  • D. G. Rossetti, caricatures, William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow
  • watercolour drawing, NPG

Wealth at Death

£54,117 11s. 7d.: resworn probate, March 1897, CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1896)

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