William Morris: Architecture, Design & Wallpaper
Written by Pam Preedy.
We know William Morris from the many wonderful objects that are found on sale in our museums and galleries including carrier bags, handbag mirrors, gift wrap, mugs and tiles, but William was so much more than this. He was born into an upper-middleclass family and spent his whole adult life in revolt against its values. He lived in a mansion set within a 50-acre park adjacent to Epping Forest. He was one of nine children and was free to explore his surroundings and the forest; as such, he had a deep love of nature in all its forms.
He, like John Ruskin, loved the courtliness and heroism of medieval legend and the individuality and creativity of the medieval world. He despised the industrialised world in which he lived. Comparing the lives of medieval stonemasons (who were free to express themselves in their work), with the Victorian workmen who were treated as commodities, he said: “All the minor arts” of mid-Victorian England “were in a state of complete degradation.” By ‘minor arts’ he meant all things used for daily living – dinnerware, furniture, fabrics and wallpaper. His reforming zeal led to the building of Red House in Bexleyheath and the establishment of ‘The Firm’ – officially Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co, which soon became the most celebrated design company in history.
It was set up by Peter Paul Marshall, a civil engineer and minor painter with connections among pre-Raphaelite patrons. Charles Faulkner, an Oxford friend and mathematician, became The Firm’s first business manager. The other partners were all accomplished artists: Rossetti, Burne-Jones, an architect, and pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown. They quickly found commissions amongst clergymen for the renovation of churches. This set them on the path to success as their name became well-known. In 1875, Morris gained sole ownership of the firm, now called Morris & Co.
Morris was a workaholic. In one of his many books he wrote, “Fancy people not liking to work! It’s too ridiculous.”
His work covered a range of interests; from designing wallpaper to weaving tapestry and writing on anything from romances to politics. Although he despised his own social class, they had the financial means to purchase his wares and he focussed on the upper middle-class.
At the height of his career he changed from a Gladstonian Liberal and joined the socialist Fabian Society founded in 1884. Sidney and Beatrice Webb were two of the most famous founder members. Today, his designs are still readily available and popular.
I would like to introduce Balgowan School and Miss Robinson’s Year 6 class, who have recently enjoyed an art project based on the work of William Morris. Here are some of the pupils’ responses:
“This term we have created artwork inspired by William Morris. To create the print in his style, we practised our drawings and developed our ideas, then we sketched the print into a polystyrene block, painted it and then pushed our design onto paper, using a roller to transfer the paint off. I found this technique quite tricky as his work is very intricate and detailed.”
“William Morris was born on the 24th March 1834. His father was wealthy and Will wanted to be a priest, but then he chose to become an artist instead. Surrounded by friends who were skilful, he suddenly had the idea of creating wallpaper while decorating his house.”
“Morris was a manufacturer, poet and artist and his work can be found across the country, most commonly on wallpaper.”
“His designs included floral patterns (such as flowers and birds) to bring city dwellers closer to the country through his prints. He also used symmetrical patterns so that it could cope with the process of stamping. Even in 2022, he is still renowned for his influential patterns and prints.
Further your research
For more information visit the Bromley Historic Collections on the 2nd floor of Bromley Central Library to learn more about Bromley Borough’s history.
Originally published in Life in Bromley magazine (Issue 7, September 2022)