William Morris
The angry Victorian


"He was a poet and an author, he was a social reformer, he was a decorative artist, a designer and a reformer in the field of art" - with these words Nikolaus Pevsner, one of the greatest admirers of William Morris' work, referred to his universality. Pevsner, a German living in England and teaching art history there, placed Morris at the origin of a genealogy of modern trends that wished to unite art and life. In his pioneer work "Wegbereiter der modernen Formgebung von Morris bis Gropius" (Pioneers in the field of design from Morris to Gropius), which was first published in England in 1963 and whose many editions has fascinated whole generations of architects and art historians ever since, Pevsner presents William Morris as the father of modern art. He characterizes him as someone who repeatedly took initiatives in a series of articles relating art and artistic crafts, architecture and urban development which went beyond the Arts and Crafts movement extending to Jugenstil, the Deutsche Werkbund in Germany and to the Bauhaus and its leader Walter Gropius. All these artists were not primarily interested in material culture, in the objects themselves and their form, but in changing their living environment. Standing on the threshold of industrial culture and of what Habermas once called the "Kolonisierung der Lebenswelten" (the colonisation of living environments) by economic and industrial rationalism, they created alternatives in order to save the way of life which they themselves had decided upon and created.

Morris set the example for many revolutionary artists. The Belgian artist Henry van de Velde paid homage to him in the following words: "I wish to speak of a man who is the first ever of his kind. He has played a role in the history of mankind no one has played before. It was so important, so complex and revolutionary that one feels dizzy when thinking about all the work he had to do. One single man who was a perfect poet, an unequalled decorative artist, who exercised all branches of art and who, on top of that, was a fiery, sincere active socialist ..." In his euphoric description, van de Velde endows Morris with the forces of a titan and the features of a hero.

Hermann Muthesius, an important representative of the English reform movement in Germany around the turn of the century, sketched the events there in a more simple but no less emphatic manner: "The notion of 'English taste' is already a commonplace ... Today, 'English' stands for 'the newest'". At that time, Morris's thoughts and ideas were already well known and under his influence a whole range of craft corporations had been founded which together were called the Arts and Crafts movement. Their example had such far-reaching consequences that they created an international reform movement within artistic craft.

William Morris was born near London in 1834. He was the son of a rich trader in Cognac who also was a successful shareholder. At the beginning of his studies - he wanted to become a theologian - Morris joined a number of friends who had close contacts with the artistic movement known as the Pre-Raphaelites. The artists who belonged to this group and signed their works with the mysterious abbreviation PRB - "Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood" - wanted to reinvoke the medieval period of Italian trecento in their artistic themes and their style of painting. According to them, one could still find a religious purity and a monastic piety and simplicity in the period that preceded Renaissance. These features corresponded with their own desire to renew religious feeling in their own time. Their gipsy-like liberalism and their social and moral salvoes against Victorian society fitted perfectly into the frame of mind of these 'angry young men' to which Morris belonged.

The writings of the art critic John Ruskin were a revelation to Morris, especially the chapter "Vom Wesen der Gotik" (On the Nature of Gothic Art) in "Die Steine von Venedig" (The Stones of Venice) which was published in 1853. In this work, the style of the craftsman and the medieval stone masons were idealised and described as being symbolic of 'societas' which had not yet become alienated - a utopia projected into the past. According to Ruskin, one could still feel man in the irregularity of products made according to traditional methods. Contrary this, the soul of man could no longer be felt in the perfectionism and smoothness of machine-made products. Moreover, man no longer enjoyed his work which by then had become fragmented by the division of labour.

Some of the trips which Morris took with his friends to the North of France, increased his love for Gothic art and he praised it in numerous poems.

Morris interrupted his studies in theology to work at the office of the architect Georg Edmund Street where he got to know his later friend and partisan Philip Webb and many others. The PreRaphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti also influenced him greatly.

Contrary to his faithful friend and fellow student Edward BurneJones, who hid his criticism of society for as long as he lived by portraying poetic themes from the Middle-Ages and by escaping his own time in his paintings, Morris was a man of action. He carried out the ideas of those he admired and in 1861, he founded "Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co." in which he himself invested the most by also making use of his mother's capital. The members called themselves practitioners of artistic crafts. Since they were disgusted by the pomp and mixture of styles in the late Victorian artistic craft, they set about making all kinds of household goods which they designed according to their own imagination. The idea of starting their own firm was also triggered when Morris and his young wife had their own house built following a design by Philip Webb. Because the bricks of the outside walls had not been faced, the private home was sometimes called "The red house". Together, the artists designed and produced all the objects in the house, after they had realised that there were very few household items of good taste on offer on the English market. At the time, they had already been experimenting with alternative means of production. Morris continued his experiments at his company. He designed his first wall paper which was printed a few years later and, together with his colleagues, he was mainly involved in the production of stained-glass windows. In 1862, the company enjoyed its first, albeit modest success at the world exhibition in London. Their public acclaim resulted in their gaining two orders from the Court: the armoury and the tapestry hall at the St-James palace. Besides the orders placed by wealthy clients, the work they did for the "Green Dining-Room" at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London which included wall and ceiling wainscotting, stained glass, wallpaper and furniture, was an important achievement.

Morris' activities as a decorative artist were complemented by the numerous collections he published as a poet and as a translator of the Icelandic sagas. In 1868 and in 1870, he published his main two-volumed work "The Earthly Paradise" which was very well received at the time. His trip to Iceland, where he learned about the Nordic sagas and fairy tales, also left its mark on several important poems and prose translations.

In 1871, he and D. G. Rossetti rented Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire. Designing wallpaper and fabrics became one of his principal activities. He produced hand-printed fabrics by using matrixes which was a time-consuming activity. He also developed and designed numerous patterns for copying. They were partly produced at his own workshop, but also by other craft companies such as that of Thomas Wardle in Leek. He then turned to linen, wool and silk textiles woven on the Jacquard hand loom, as well as to floor carpets and wall tapestries, woven on the loom following the designs of his friend Edward Burne-Jones.

In the late seventies, Morris increasingly lost his belief in the idea that artistic craft could bring about certain changes in society. And yet he became increasingly involved in politics and even in party politics. In 1877, he wrote his first public manifesto "To the workers of England", in which he heavily attacked industrialisation and capitalism. During that same year however, he published theoretical writings on art such as "The Lesser Arts", about the lesser or practical arts as the applied arts were usually called at the time. He defended the idea of reevaluating and promoting artistic craft as such, besides the so-called higher arts of painting and sculpture.

In 1875, he became director of the company and from then on it was called "Morris & Co". When it moved to Merton Abbey, the management fell into the hands of Georg Wardle. It produced large quantities of printed fabrics which were very much in demand among the English middle class at the time.

Morris joined a few socialist associations and propagated 'practical socialism'. But in fact what he defended amounted to rather general and vague social ideals: "By socialism I mean a certain state of affairs in a society where there are neither rich nor poor people, neither rulers nor suppressed people, neither loafers nor people who are overworked, neither mentally ill intellectuals nor spiritually ill craftsmen - in short, a society in which all men live in equal conditions".

The role of England in the Balkan war and the "Bloody Sunday" demonstration of on the 13th of November 1887, which involved heavy confrontations with the police, resulted in Morris becoming indeed more aware politically, but this did not alter anything to the fact that his company mainly accepted orders from rich clients. Morris never succeeded in finding a solution for this contradiction.

Despite his democratic convictions, by the end of his life, Morris once again devoted himself to producing very expensive luxurious limited editions of his works and started the Kelmscott Press. Out of reaction to mass produced books in English, he presented high quality objects which were perfected to the smallest detail. To him a book was the summit of a Gesamtkunstwerk, of a total work of art. He indeed designed each element himself, from the typeface and the illustrations to the endpaper and the binding. He even had special paper made.

Morris died on the 3rd of October 1896. In his work, there always was a close link between the reform of artistic craft and social criticism. According to him, at the basis of sham work, i.e. inferior quality cheap machine-made mass-produced books, lay the factory owners' desire for profit. Just like his peer, John Ruskin, he thought that the remedy for the disastrous consequences of industrialisation was the revival of traditional crafts and handiwork. In 1879, he stated in "The Art of the People": "I am sure that our modern world needs two virtues, if we ever want life to become beautiful", "and I am convinced that they are absolutely necessary for giving birth to a form of art that is made by people for people, for the mutual happiness of those who create this art and those who use it. These virtues are reasonableness and simplicity in life." Morris had his doubts about industrial progress because it would lead to the destruction of the environment if it were not pursued according to certain ethical code. That is why he always linked his idea of art, which he always saw as belonging to a whole, to that of hand craft. Morris hoped that by applying the principles he propagated in reforming artistic craft and handiwork according to the principles he propagated, a path would be cleared for a new society.