The tireless designer and polymath still influences the way our homes look after more than a century and a half...
The distinctive and quintessentially English Arts and Crafts designs of William Morris have been influencing our interior design tastes for more than 150 years. Here we take a good look at the man, his influences, the principles that underpinned his designs and why, almost two centuries after his birth, those designs still have such enormous appeal. We’ve also put together a mini collection of Pooky lighting that would grace a Morris-inspired home.
Morris designs rule in what is regarded as Britain’s most authentic Arts and Crafts house, the Hammersmith home of engraver Emery Walker (1851-1933). Image credit: Spitalfields Life
Essex boy, poet and polymath
Unlike some of the early British designers we have featured, William Morris did not have to pull himself up by the bootstraps from humble origins. He was born in March 1834 into a wealthy family in Walthamstow (then in Essex), the third of his parents’ surviving children.
It was comfortable and bookish childhood, much of which was spent at the family’s Georgian Italianate mansion, Woodford Hall. There were pony rides, visits to churches, and days spent exploring nearby Epping Forest, and a less than happy time boarding at a local prep school.
After the early death of his father in 1847 William and his family had to downsize to the smaller but equally elegant double bow-fronted Water House at Woodford, which now houses the William Morris Gallery. William, meanwhile, was packed off to Marlborough College in 1848 for three years, as unhappy an experience as prep school had been, involving bullying, boredom and homesickness. Rescue came in the form of a year of home schooling, before the young man went up to Oxford’s Exeter College.
Water House, Woodford – now the William Morris Gallery
Morris was unmoved by Classics teaching at Oxford; what did inspire him was the pre-capitalist mediaeval world, with its emphasis on chivalric values and sense of community. Thomas Carlyle and Christian socialists like Charles Kingsley influenced his thinking on politics and economics, and he met Edward Burne-Jones, who would become an eminent painter and Morris’s lifelong friend and collaborator.
But there was no greater influence – not least on Morris’s design work – than that of John Ruskin, who had rejected industrial design, which he saw as dehumanising, while championing the work of craftspeople and artisans. And then there was the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which drew on Mediaevalism and Romanticism, favouring rich detail, intense colour and complexity.
William Morris wall hanging, now at the V&A. (Image credit)
After graduating, Morris embarked on an architectural apprenticeship, at the same time, investing in the work of Pre-Raphaelite artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, to whom Burne-Jones was apprenticed, and Ford Madox Ford. Before long, architecture was abandoned for art and poetry, and Morris also started to work on illuminated manuscripts and embroidered hangings. It was also during these early postgraduate years that Morris met Jane Burden, who would become his model and muse and, in 1859, his wife.
The Red House
The Entrance Hall at Red House with Wooden settle depicting the German epic, Niebelungenlied – handpainted by William Morris. — © National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie
Marriage and, in due course, fatherhood (Jenny was born in 1861 and May in 1862) prompted Morris to design and build a suitable family home away from central London – the Red House in Upton. The Morris family’s artist friends made it a joint collaboration, contributing murals throughout the house, inspired by Arthurian legends and the Trojan Wars.
The Red House years also saw the birth of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co, otherwise known as the Firm, a decorative arts company, committed to affordability and anti-elitism. The company also created apprenticeships for destitute boys who had been rescued from a life on the capital’s streets. The Firm’s workshops also produced architectural carvings, furniture, metalwork, murals and stained glass windows, all of which were increasingly in demand by the Victorian era’s expanding middle class.
Design for Trellis wallpaper (1862)
Morris, meanwhile, had turned his attention from painting to wallpaper patterns, the first of which, Trellis, went into production in 1862. Inspired by the rose trellis at the Red House, it was followed in 1864 by Daisy, described by the V&A as ‘a simple design of naively drawn meadow flowers’, and Fruit and Pomegranate in 1866. But the multiple colours used in these early designs made them expensive; the next group of Morris wallpapers – the Indian range – used only two colours, which made them more affordable and boosted sales.
Morris’s Indian design wallpaper (Image: V&A)
Morris in the metropolis
As the business expanded, it became clear that working from a small rural base was no longer viable and, in 1865, Morris sold the Red House and moved back to London. The company was on a roll; new, prestigious commissions included dining rooms for the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A) and St James’s Palace.
Snakeshead printed textile (1876)
The 1870s were a time of intense activity: 32 printed fabrics, 23 woven fabrics, and 21 wallpapers, as well as carpets, rugs, tapestries and embroideries. The middle of the decade saw two major changes: in 1875, William Morris became the sole director of the restructured business, which would now be known as Morris & Company and in the same year, the company expanded into retail, opening a store on Oxford Street in London’s West End.
This rapidly became a fashionable shopping destination, where customers could find everything they needed under one roof, an approach adopted by many successful designer-retailers ever since.
Success followed success; four years later William Morris bought Merton Abbey Mills, a textile factory in south London, enabling the company’s various specialist workshops to be brought under one roof, which made quality control and production easier. And we should acknowledge the invaluable contribution to the company’s success made by Morris’s daughter, May, an accomplished designer and embroiderer in her own right, and his assistant Henry Dearle. They would play an increasingly important role in the company, particularly in William Morris’s later life, when he became involved again in political activities, returned to writing, and, in 1891, set up the Kelmscott Press.
Kelmscott Manor – William Morris’s ‘heaven on earth’
Exterior, Kelmscott Manor, William Morris’s country retreat. (Image credit)
Despite the company’s increasing London-based success, William Morris still, always craved the tranquility and inspiration he found in the English countryside. Six years after leaving the Red House, he purchased Kelmscott Manor, in the Cotswolds, as a country retreat. Morris, his family and colleagues would transform the interiors of the limestone house, which dates from 1570, and those interiors remain more or less unchanged today.
Kelmscott is currently closed for major restoration but when it reopens, a visit is a must! Many of the famous textiles and embroideries can be seen, together with examples of Morris furniture, Morris’s original books, and an enviable art collection, including works by Dürer, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and Pieter Brueghel the Younger.
Morris’ Bedroom, Kelmscott Manor. (Image credit)
Morris died at the relatively early age of 62; the cause, according to his doctor, was, ‘…simply being William Morris and having done more work than most ten men.’ Kelmscott remained in the family’s ownership until the death of May Morris in 1838. May had bequeathed the house to Oxford University, although ownership was eventually transferred to the Society of Antiquaries, which remains responsible for Kelmscott.
Given the ornate and highly decorative nature of William Morris’s work, we tend to go for a light-touch effect these days – curtains or wallpaper, perhaps, or possibly both but within in an uncluttered neutral setting. This enables the 21st century homemaker to appreciate all those glorious Morris details, without feeling overwhelmed. (Take broadcaster Zoe Ball’s Sussex home for example - she said that working with today’s Morris & Co, allowed her to be ‘in fabric and wallpaper heaven from start to finish.’)
What is beyond doubt, however, is that these designs, many of which are over 150 years old are as fresh to our eyes as they were to those of our Victorian ancestors.
Thoroughly modern Morris, featuring Willow Bough wallpaper in ecru and silver (via Wallpaper Direct).
Lighting - with William Morris in mind
We’ll take as a given Morris’s maxim, 'Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.' Morris was a lifelong champion of the artisan and craft skills, so that’s what we are emphasising here in our special selection of Pooky lighting.
While we are on the subject of hands, there’s our collaboration with paint and paper company, Little Greene. This features some of Pooky’s favourite wooden table and floor lamp bases finished with Little Greene paint (in a choice of colours, of course) topped with a Pooky shade of your choice. Here’s our Ginger base, painted with subtle Boringdon Green. Why not pair with an equally subtle Morris-esque shade like a 30cm straight empire Clouds Tulasi....
Pooky make beautiful, affordable designer lighting for beautiful homes. Browse our full collection of lamps and shades here.
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