William Morris( 24 March 1834 – 3 October 1896) was a man of many talents, whose life and life’s work, made a huge impact on the worlds of literature, design and politics. Here, we will concentrate on his design work.
He established the famous design company, Morris & Co., where he enlarged upon the skills he had acquired as an architect to embrace the arts of stained glass, embroidery, wallpaper and furniture design and tapestry. He strove for socialist ideals, both through his various initiatives to create artistic communities inspired by medieval guilds and, in later life, through his writings, lectures and marches working for the socialist cause.
The Morris family, descended from Welsh origins, not only provided an affluent Victorian household in which William developed as a child, but also supported many of his artistic enterprises throughout his life. His parents had nine children in total. In 1840 his father’s successful speculation in a copper mine in Devonshire allowed the family to move from Walthamstow to Woodford Hall, a magnificent villa in Epping Forest.
His idyllic childhood at Woodford Hall was to be a formative influence throughout his life. He inherited his father’s fascination for the Middle Ages, which they both indulged through visits to Essex’s many parish churches and Canterbury Cathedral, and visits to Queen Elizabeth I’s hunting lodge at Chingford Hatch awakened the young William to the wonders of traditional English interior decoration. These early experiences instilled an attentive observation of nature in Morris that resonated throughout his wallpaper design and his eloquent evocations of the English countryside in his writings.
His father died in 1848, leaving the family in excellent financial circumstances. Morris was then sent to Marlborough College where he received classical schooling and learned to despise the school’s teaching methods. In 1851, after riots at Marlborough, he rejoined his family and completed his secondary education with a private tutor. The family had resettled to Water House, Walthamstow, after his father’s death.
While at Marlborough, Morris had discovered the High Church Oxford Movement which fascinated him. In 1853 he went up to Exeter College, Oxford. His experience there, such as the idyllic medieval city, the circle of idealistic undergraduates and the writings of the Tractarians, Ruskin and Carlyle, were all to shape his artistic, professional and social life.