“Don’t copy any style at all, but make your own” – William Morris
I have never had anyone tell me that they don’t like the designs of William Morris and his circle of artists/artisans, nor have I ever heard anyone complain that they are too ornate, too flowery or too pretty. You cannot deny the beauty of their complex patterns and rich colors. They transcend what usually would be considered merely decorative.
I don’t know if an interior decorator of today would choose a William Morris wallpaper pattern for a home that wasn’t undergoing some sort of period restoration, but in smaller amounts – calendars, cards, notebooks – the designs appear as delicate, ornate treasures. Somehow they combine the beauty and abundance of nature with the precision and control of design in a perfect balance.
A few weeks ago, my daughter and I took the train to the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, London. She is design student at Pratt in New York. This was kind of a pilgrimage for both of us. (Once again, I must apologize for the poor quality of some of the photos. I have no choice but to take them on the fly, and the lighting in this museum made it particularly hard to get good pictures. I hope that they will at least give you the feeling of being right there with me, looking over my shoulder, so to speak).
I knew of William Morris as a designer and craftsman, but I didn’t know his first fame came as a poet and writer.
He also was a translator, weaver, embroiderer, stained-glass artist, type designer, calligrapher, publisher, wood-carver, political activist – and owner and manager of a highly successful interior design retail shop. Could he sing?
In the late 1800s, William Morris helped start what was to be known as the Arts and Crafts Movement; what he considered to be a “movement of ideas’ rather than a distinct visual style. Members believed tin social reform, education, environmental sustainability and self-sufficiency, as well as hand-craftsmanship, designing from nature and sympathetic use of materials.
In addition, Morris believed that no one should design an object without a full understanding of how it was going to be produced, which explains why he was driven to master so many crafts himself.
Morris’s first wallpaper design was inspired by the rose trellis in his garden.
You can see in this drawing how he drew and redrew as he revised his ideas, working the same piece until it was complete. He believed this approach was the best way to maintain the harmony and integrity of the work.
He hadn’t yet gained full confidence in his drawing abilities so he asked his friend and colleague Phillip Webb to draw the birds. He was 28 at that point.
Here are more of Morris’s drawings:
As a printmaker, I can appreciate that Morris insisted that his wallpapers be hand-printed from carved wooden blocks. Even though the technique was slower and more arduous than machine-printing, the results were far better and thus were worth the extra effort. Printmakers are artisans at heart.
Morris also designed textiles and researched the use of organic pigments and dyes.
This copy of Herball or Generall Historie of Plants was Morris’ own book that he had studied since he was a child. This page shows the roots of the madder plant which produce the madder rose dye.
Not only were the color tones of the organic pigments more natural and better suited to his designs, they caused less pollution than the aniline dyes that had become prevalent by then.
At age 49, to the surprise of many of his colleagues and friends, Morris became a revolutionary socialist. He felt that the British government was an hypocrisy, taxing the poor while favoring the rich (sound familiar?). It bothered him that only the wealthy could afford the high-quality goods that Morris & Company produced. “To apply art to useful wares…is not a frivolity, but a part of the serious business of life.”
He became a well-recognized public figure.
Morris envisioned an “ecotopia” society, where people lived communally with no central government, private property or currency. He attended protests, gave lectures, and published books.
He founded the Kelmscott Press:
His youngest daughter, May Morris, also became an accomplished designer and textile artist.
Morris & Co. also sold ceramic ware and tiles.
What I have shown here is a very small sampling of what the William Morris Gallery has to offer. Next, my daughter and I hope to visit Kelmscott Manor in the Cotswolds. That will be another pilgrimage for another day!