His prolific talent was awe-inspiring and staggeringly prodigious, covering all aspects of Art and Craft from Stained Glass, Embroidery, Painting, Writing, Poetry, Tapestries and Textiles, Ecclesiastical Decoration, through to Printing and was probably the greatest and most influential of the artists and designers of the 20th Century.
Reviving many ancient crafts, tapestry weaving amongst them, was an opportunity to do this. Such was his enthusiasm he built a high-warp loom in his bedroom and taught himself to weave from an 18th century French craft manual, visiting French weavers and the ailing Aubusson factory.
With friends such as Edward Burne-Jones, John Henry Dearle, Ford Maddox Brown and Dante Gabriel Rossetti they formed Morris & Co. An important part of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement and Arts & Crafts movements in which he played an influential part. Their influence was spread far and wide from architecture to gardens.
They designed tapestries based on medieval styles and techniques and became a commercial success reviving the ancient craft. He is perhaps best known for his magnificent ‘Tree of Life’ tapestry.
Marianne Stokes, the distinguished artist and a member of the Royal Academy was part of the Morris & Co elite coterie designing the magnificent ‘Ehret die Frauen’ tapestry meaning Honour the Women representing the five virtues of womanhood and inspired from a line in the poem ‘Wurde der Frauen’ by the poet Frederick Schiller. She married Adrian Stokes RA making her a distant relation from my mothers side.
Much of Morris & Co.’s design work and manufacturing was produced at Merton Abbey, a village on the River Wandle in Surrey. Despite his ambition to be a painter and his later reputation as a writer, poet, publisher, political thinker and activist, it is as a designer of patterns, particularly botanical images, for which he is most well known.
There was a profound social philosophy behind Morris’ designing. He was a committed socialist and medievalist who was horrified by increasing mechanization and mass-production in the arts, and he dreamed of reestablishing the values of traditional craftsmanship and simplicity of design. His slogan was that art should be “by the people, for the people”.
Unfortunately, the cost of producing these quality items by hand meant that they were too pricey for ordinary people. Only the rich could afford the products of Morris and Company, a bitter irony which caused him great distress.
The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings was founded by William Morris and other members of the Pre Raphaelite brotherhood, in 1877, to oppose what they saw as the insensitive renovation of ancient buildings then occurring in Victorian England.
Architectural heritage lives on thankfully, through this society, passing on the much needed craftsmen skills to new generations and appreciation of preservation rather than restoration.
Possibly his greatest and last love was the Kelmscott printing press he set up in Hammersmith, London producing limited edition books, it’s finest achievement being the laborately detailed ‘Works of Geoffrey Chaucer’ designed by Morris with exquisite wood-cut illustratrations by Burne-Jones using traditional methods and fifteenth century typography employing the values of the Arts & Crafts Movement and eschewing soulless mass-production
His political views on the environment, preservation of artistic and social values, bloated de-centralised government, were far more in keeping with today’s ethos but at the time were considered too fanciful and ‘romantic’. With the benefit of hindsight it would appear he was way ahead of his time and prescient of what is happening now in our society.
Sadly, after his death the company went into decline and in 1940 Sanderson bought the entire company including the magnificent original printing blocks and stock for the paltry sum of £400.
Some of these designs have been resurrected by Sanderson in a range of Le Castille cushion covers featuring William Morris classics such as the 1929 Eton Rural ‘Early Tulips’ and ‘Tree Poppy’ designs from the Sanderson William Morris archives to celebrate their 150th anniversary of design. And ‘Dandelion Clocks’ a classic retro design from the ’50’s. These were amongst many showcased for the Fashion & Textiles Museums exhibition: ‘Very Sanderson – a 150 years of English Decoration’.
During the 60’s William Morris designs enjoyed something of a renaissance with Sanderson wallpapers and fabrics, the most famous being ‘Golden Lily’ and continued until well into the ‘seventies. With the advent of ‘eighties minimalism these designs were considered fussy and old-fashioned. Certainly there was a similarity in Laura Ashleys concept of simplicity, natural fibres and dyes. Along with Liberty of London: synonymous with Art Nouveau and aesthetically pleasing eclectic design in both contemporary and classic, who continued to sell Morris & Co fabrics and wallpapers.
With the fashions coming full circle and designers such as Kath Kidston bringing these designs back as ‘vintage’ it is as popular as ever.
I have William Morris Sanderson ‘Bird and Peony’ wallpaper in my dining room – which I have never tired of in the thirty years it’s been on the wall – so can attest to his success in achieving this aim of good design standing the test of time.