William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites
By Adele Kenny
Reprinted with the kind permission of Antiques & Auction News, January 2006.
Copyright © 2006. All rights reserved.
When William Morris died on October 3, 1896, his doctor gave the cause of death as “... being William Morris and having done more work than most ten men.” Today, anyone interested in the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late nineteenth century is familiar with his name.
Morris was born on March 24, 1834 in Walthamstow, England. The eldest of nine children and the son of a wealthy London stockbroker, he lived with his parents and siblings in a large country house near Epping Forest until he was thirteen years old. Later stating that he was born out of his time, he spent his childhood absorbed medieval lore.
While a student at Oxford’s Exeter College, Morris met Edward Coley Burne-Jones, a young artist who was mentored by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Burne-Jones shared Morris’s interest in medievalism and Arthurian legend, and in 1856 they became roommates. Rossetti, John Everett Millais, and William Holman Hunt had established the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) with seven central members in 1848. Young, idealistic, and talented, the group believed that the truest art was produced before the time of Renaissance painter Raphael.
The PRB denounced idealized Renaissance art and rejected Victorian materialism and pretension. Committed to revolution against the strictures of Royal Academy art, they pioneered the path of British artists toward greater individuality, realistic forms, and attention to detail and color. Their subject matter was drawn from the Bible, medieval tales, classical mythology, and nature. Morris’s personal philosophy and long-time interest in the Middle Ages found sympathetic values in Pre-Raphaelite beliefs. Although the original Brotherhood dissolved in 1853, disciples and a second wave of Pre-Raphaelites embraced Aesthetic Pre-Raphaelitism which, in turn, led to the Arts and Crafts Movement and modern functional design.
In 1858 Morris wrote “The Defense of Guinevere,” a long poem dedicated to Rossetti. As fate would have it, the poem was oddly prophetic of Morris’s marriage and his wife’s liaison with Rossetti. On April 24, 1859, Rossetti introduced Morris to Jane Burden. Rossetti, for whom she modeled, was deeply infatuated with her, despite his long courtship and marriage to Elizabeth Siddal. Morris and Jane married in 1859 when Morris was twenty-five and Jane eighteen. The first years of their marriage were happy and two daughters, Jenny and May, were born in 1961 and 1862. In 1862, shortly after the birth of a stillborn daughter, Rossetti’s wife died a presumed suicide.
Although Morris once planned to pursue a career in architecture, he discovered a stronger inclination toward design. In 1861, he established the London-based firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, and Co. in partnership with Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown, Philip Webb, Charles Faulkner, and P.P. Marshall. Dedicated to “organic” fine art workmanship, they produced and supervised production of furniture, wallpapers, murals, tapestries, stained glass, metal works, tiles, and embroidery.
Morris’s work was revolutionary in an era when mass production resulted in lower standards of design and quality. Rejecting the elaborate embellishments of Victorian decoration, he focused on nature and the uncomplicated but rich gothic devices that found favor during the Victorian Gothic Revival. Morris believed that the decorative arts were an expression of natural beauty and that a home should only contain items that were both decorative and useful.
In 1875, Morris bought out his partners, and the firm became Morris & Co. As Morris experimented to recover old weaving and dying techniques that had been displaced by the Industrial Revolution, the firm’s textiles became popular with the wealthy upper classes, and in 1881 the company was hired to redecorate the throne room and reception rooms at St. James’s Palace. In 1887, Morris designed special wallpaper for Balmoral, Queen Victoria’s residence in Scotland. However, Morris’s commitment to artistry and his efforts to employ medieval techniques to create simple and beautiful products for the common people was a cost-intensive enterprise affordable chiefly to the elite. From 1877 on, Morris became increasingly involved in politics, donating money, delivering speeches, and writing articles and verse that promoted social reform.
While Morris devoted himself to art, business, and socialist activity, his wife began a passionate affair with Rossetti, who shared the lease with Morris and Jane at their Kelmscott Manor home. Around this time, Morris became friendly with Georgiana Burne-Jones whose husband was involved with PRB model Maria Zambaco. The web became increasingly tangled; however, there is nothing to suggest that Morris’s relationship with Georgiana was anything but platonic.
During the early 1870s, Morris visited Iceland, which became a spiritual holy land for him, spurred him to involvement in British Marx-based Socialism, and inspired a series of poems and translations of Icelandic sagas. Jane was left at Kelmscott with Rossetti. In a nineteenth century “Camelot,” Morris was cast as Arthur with Jane as Guinevere and Rossetti as Lancelot. Morris seemed to have resigned himself to a failed marriage and his wife’s affair with Rossetti; however, in 1874, Morris declined to renew the shared Kelmscott lease. Rossetti moved out, and Morris later relocated with his family to the smaller Kelmscott House. During 1875-76, Rossetti took a cottage in Sussex where Jane stayed with him. By 1877, Rossetti’s mental state had deteriorated and Jane reunited with her husband. Rossetti died on April 9, 1882.
Morris was asked to become England’s Poet Laureate in 1892, and honor that he declined. Although he remained close to his daughters (especially May who shared his artistic nature), his health was poor, and his personal life was unhappy (after Rossetti’s death Jane took Wilfred Blount as her lover). During the last five years of his life, William found solace in writing prose fantasy romances.
Morris provided the key incentive for the Art and Crafts Movement. Although he left few paintings, his furniture, wallpapers, innovations in textile manufacture, superb stained glass, and typeface designs became world-known. His Kelmscott Press, founded in 1891, led Walter Crane to call Morris “the first to approach the craft of practical printing from the point of view of the artist,” and the Kelmscott Chaucer, designed in the Medieval illuminated manuscript style that Morris hoped to revive, has been described as the most beautiful volume produced since the Renaissance. Morris’s political and nonfiction works are still widely read and collected, and his utopian prose fantasy, The Wood Beyond the World (1894), greatly influenced the fantasy and science fiction genre. Today, Morris is considered the father of the Arts and Crafts Movement.