Wonderful creativity set in a beautiful environment. William Morris (24 March 1834 – 3 October 1896) was an English textile designer, poet, novelist, translator, and socialist activist. Born in Walthamstow, Essex, to a wealthy middle-class family, Morris came under the strong influence of medievalism while studying Classics at Oxford University, there joining the Birmingham Set. As a child, Morris was kept largely housebound at Elm House by his mother; there, he spent much time reading, favouring the novels of Walter Scott. Aged 6, Morris moved with his family to the Georgian Italianate mansion at Woodford Hall, Woodford, Essex, which was surrounded by 50 acres of land adjacent to Epping Forest. He took an interest in fishing with his brothers as well as gardening in the Hall's grounds, and spent much time exploring the Forest, where he was fascinated both by the Iron Age earthworks at Loughton Camp and Ambresbury Banks and by the Early Modern Hunting Lodge at Chingford After university he trained as an architect, married Jane Burden, and developed close friendships with the Pre-Raphaelite artists Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti and with the Neo-Gothic architect Philip Webb. Webb and Morris designed a family home, Red House, then in Kent, where the latter lived from 1859 to 1865, before relocating to Bloomsbury, central London. In 1861, Morris founded a decorative arts firm with Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Webb, and others: the Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. Becoming highly fashionable and much in demand, the firm profoundly influenced interior decoration throughout the Victorian period, with Morris designing tapestries, wallpaper, fabrics, furniture, and stained glass windows. In 1875, Morris assumed total control of the company, which was renamed Morris & Co. Morris is recognised as one of the most significant cultural figures of Victorian Britain; though best known in his lifetime as a poet, he posthumously became better known for his designs.
Morris was a truly eclectic figure with a vast range of interests; for example, Morris is well known for taking inspiration from medieval European art, but perhaps less for his interest in historic textiles from the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent. Morris admired the fact that Indian cottons were hand-printed with natural, rather than chemical, dyes. In Britain knowledge of how to produce dyes from plants and vegetables was fast disappearing; most textile manufacturers found chemical dyes cheaper and easier to use. But Morris felt natural colours had a richness lacking in chemical dyes, and spent ten years working with a Staffordshire silk dyer named Thomas Wardle to revive their use. The formal pairing of birds and dragons was partly inspired by historic Italian silks, though the colour scheme also echoes Islamic art. Morris thought all designers should take inspiration from the past, using their own inventiveness as well to avoid pastiche. His knowledge of historic textiles was so widely respected he became an advisor to the Victoria and Albert Museum, encouraging them to buy a Persian carpet now recognised as one of the most important textiles in the world. Morris is best known today as a wallpaper designer. Morris and a group of friends had started an interior decorating company, known as ‘The Firm’, in 1861. Determined to revolutionise standards of design, they produced furniture, textiles, tiles and glass as well as wallpaper. At first Morris was hesitant about his design skills. The pencil lines show how often he revised his ideas; he asked his friend, the architect Philip Webb, to draw the birds. Morris’s wallpapers were hand-printed from wooden blocks. He preferred traditional techniques. Hand-printing was time-consuming and expensive, but Morris thought the results far outshone the machine-printed wallpapers produced by many Victorian factories.
Morris was 49 when he crossed ‘the river of fire’ and became a revolutionary socialist. He’d always felt uneasy about the disparity between his comfortable lifestyle and the conditions endured by most of the British working class. Now he worked to overthrow the system that enabled the rich to profit from their labour, going on marches, founding newspapers and lecturing all over the country. Burne-Jones designed the image of Adam and Eve for Morris’s book' A Dream of John Ball', about a priest who was one of the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. Ball believed all people were created equal, asking ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’ Morris’s company decorated churches as well as houses. Religious reform and flourishing economic growth produced a great upsurge in church building which the Firm was well-placed to take advantage of. They had great success with stained-glass windows. Morris particularly admired the techniques used to produce medieval stained glass, and wanted his company’s products to be equally impressive. The Firm’s reputation was based on artist-led design, traditional techniques and high-quality materials. Morris supervised the painting and assembly of all their windows himself, choosing the colours and where to place the lines of lead joining the pieces of glass with particular care. The William Morris Gallery is fully accessible, with an accessible entrance, accessible toilets and lift access to all floors. An induction loop and large print labels are available at reception.
Location : William Morris Gallery, Lloyd Park, Forest Road, London E17 4PP.
Opening Times: Wednesday to Sunday 10:00 to 17:00.
Tickets : Free.
Tel: 020 8496 4390