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Morris in Bloomsbury

24/01/2017
by Alex MacGregor

In November 1856, a youthful William Morris & his friend from Oxford, Edward Burne-Jones, moved to three unfurnished rooms on the first floor of 17 Red Lion Square, Bloomsbury. The rooms had previously been occupied by the artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Walter Deverell. Morris’s personal and professional association with this part of Bloomsbury would continue for the next 25 years. The photo shows 17 Red Lion Square as it stands today complete with a commemorative plaque marking its famous residents.

Burne Jones had moved to London to paint under Rossetti's instruction and William was articled to G.E Street who had moved his architectural practice from Oxford to London in August 1856. At 17 Red Lion Square, William Morris was inspired to design several pieces of furniture for his bachelor pad. His room-mate Burne-Jones wrote, 'Topsy (Morris) has had some furniture (chairs and table) made after his own design; they are as beautiful as medieval work, and when we have painted designs of knights and ladies upon them they will be perfect marvels'.

Rossetti was invited to help in the decoration of a solid, rustic chair, christened the Arming of the Knight chair due to the scene he painted on it. He wrote to William Allingham that Morris, 'and I have painted the back of a chair with figures and inscriptions in gules and vert and azure, and we are all three going to cover a cabinet with pictures'. When George Boyce visited the rooms in May 1858 he noted in his Diary the, 'very interesting drawings, tapestries and furniture, the latter gorgeously painted in subjects by Jones and Morris and Rossetti'. Some of the pieces designed by Morris for Red Lion Square now reside in museums around the world: the rustic round table can be seen at The Wilson - Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum, the Arming of the Knight Chair painted by Rossetti now lives in the Delaware Art Museum and a large settle also designed for No. 17 occupies Red House, Morris’s next home in Bexleyheath.

Morris’s association with Bloomsbury was also professional: the first headquarters of what was to become Morris & Co. were at 8 Red Lion Square, Bloomsbury (alas the original building is no longer there). Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. opened for business in April 1861 using the first floor of the Red Lion Square house as offices and showroom. In the attics on the third floor were the workshops and in the basement, was a furnace for firing glass for stained-glass windows and tiles. Rossetti referred to the building as, "the Topsaic laboratory" - Morris was nicknamed Top by his friends. Having outgrown their headquarters at 8 Red Lion Square, in 1865 Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co moved a few squares away to 26 Queen Square, Bloomsbury. The Firm (as the partners called the business) occupied this house for the next 17 years.

An office and showroom formed the ground floor and there was a large workshop in the rear in what had previously been the ballroom of the large house. In a court at the back were other small workshops as well as a kiln. Further works were conducted close by in Ormond Yard. The Morris family, having reluctantly sold William's beloved 'palace of art' - Red House - to be closer to the business, lived 'above the shop'. In 1881 the National Hospital took over the remainder of the lease for the sum of £3000 and The Firm moved premises to Merton Abbey. Today 26 Queen Square forms part of The National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery.

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William Morris’s personal and professional association with Bloomsbury spanned 25 years including two residences and two locations for his business Morris & Co.