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The Soldier in William Morris

19/09/2016
by Alex MacGregor

I can scarcely think of a less likely army recruit than William Morris, particularly in view of his anti-militarist stance in later life. However, as documented by Fiona MacCarthy in her biography of Morris, he was indeed a soldier of sorts when he was in his mid twenties. In 1859, Morris enlisted into the recently formed Corps of Artist Volunteers, a unit formed at a time when there were fears of a French invasion following Napoleon III's annexation of Nice and Savoy. Morris's unlikely compatriots in the troop were amongst his closest friends: Edward Burne Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and GF Watts. The Commanding Officers of the troop were Henry Wyndham Phillips, the painter, and Fredrick Leighton who later, as Lord Leighton, was President of the Royal Academy.

The Honorary Secretary of the Corps, William Richmond, remembered the artistic friends military efforts as, "supremely comical'. Unsurprisingly, soldiering did not come naturally to Morris and in drills he tended to turn right when ordered to turn left and then apologised to the man he found facing him. Nevertheless, unlike Rossetti, Morris faithfully attended drills and camps including being under canvas on Wimbledon Common.

It is unclear when Morris stepped down from his military role but the unit was formally established as the 38th Middlesex (Artists) Volunteer Corps. The force later became known as the Artists Rifles which served with distinction in the Boer War and World War I.

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William Morris was a soldier - surely not? I thought I knew most things about Morris but his military "career" - if you can call it that - took me completely by surprise as highlighted by Malcolm Youngs in a recent edition of The Friends of Red House Newsletter...