William Morris (1834 – 1896) was a poet, author, designer, calligrapher, publisher, weaver, translator, entrepreneur, visionary, socialist and environmentalist. Any one of those occupations would have been enough for most men but he excelled in all these roles. William was only 62 when he died, which today seems a relatively short life and an incredibly short life when one considers the breadth and depth of his work. When he was dying, his physician said, “he is dying simply of being William Morris, of having done more work than ten men”.
Born at Elm House, Walthamstow into an upper middle-class family, his father, also William, was making a small fortune as a senior partner in a bill broking business with an office in Lombard Street in the city. When William was six, his family became seriously rich through the purchase of shares in the lucrative but risky financing of copper mining in the West Country. The family moved to Woodford Hall, an imposing Georgian mansion, next to Epping Forest where William enjoyed an idyllic childhood. William developed what were to become his 3 lifelong loves at Woodford: Nature – with a special interest in botanical drawings, Rivers - with the possibility for escape and adventure and everything Medieval – a trip to Canterbury Cathedral at age 8 left him awestruck at the majesty of the ancient building.
After schooling at Marlborough College, William went up to Exeter College, Oxford with a view to taking holy orders. On the homeward leg of a trip to study the great cathedrals of Northern France with Edward Burne Jones, the two friends decided they would not enter the clergy but instead take up “a life of art” with Burne Jones becoming a painter and William an architect. William’s mother was deeply upset at his decision which, for the first time, took him out of the orbit of his family’s influence and was a rejection of the sort of life his father had intended he should have. Through Burne Jones William met Dante Gabriel Rossetti who encouraged William to become a painter having abandoned his wish to become an architect.
Whilst working for Rossetti on the murals of the debating hall in the Oxford Union, William wrote he had met “a stunner”. That stunner was eighteen-year-old Jane Burden who, as the daughter of a stable hand, came from a very different background than William. He fell in love with Janey, romantically seeing her as his medieval maiden, and they were married in 1859. Once married William wanted a place to call home. Red House, the only home he ever owned, was to be that place and was designed by his friend Phillip Webb with much input from William.
The early years at Red House sound idyllic; William was only 25 and Janey 19 when they moved into the property. William’s artistic friends came to stay at weekends and the friends set about decorating Red House with textiles, tapestries, stained glass and embroideries they had made. Phillip Webb designed simple and sturdy furniture some of which the friends painted. The early days at Red House, with the group of friends and like-minded individuals, living and working creatively together were the utopian ideal that William later sought through the socialist movement. It was out of this bond and enterprise of friends living and working together he founded his decorating business, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., in April 1861. William saw his business less as an exercise in shop keeping and more as a national reform of art, elevating the Lesser Arts and returning to a period of craftsmanship; a reform that would go on to be known as The Arts & Crafts Movement.
The William Morris Society: williammorrissociety.org
Red House: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/redhouse
Kelmscott Manor: www.kelmscottmanor.co.uk