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Sources returnpage

Morris, William

Category: Artist and sculptor

William Morris (24 March 1834 – 3 October 1896) was a British designer, poet, novelist, translator, and social activist. He was a major contributor to the revival of traditional British textile arts and methods of production.

Morris was born in Walthamstow, Essex to a wealthy middle-class family. He came under the strong influence of medievalism while studying Classics at Oxford University, there joining the Birmingham Set.

After university, he trained as an architect, married Jane Burden [see right], and developed close friendships with Pre-Raphaelite artists Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti and with Neo-Gothic architect Philip Webb.

In 1861, Morris founded the Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co decorative arts firm with Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Webb, and others. The firm profoundly influenced interior decoration throughout the Victorian period, with Morris designing tapestries, wallpaper, fabrics, furniture, carpets and rugs, and stained glass windows. In 1875, he assumed total control of the company, which was renamed Morris & Co.

Morris rented the rural retreat of Kelmscott Manor, Oxfordshire [see left] from 1871 while also retaining a main home in London.  In 1891, he founded the Kelmscott Press to publish limited-edition, illuminated-style print books, a cause to which he devoted his final years.

In 1877, he founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings to campaign against the damage caused by architectural restoration.  

Morris is recognised as one of the most significant cultural figures of Victorian Britain.  Many of the buildings associated with his life are open to visitors, much of his work can be found in art galleries and museums.  His designs are still in production.

Morris's homes - Red House and Kelmscott Manor - have been preserved. Red House was acquired by the National Trust in 2003 and is open to the public. Kelmscott Manor is owned by the Society of Antiquaries of London and is open to the public, it is now a museum and venue for lectures and other Morris-related events.  The Art Gallery of South Australia is "fortunate in holding the most comprehensive collection of Morris & Co. furnishings outside Britain".

The William Morris Society founded in 1955 is devoted to his legacy.  The information for this entry is derived from that provided by the William Morris Society and their website, based in the UK.  The website appears to provide more accurate records than the biographies, many of which appear to have an ‘agenda’ – especially those written by atheists, Marxists, and Fabians etc!

Below: The Vision of the Holy Grail tapestry, 1890

Of myths and gods and spirituality

The claims made that William Morris was an atheist because he was a 'socialist' are entirely unfounded.

In the first place, Morris was not a Socialist as we use the word today, he was a person who had a social conscience and wished to see his ideas about the proper treatment of his fellow humans put into practice.  He would be able to sit comfortably today with those who now espouse sustainability, and environmentalism.  This contrasts with Socialism, which is largely about groups of people telling other people what they should be doing about their fellow humans, the environment, sustainability or their fellow creatures, meanwhile becoming rich from their exploitation.  Today’s Socialism is hypocritical and seeks power without responsibility.  This was not Morris.

In the second place William Morris Snr. was a Quaker.  And William Morris jnr.’s concern and kindness towards his fellow men was practical, genuine and borne of his Christian Quaker upbringing. And we know he was genuine, because Morris acted this way even though he was very well-off.  On reaching the age of twenty-one, for example, Morris inherited thirteen Devon Great Consol shares. These gave him an income of £741 in 1855 and £715 in 1856.

Morris was baptized at St Mary's Church, Walthamstow and on 17th March 1849, he was confirmed by the Bishop of Salisbury in Marlborough College Chapel.  On 18th March 1849 : Morris received his first Holy Communion from the Bishop of Salisbury.

He was involved for most of his life with church architecture.  In 1842, for example, Morris visited Canterbury Cathedral and the Minster at Thanet Church with his father. He later recalled `thinking that the gates of heaven had been opened to me.' He also went brass rubbing in a number of churches in Essex and Suffolk.

Later with Burne-Jones, who did the designs whilst Morris & Co. executed the designs, he was responsible for the stained glass windows in, for example:

  • Luce Memorial Window in Malmesbury Abbey, Malmesbury, Wiltshire, England (1901).
  • Saint Cecilia window at Second Presbyterian Church (Chicago, Illinois)
  • All Saints, Middleton Cheney, Northamptonshire
  • Cattistock Church, (1882).
  • Birmingham cathedral
  • Christchurch Cathedral, Oxford

But William Morris also had a deep seated belief in the spiritual world – gods, goddesses, myths and sagas.  He was greatly influenced by visits to Iceland with Eiríkr Magnússon, and he produced a series of English-language translations of Icelandic Sagas.  The one does not exclude the other.  Christian values directed his life and Norse spirituality captured his heart.

Mackail, J W - "William Morris." The Dictionary of National Biography. Supp. vol. 3. London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1901. 197-203.

Morris went up to Oxford with an unusual amount of varied knowledge and a character already strongly marked and well developed. Love of the middle ages was born in him, and was reinforced by the wave of Anglo-catholicism which had just spread over England, and which had come as a highly stimulating influence on families brought up, like his, in a somewhat stagnant evangelicalism.

And you cannot get more immersed in spirituality than this.

Early Life

Right: Edward Burne-Jones and Morris, later in life.

J W Mackail was the Burne-Joneses’ son-in-law and Morris's first biographer.

J W Mackail - "William Morris." The Dictionary of National Biography. Supp. vol. 3. London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1901. 197-203.

William Morris was the eldest son and third child of William Morris, a partner in the firm of Sanderson & Co., bill brokers in the City of London, and of Emma Shelton, daughter of Joseph Shelton, a teacher of music in Worcester, and son of John Shelton, proctor in the consistory court of that city. He was born on 24 March 1834, at Elm House, Clay Hill, Walthamstow, his father’s suburban residence. In 1840 the family removed to Woodford Hall, the park of which was conterminous with Epping Forest. As a boy, therefore, Morris had the free daily range of that unique tract of country, then little changed since mediaeval or even since prehistoric times; and these surroundings fostered his natural keenness of eye and romantic bent of temper.
He learned to read very young, and never remembered a time when he could not read, but was not notably precocious otherwise. This earlier education was at a small private school in the neighbourhood.

Left:  A wooden carved bench/pew designed by Morris

On 8 September 1847, William Morris Snr died, aged 50, at Woodford.  Morris went, aged thirteen, to Marlborough College; from January 1848 until December 1851 he was at Marlborough College.  His housemaster was the Rev Pitman. Morris later wrote that

 it was a `very rough school. As far as my school instruction went, I think I may fairly say I learned next to nothing there, for indeed next to nothing was taught; but the place is in very beautiful country, thickly scattered over with prehistoric monuments, and I set myself eagerly to studying these and everything else that had any history in it, and so perhaps learnt a good deal' (c.f. 14 March 1891).

In late-December 1851, after taking his final term's exams, Morris left the 5th form of Marlborough College to study privately with the Rev F B Guy in Hoe Street, Walthamstow. Morris lived for nearly a year as a private pupil with the Rev. F. B. Guy, afterwards canon of St. Albans, and then assistant master at the Forest School, Walthamstow.

In January 1853, Morris went to Exeter College, Oxford, to study theology. Here he made friends with Edward Burne-Jones who also intended to pursue a career in the Church. Mackail recorded in his Notebooks that Burne-Jones told him that: `Before a week they were inseparable.' Amongst the other things Burne-Jones recalled was that they `went to St. Thomas's (the church near the station) for early service and plain song.'

In 1853, Burne-Jones wrote:

`I have set my heart on our founding a Brotherhood. Learn Sir Galahad by heart. He is to be the patron of our Order. I have enlisted one in the project up here [Morris], heart and soul.' This is the first reference to Morris and Burne-Jones's plan to found a `monastic brotherhood' and launch a `crusade and Holy Warfare against the age.'

Burne-Jones wrote of Morris

He is full of enthusiasm for things holy and beautiful and true, and, what is rarest, of the most exquisite perception and judgment in them. For myself, he has tinged my whole inner being with the beauty of his own, and I know not a single gift for which I owe such gratitude to Heaven as his friendship.

But as time went on, Morris’s enthusiasm for the church was eclipsed by his enthusiasm for architecture and design.  Although Morris passed his Final exam at Oxford University in 1855, Morris wrote to his mother informing her he intended to become an architect and had abandoned the idea of taking holy orders.  Morris then began an apprenticeship with the Oxford-based Neo-Gothic architect George Edmund Street in January 1856. His apprenticeship focused on architectural drawing, and there he was placed under the supervision of the young architect Philip Webb, who became a close friend. Morris soon relocated to Street's London office, moving into a flat in Bloomsbury, Central London with Burne-Jones. Morris was fascinated by London but dismayed at its pollution and rapid expansion into neighbouring countryside, describing it as "the spreading sore".  His social conscience had been pricked.

A return to craftsmanship and design

Beauty … is, I contend, no mere accident to human life, which people can take or leave as they choose, but a positive necessity of life………….  Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful

Morris’s keen interest in Medieval history and Medieval architecture, inspired by the many Medieval buildings in Oxford, along with an interest in Britain's growing Medievalist movement, ‘a form of Romanticism that rejected many of the values of Victorian industrial capitalism’ had also given him a new direction.  For Morris, the Middle Ages represented an era with strong chivalric values and a sense of community, both of which he deemed preferable to his own period.  Under the influence of Thomas Carlyle's book Past and Present (1843), Morris's dislike of contemporary capitalism grew.

Morris was heavily influenced by John Ruskin, and his philosophy of rejecting the tawdry industrial mass produced manufacture of decorative arts and architecture in favour of a return to hand-craftsmanship, raising artisans to the status of artists. 

Ruskin championed a group of painters who had emerged in London in 1848 calling themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  Morris became increasingly fascinated with the idyllic Medievalist depictions of rural life which appeared in the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, and spent large sums of money purchasing such artworks. Burne-Jones shared this interest, but took it further by becoming an apprentice to one of the foremost Pre-Raphaelite painters, Dante Gabriel Rossetti; the three soon became close friends.

Tired of architecture, Morris abandoned his apprenticeship.  Although Morris briefly took up painting, he found a more productive role in design and in helping other artists.  Morris’s paintings were ‘widely deemed inferior and unskilled compared to those of others’.  Morris designed and commissioned furniture for their flat in a Medieval style, for example, and began designing illuminated manuscripts and embroidered hangings.

And in April 1861, Morris founded the decorative arts company, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., with six other partners: Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Webb, Ford Madox Brown, Charles Faulkner, and Peter Paul Marshall. Operating from premises at No. 6 Red Lion Square, they referred to themselves as "the Firm" and were intent on adopting Ruskin's ideas of reforming British attitudes to production. And they employed boys from the Industrial Home for Destitute Boys in Euston, central London, many of whom were trained as apprentices.

As such Morris was able to put his ideas on decoration as one of the fine arts combined with an ethos of affordability and anti-elitism, with ‘socialism’ in its better truer sense – apprenticeships that gave the disadvantaged skills. 

The products created by the Firm included furniture, architectural carving, metalwork, stained glass windows, and murals. Their stained glass windows proved a particular success in the firm's early years as they were in high demand for the surge in the Neo-Gothic construction and refurbishment of churches.  Morris abandoned painting, none of his paintings are dated later than 1862. 

Mackail, J W - "William Morris." The Dictionary of National Biography. Supp. vol. 3. London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1901. 197-203.

 For several years after his marriage [see below] Morris was absorbed in two intimately connected occupations: the building and decoration of a house for himself, and the foundation of a firm of decorators who were also artists, with the view of reinstating decoration, down to its smallest details, as one of the fine arts…………….

The house he made for himself was the first serious attempt made in this country …. to apply art throughout to the practical objects of common life. It was built, from designs jointly framed by Morris and Webb (the latter being the responsible architect), at Upton in Kent; it is still extant, though in greatly changed surroundings, with a considerable amount of its decoration, under its original name of Red House, given to it when the use of red brick without stucco was a startling novelty in domestic architecture.

Morris also focused his energies on designing wallpaper patterns. His designs would be produced from 1864 by Jeffrey and Co. of Islington, who created them for the Firm under Morris's supervision.

The complications of marriage

Left Jane Burden as Prosperpine by Rossetti

In October 1857, Morris met Jane Burden at a theatre performance, a woman from a poor working-class background. Rossetti initially asked her to model for him.

Both Rossetti and Morris were smitten with her, however Morris entered into a relationship with her and they were engaged in spring 1858.  They were married in a low-key ceremony held at St Michael at the North Gate church in Oxford on 26 April 1859.  In January 1861, Morris and Jane's first daughter was born: named Jane Alice Morris, she was commonly known as "Jenny". Jenny was followed in March 1862 by the birth of their second daughter, Mary "May" Morris.

Morris was a caring father to his daughters, and years later they both recounted having idyllic childhoods.

However, there were problems in Morris's marriage as Jane became increasingly close to Rossetti, who often painted her.  Rossetti had been married to Lizzie Siddal.  Siddall had even stayed with the Morris’s during the summer and autumn of 1861, as she recovered from a traumatic miscarriage and an addiction to laudanum.  She died of an overdose in February 1862.   

And after her death, we have all the ingredients for tragedy.

Rossetti  became slightly mad after Lizzie's death.  He surrounded himself with extravagant furnishings and a parade of exotic birds and animals. He also surrounded himself by a host of beautiful women – lovers and not lovers.  Jane, was just one to be glamorised as an ethereal goddess.  She "consumed and obsessed him in paint, poetry, and life"

Right: Dante Gabriel Rossetti's painting of Jane Morris as Dante's Beatrice

In 1869, Morris and Rossetti rented a summer home, but it became a retreat for Rossetti and Jane Morris to have a long-lasting and complicated affair.  They spent summers there with the Morris's children, while Morris 'travelled'. 

In the autumn of 1864 a severe illness obliged Morris to choose between giving up his home Red House in Kent and giving up his work in London. He did the former, and in 1865 established himself, under the same roof with his workshops, in Queen Square, Bloomsbury.

 In 1874, Morris cut Rossetti out of the business. Rossetti abruptly left Kelmscott in July 1874 and never returned.  But Rossetti’s end is indeed very tragic,  he started to be a regular user of chloral hydrate, had a mental breakdown in June 1872, and "spent his days in a haze of chloral and whisky". He spent his last years as a recluse at his home.  On Easter Sunday, 1882, he died.

The Icelandic sagas

I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on...

Although his home schooling, his love of art, music and beauty, his constant sojourns into nature, and his love of humankind and beautiful women [doomed to fail as a consequence of his subjection to the private school system], all inspired Morris initially, it is his belief in the spiritual that seems to take over as time went on and his finding of a ‘Safe House’ – a retreat he could call his own.

Mackail, J W - "William Morris." The Dictionary of National Biography. Supp. vol. 3. London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1901. 197-203.

It was not until the summer of 1871 that Morris made a journey through Iceland, the effects of which upon his mind may be traced in much of his later work. In the same year he acquired what became his permanent country home, Kelmscott Manor House, a small but very beautiful and wholly undisfigured building of the early seventeenth century on the banks of the Thames near Lechlade. Round this house that ‘love of the earth and worship of it,’ which was his deepest instinct, centred for all the rest of his life.

One of the translations resulting from his visit, that of the Volsunga-saga, was published under the joint names of Morris and his Icelandic tutor, E. Magnússon, in May 1870.  It is a story of unrequited love – between Brunnhilde and Sigurd, a story that would eventually inspire Richard Wagner in his Ring of the Nibelung.  Its curiosity value is that it partly mirrors the real life tale of Rossetti and Jane.  If anything Morris himself might be seen as Gunnar the Niblung.  And it is certainly a story of how drugs can destroy.  Morris did not see this dispassionately, his direct involvement in a real life menage a trois gave his poetry real fire and authenticity.  Much of his other poetry and prose seems aspirational and somewhat lacking in authenticity, almost maudlin at times, but this translation smacks of experience.  And he also recognised it as a pattern – a pattern that repeats and repeats – how unrequited love and grief can destroy whole dynasties.

Love Is Enough - William Morris, 1834 - 1896

Love is enough: though the World be a-waning,
And the woods have no voice but the voice of complaining,
   Though the sky be too dark for dim eyes to discover
The gold-cups and daisies fair blooming thereunder,
Though the hills be held shadows, and the sea a dark wonder
   And this day draw a veil over all deeds pass’d over,
Yet their hands shall not tremble, their feet shall not falter;
The void shall not weary, the fear shall not alter
   These lips and these eyes of the loved and the lover.

Right:  The Burne-Jones family [left] with the Morris family [right], not exactly happy families; Burne-Jones had his own lover.

During his later years Morris took an active part in various movements towards organising guilds of designers and decorative workmen, and continued to write and speak on behalf of the principles of [true] socialism with no loss of conviction or enthusiasm.
He also formed, with special relation to his work as a printer, a collection of early printed books, and, a little later, another of illuminated manuscripts of the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries; both of these were at his death among the choicest collections existing in private ownership. In 1895, his health began to give way under the strain of a crowded and exhausting life. When the magnificent Kelmscott Chaucer was finished in June 1896, he had sunk into very feeble health, and he died at Hammersmith on 3 Oct. in that year. His widow Jane and two daughters survived him.

Wert thou more fickle than the restless sea,
Still should I love thee, knowing thee for such…
From out the throng and stress of lies,
From out the painful noise of sighs,
One voice of comfort seems to rise:
It is the meaner part that dies.



Left:  William Morris - Bradford Cathedral stained glass

On the whole Morris's poems and novels are somewhat unremarkable in comparison with his design work and his paintings are also not very noteworthy.  But he translated and adapted one poem which has not only stood the test of time, but is a remarkable work.  In order to provide some representative examples of his design work with a selection from the poems, we have illustrated each observation with one of his designs:

The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs (1876) is an epic poem of over 10,000 lines by William Morris that tells the tragic story, drawn from the Volsunga Saga and the Elder Edda, of the Norse hero Sigmund, his son Sigurd (the equivalent of Siegfried in the Nibelungenlied and Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung) and Sigurd's wife Gudrun.

The poem sprang from a fascination with the Volsung legend that extended back twenty years to the author's youth. It was Morris's own favorite of his poems, and was enthusiastically praised both by contemporary critics and by such figures as T. E. Lawrence and George Bernard Shaw. In recent years it has been rated very highly by many William Morris scholars, but has never succeeded in finding a wide readership on account of its great length.

Below:   Musician with dulcimer, designed c.1868, glass

Book 1 - SIGMUND.

In this book is told of the earlier days of the Volsungs, and of Sigmund the father of Sigurd, and of his deeds, and of how he died while Sigurd was yet unborn in his mother's womb.  We have not included these here on the site, purely on the basis of the eventual length and thus the number of observations.


Now this is the first book of the life and death of Sigurd the Volsung, and therein is told of the birth of him, and of his dealings with Regin the master of masters, and of his deeds in the waste places of the earth.  We have included this on the site.  It has the following parts:

  • I. Of the birth of Sigurd the son of Sigmund
  • II. Sigurd getteth to him the horse that is called Greyfell
  • III. Regin telleth Sigurd of his kindred, and of the Gold that was accursed from ancient days
  • IV. Of the forging of the Sword that is called The Wrath of Sigurd
  • V. Of Gripir's Foretelling
  • VI. Sigurd rideth to the Glittering Heath
  • VII. Sigurd slayeth Fafnir the Serpent
  • VIII. Sigurd slayeth Regin the Master of Masters on the Glittering Heath
  • IX. How Sigurd took to him the Treasure of the Elf Andvari
  • X. How Sigurd awoke Brynhild upon Hindfell

Below:  William Morris Tapestry Summer


In this book is told of the deeds of Sigurd, and of his sojourn with the Niblungs, and in the end of how he died.  We have included this on the site.  It has the following parts:

  • I. Of the Dream of Gudrun the Daughter of Giuki
  • II. How the folk of Lymdale met Sigurd the Volsung in the woodland
  • III. How Sigurd met Brynhild in Lymdale
  • IV. Of Sigurd's riding to the Niblungs
  • V. Of Sigurd's warfaring in the company of the Niblungs, and of his great fame and glory
  • VI. Of the Cup of evil drink that Grimhild the Wise-wife gave to Sigurd
  • VII. Of the Wedding of Sigurd the Volsung
  • VIII. Sigurd rideth with the Niblungs, and wooeth Brynhild for King Gunnar
  • IX. How Brynhild was wedded to Gunnar the Niblung
  • X. Of the Contention betwixt the Queens
  • XI. Gunnar talketh with Brynhild
  • XII. Of the exceeding great grief and mourning of Brynhild
  • XIII. Of the slaying of Sigurd the Volsung
  • XIV. Of the mighty Grief of Gudrun over Sigurd dead
  • XV. Of the passing away of Brynhild


Herein is told of the days of the Niblungs after they slew Sigurd, and of their woeful need and fall in the house of king Atli.  We have not included these here on the site, purely on the basis of the eventual length and thus the number of observations.


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