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William Morris: The Life and Legacy of a Great Artist

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William Morris was born on the 24th of March 1834 in Walthamstow and could be considered one of the most important artists in the 1800s and who’s work left an impact on society today. Morris also played his part in politics and was worked as an editor in the press. His work in the textiles industry and politics and his part in the art and crafts movement has played a factor on art and design today. I will be evaluating Morris’s life, early life and influences, a context of his life, his work also a legacy of his work.

Morris lived in the Victorian era as an artist, designer and craftsman, he lived in a large family in which was quite wealthy he was one of the middle children out of the seven, he was identified as a ‘thick-set, strong looking boy, with a high color and black curly hair, good natured and kind with a fearful temper’. He entered Oxford University where he met his lifetime long friend Edward Jones who was soon to be known as Burne-Jones, both Morris and Burne-Jones were heavily influenced by the Oxford movement in the Church of England. It was John Ruskin’s words on the social and moral ways of architecture that touched Morris ‘with the force of revelation’. Morris started a degree in 1856 and at the same time he invested in his first 12 monthly issues of the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine it was where he found John Ruskin’s work. When Morris visited Belgium and Northern France with Burne-Jones he saw the ‘Hans Memling’ and ‘Hubert Van Eyck’ paintings from 1400s this settled his love for medieval art. Also, at this time he was heavily influenced by the ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ painters and poets especially Dante Gabriel Rossetti who made him more attracted more to painting and brought him along to help paint Oxford Union walls where only one of his paintings still survives today. The model for the painting was Jane Burden, the daughter of the Oxford groom Robert Burden. Morris soon married Jane in 1856 and was quick to be an unhappy relationship for one and other.

Morris was further influenced by anarchism in the early 1880s he became inclined in being a socialist activist, in 1883 Morris joined the ‘Democratic Federation’ which was to be recalled the S.D.F (Socialist Democratic Federation) Morris soon resigned to establish his own group that is the Socialist League in December 1884 with the help of Friedrich Regels and eight out of the ten members of the S.D.F. Morris soon turned the Kelmscott House into his meeting area for his Socialist League, members such as Peter Kropotkin and George Bernard Shaw performed speeches getting the club views across, most speeches were followed by arguments led by Morris himself, he further on left the Socialist league in 1990. Morris made the Kelmscott Press back in 1891 to distribute limited edition illustrated books Morris worked on this during his last years making a lot of success and which left a stamp on society today. Morris had a broad appreciation for craftmanship and used a classical approach on block printing. Block printing was classed as an old-fashioned approach, but he also used another range of techniques from a range of cultures, the most important being the indigo discharge technique of the east. Morris used this for its sharpness and ability to go into real detail, Morris also preferred using vegetable dyes as opposed to harsh aniline dyes. There was a deep social philosophy at the heels of Morris, he was repelled by the mass production in the arts and has always had a fantasy of bringing back the morals of traditional craftmanship, Morris’s slogan was: “by the people, for the people”.

Morris’s was a man of many trades being an author, poet, artist but is best known for his textiles. In 1861 Morris paid his friend Phillip Webb to make him a house best known by the name the ’red house’ the house included stained glass and nice furniture. In the completion of the red house Morris decided to team up with all workers to establish Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Company. The new organization was made up of William Morris, Ford Madox Brown, Edward Burne-Jones, Charles Faulkner, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, P.P Marshall and Phillip Webb. The organization decided to create furnishings such as carpet, stained glass and soon to be wallpaper. The company began to excel when going to the Great London Exhibition, this brought in a range of customers in decorating churches since there was a sudden burst for building and refurbishing them. The early movements from the group were popular especially for the stained-glass design. Later, Morris focused on his wallpaper design taking advantage of the woodblock technique instead of the classic roller printing technique. Designing hand crafted wallpapers was something Morris was to be doing to further his career but eventually Morris was too ill to continue business in the red house.

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Morris was then to complete his first ever easel painting ‘La Belle Iseult’ the painting is a portrait of his wife Jane Burden and was produced through oil pastel onto canvas. In the past the painting was identified as Queen Guinevere and to recent research the painting was to mean Isuelta mourning Tristram from the Kings Mark court, the painting revealed Morris’s true talent to go into fine detail and to use rich colors Morris also expressed the use of pattern and created a real emphasis. He struggled on the painting and took many months, Oliver Rossetti offered him £20 originally for the painting as he had a deep affection for Jane Burden. It was Rossetti’s brother that held the painting and was kept in a cupboard and was eventually forgotten until Rossetti’s death when Burden got to keep it.

Morris had always wished his legacy would have made a difference in art and design today and with his life beginning to deteriorate, he gave his last political speech in January 1896. Meeting his life time friend Edward Burne-Jones, they both looked at the first ‘Kelmscott Chauser’ back when they were younger but in the following October Morris passed away. In the views of the public Morris was better known as a poet other than a designer but it is his legacy of a designer other than being a poet that still shows today. William Morris now he has his own museum where the public can go see his past work and how much Morris’s art has changed art and design today. The museum was built in the 1740s and was originally Morris’s family house, it finally turned into a museum in 1950 by the prime minister at that time Clement Atlee. It was the artists Sir Frank Brangwyn and Arthur Mackmurdo that sourced most of Morris’s work for the museum in the 19th and early 20th century to celebrate the achievements of William Morris. Brangwyn was an apprentice of Morris & co in the late 1800s changing the art and displaying more. The museum was eventually refurbished during the time of 2011 and 2012, it was the Waltham Forest Council that led the redevelopment also supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The top floor was turned into a learning centre where the public could go to learn about Morris’s life and work, also an extension builds for a tea room.

One of Morris’s favorite designs was the ‘peacock and dragon’ this was because of its texture and the woven wool fabric, it was inspired by Italian fabrics, Morris felt all designers should take inspiration from the past years even though it reflects Islamic art. His expertise in textiles was respected and was put into the Victorian and Albert museums and is now recognized as one of the most famous textiles in the world. Morris put his peacock and dragon round the ‘Kelmscott House’ in Hammersmith and required a large room for its proportions. Morris believed every house had the chance to be beautiful and Morris & Co continued his legacy by making hand crafted items by taking inspiration from Morris in his past and believe his legacy can last a lot longer.

In conclusion, Morris can be considered as one of the most important artists of the 1800s and whose work has left an impact on Art & Design today, his work in politics and making the Socialist League and turning the Kelmscott House into their home base will never go unmissed. His work in the textiles industry has played a major part on society today as the public are still interested in his work by the work Morris & Co. Doing work in the poetry industry as well in his later life played a mark but can be argued as not as important as his work in the Art and Design industry. The work made in the Red House making stained glass will never be forgotten. Overall, I evaluated Morris’s life, early life and influences, a context of his life, his work also a legacy of his work.

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William Morris: The Life and Legacy of a Great Artist. (2022, August 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 1, 2023, from
“William Morris: The Life and Legacy of a Great Artist.” Edubirdie, 25 Aug. 2022,
William Morris: The Life and Legacy of a Great Artist. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 1 Feb. 2023].
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