Socialism and scatter cushions

He was the creator of era-defining textiles, a writer whose ground breaking ideas forever changed how we think about our homes and, according to a recent study, a peddler of poisonous wallpaper.  “Antiques Roadshow” expert Chris Yeo asks “Will the real William Morris please stand up?”

When William Morris (1834-1896) died at the age of sixty-two, his physician declared that the cause was "simply being William Morris, and having done more work than most ten men." We know him best for his easy-on-the-eye textiles with their scrolling leaves and biscuit cutter birds. The designer of patterns such as Willow Bough and Strawberry Thief, his is the face that launched a thousand National Trust tea towels. We probably think that that’s all there is to know about Morris: move along, nothing more to see here, but we’d be wrong. This multi-faceted man was at one time or another (and sometimes simultaneously) a designer and manufacturer of furniture, wallpaper and fabrics, stained glass, and tapestries; an accomplished weaver; successful businessman; a pioneering preservationist; an active Socialist and social reformer; a successful poet and novelist; and in his last years, the founder of the Kelmscott Press. We see him in photographs with tousled hair and wild, unkempt beard; part Byron, part Marx. His passionate belief that everyone should surround themselves with beauty revolutionised the way we think about our homes and his influence went well beyond these shores. If these days he’s known as a pattern designer in his own lifetime he was actually better known for his writing. Morris was a revolutionary force in Victorian Britain – the original Angry Young Man whose rages against the shortcomings and injustices of the world changed the fashions and ideologies of the era but is life was filled with paradoxes. He was obsessed with the medieval,  but he also had a socialist vision of the future. He’s considered by many to be the spiritual Godfather of modern Socialism and a champion of worker rights yet he died a multi-millionaire and was a part owner of the world’s largest arsenic mine.  Will the real William Morris please stand up?

Morris was born in Walthamstow, east London in 1834. The financial success of his broker father led to the family moving in 1840 to Woodford hall, a large house in rural Essex, as well as providing young William with an inheritance large enough to mean he would never have to concern himself with the tedious business of earning an income. Morris enjoyed an idyllic childhood growing up in the countryside, exploring local parkland and churches and immersing himself in the novels of Walter Scott, helping him develop an affinity with the natural world and historical romance. William was a privileged boy, but had a mind of his own. He a was forced to leave Marlborough College in 1851 following a “rebellion” but still made it to Exeter College, Oxford in 1853. He first planned to become a clergyman but, following a trip to northern France and inspired by the gothic architecture he saw, opted for architecture. Morris was a rebel by nature and one, very much, with a cause: ugliness. We all know his famous dictum Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. For Morris this was nothing short of a battle cry against poor taste. What started him on his crusade was what he saw as the sheer tackiness of the Great Exhibition in 1851. This colossal event, staged in the specially built Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, had been intended to display the best of British manufacturing, a dazzling showcase for the Workshop of the World. For Morris it was neo-Renaissance, neo-everything nightmare of poor design and shabby art. Tales of the teenage Morris’s visit to the Crystal Palace are legion and range from the strange to the ridiculous – my favourite being that Morris was so appalled by the poor taste on show that he staggered from the building and was sick in the bushes.

For Morris shoddiness was a punishable offence; ‘Shoddy is King’ he railed, ‘From the statesman to the shoemaker, everything is shoddy’. From that point on he dedicated his life to creating useful and beautiful objects for the modern home.

While working in Oxford Morris had a chance meeting with a local stableman's daughter, Jane Burden. Consciously flouting the rules of class, Morris married Jane in 1859. Morris and Jane moved into Red House, their home in rural Kent, the following year. Morris wanted his home to be a ‘small palace of art’ Unhappy with what was on offer commercially, spent the next two years furnishing and decorating the interior with help from members of their artistic circle. And what friends: Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabrielle Rosetti, Ford Maddox Brown. As George Martin was to the Beatles, so Morris was to the Pre-Raphaelites; the unofficial eighth member. It was at Red House that Morris began to find his forte - he was, in truth, an abysmal architect and a lousy painter, but he had an affinity with interiors. At heart, he was a pattern-maker, taking his inspiration from the English countryside to create the patterns that made him famous.  Having decided to branch into textiles, he apprenticed himself to a dyer's workshop in order to "learn the practice of dying at every pore" even going as far as grinding his own pigments. Over the course of two decades Morris produced over 600 chintzes, woven textiles and hand-blocked wallpapers. They were distinctive for their soft, flat colours, their stylised natural forms, their symmetry and their sense of order. His patterns were revolutionary at the time, and quite at odds with prevailing mainstream fashion.

Having gained a taste for interiors, and the experience of 'joy in collective labour', Morris and his friends decided in 1861 to set up their own mega-design partnership: Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co, later re-named Morris and Company, but nicknamed ‘The Firm’ by William.  It was virtually a Pre-Raphaelite co-operative with £1 share contributions from Burne-Jones, Rosetti and Brown. From its London headquarters the Firm issued a selection of carefully crafted household items, painted furniture, metalwork, pottery, carpets and cushions. All were guaranteed to have been created by an expert hand using artisanal – the word still meant something – methods.

Morris was a radical thinker of his day;  a prolific poet, author, publisher, campaigner and socialist reformer; “Apart from the desire to produce beautiful things, the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilization”, he said.  By the 1860s skilled workmanship was being replaced by machines. He was a dedicated socialist, and wrote passionately about the growing gap between rich and poor, which had been intensely accelerated by industrialisation. Morris saw salvation in a return to a medieval craft-based society, one where happy, contended workers would produce objects with integrity. If this is sounding at all familiar we need only look to the nearest artisan hipster baker or be-whiskered craft brewer. Although Morris preached passionately for the return of the medieval craft ethic, his objection was – contrary to what you’re likely to read elsewhere - not so much to machine production as to poor workmanship. He loathed mass-production but understood its place in society. In fact his first registered design was a trellis of African marigolds for machine-made linoleum. William Morris lino, who would have guessed?

The most ironic aspect of Morris’s aims was that, although he aimed to make good design available to all (‘I do not want art for the few, any more than freedom for the few…’), ultimately his own furnishings — made painstakingly by hand using the best natural materials — were typically too expensive for anyone but the wealthy industrialists Morris hated.

Morris was a founding father of the Socialist movement and a champion of workers’ rights. He   campaigned against many things, banning arsenic in wallpaper was not one of them. Arsenic was a major component in wallpaper manufacture and by the 1870s, when Morris was at the height of his fame, its ill effects were becoming well-known. Morris  inherited his fortune from an arsenic mine in which he still held stock for a number of years. By the 1870s, the Morris family’s Devon mine was reportedly producing over half the world’s supply of arsenic. And while he did ultimately divest his interests in the company, questions on Morris’s apparent hypocrisy—and why he never actually visited these notoriously bad workplaces—casts something of a shadow over his right-on credentials.

Happily, this is the Lorfords blog, so we can leave the politics at the door. In design terms William Morris was a true visionary whose influence was felt well-beyond his own lifetime. With his hands-on philosophy he pioneered the idea of the artist-craftsman and his designs helped to lay the foundations for the modern movement. Today, we find ourselves returning to many of Morris’s preoccupations with craft skills and the environment, with local sourcing and vernacular traditions. But perhaps his greatest legacy was his avowed belief that, rich or poor, male or female, aesthetic beauty should be a central feature of everybody’s life and home.