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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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"Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful" is the most celebrated of the principles of William Morris (1834 – 1896). The genius of Morris lay in crafting artistic themes and concepts into functional and beautiful designs to enhance everyday living.

Small, stocky, and full of energy, Morris was the dynamic force behind the Arts and Crafts movement. This movement was inspired in turn by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a short-lived but influential group of artists led by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, which flourished between the years 1848 and 1853. The lives of Morris and Rossetti were linked in complex and poignant ways, yet the creative influence of their relationship still endures today. William Morris was born into a comfortable background in Walthamstow, Essex, his father being a successful and well-to-do businessman. The influences that were to shape his life and work emerged at Oxford University, where he met the artist Edward Burne-Jones. Both men fell under the spell of the glorious medieval architecture of the city, and found common ground in their loathing of the materialism of the 19th century.

They shared their love of poetry and medieval architecture with a group of young undergraduates who were, like Morris and Burne-Jones, greatly influenced by the social and artistic principles of critic and commentator John Ruskin. It was also at Oxford that they first encountered the Pre-Raphaelite work of Rossetti and were instantly drawn to its romantic medieval scenes and pure, vivid colours. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had emerged from 1848. the year of revolutions in Europe, and was the response of equally revolutionary young painters to the "old guard", as exemplified by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Led by Rossetti and William Holman Hunt, the Pre-Raphaelites wanted to restore to art the essential purity and simplicity of the artists who had preceded Raphael. The name, hinting as it did at the secrecy and unity required to create a revolutionary force, was immensely appealing to young artists and writers. They too were inspired by Ruskin, who had encouraged artists to "go to nature in all singleness of heart."

The friendship between Burne-Jones and Morris was deepened by a tour through northern France during which they explored the medieval architecture of its cathedrals and churches. On their return, Morris began work as an architect by joining the company of George Edmund Street while Burne-Jones became a pupil of Rossetti. Both became protégés of the artist and began work on the first of many collaborative projects, the Oxford murals.

Although the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had come to an end when John Everett Millais became an Associate of the Royal Academy, effectively joining "the establishment", its creative spirit was living on in the new artists and craftsmen who now surrounded the master, Rossetti. Morris was introducing new elements to the creative mix in the form of furniture and architecture. Morris was never a "painter" as such, but rather a craftsman, designer and poet; only one of his paintings survives, a portrait of his wife Jane Burdon as Queen Guinevere, a portrait that is also known as La Belle Iseult.

The women of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the movements it inspired were essential to the creative process of the artists, and many were writers and artists in their own right. The movement was famous for promoting a particular look, or looks; the men called their models "stunners" and Jane Burdon, daughter of an ostler, became the muse and model of both Rossetti and Morris. Jane and William had two daughters, Jenny and May. May was a talented artist and eventually a director in her father's company, and studied at the National Art Training School. Rossetti's own muse was Elizabeth Siddall, whom he married. The epitome of Pre-Raphaelite womanhood in looks, Lizzie's relationship with Rossetti became intense and oppressive. In 1862, Lizzie died in tragic circumstances by taking an overdose of laudanum while Rossetti was away.

As Morris was able to use his income and background as well as his talents to establish a successful business, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company, the creative group was bound together ever more tightly by emotional and commercial attachments as well as artistic ones. While the business thrived, in other ways it was a source of disillusionment for Morris, who realised that his beautiful, functional creations were only affordable by the rich. Also, as he was frequently away from the Red House, the glorious home in Bexley he had created for his wife and muse Jane, it is likely that she became Rossetti's lover.

Morris was undoubtedly the catalyst for the flourishing of collaborative talent that was now producing everything imaginable for the beautiful and yet utilitarian life, including stained glass, textiles, wallpaper and furniture. The inspiration behind the Red House was that everything would be produced by the group themselves, each contributing in his or her own way. This too perhaps helped to develop Morris's growing socialist beliefs; fundamental to them was the idea that a sense of purpose and unity could be achieved through beauty and creativity founded in nature. Above all was the knowledge that this was a return to a purer ideology than the greed and destruction of capitalism and industrialisation and its mass-produced products.

His poetry expresses his disgust with the dehumanisation of labour and his desire to return to a simpler yet more creative world:

Forget six counties overhung with smoke,
Forget the snorting steam and piston stroke,
Forget the spreading of the hideous town,
Think rather of the pack-horse on the down,
And dream of London, small and white and clean,
The clear Thames bordered by its gardens green.

In fact, while Morris is best known today as a designer, during the 19th century his poems and novels, often appearing in beautifully bound editions, formed perhaps his most significant contribution to the Arts and Crafts movement. Inspired by themes of love, loss, betrayal and forgiveness, they are the equivalent of the glowing medieval and Arthurian paintings of his Arts and Crafts colleagues.