William Morris was one of Britain’s most celebrated designers and was a key figure in the Arts and Crafts Movement. He was born in London in 1834, the same year that the term scientist was first published, slavery was abolished in most of the British Empire, and Harrods was founded as a grocer in Stepney in the East End of London. It was a time of immense change in Britain, a world that had seen the peak of the industrial revolution.
Morris had a natural ability for reading and writing, he was schooled privately and went on to read Theology at Exeter College, Oxford. It was here that he first met and became strong friends with Edward Burne-Jones. After spending some time travelling together in France on an architectural tour, the pair soon realised they had become disillusioned with the church and left their studies. For a brief time Morris trained as an architect, though used this position to set up and write for Oxford and Cambridge Magazine. Morris was a prolific writer, and was well known not only for his designs, but also for his poetry and novels.
After leaving the architectural practice behind Morris took to being an artist. It went harmoniously with his interest in wildlife and flowers, and this affinity to the natural world would have a growing influence on his work.
Morris founded Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. in 1861, an arts firm that intensely influenced interior decoration throughout the Victorian period, Morris designed and made wallpaper, tapestries, fabrics, furniture, and stained-glass windows. Commissions of note for the firm included designing a new dining room at the South Kensington Museum (later becoming V&A), and another at St James’s Palace.
Towards the end of his career, Morris began to focus again on his writing again. He achieved great success with the publication of his epic poems and novels, ‘The Earthly Paradise’, ‘A Dream of John Ball’, the utopian ‘News from Nowhere’ and the fantasy romance ‘The Well at the World’s End’.
In 1891, the same year he turned down the Poet Laureateship after the death of Tennyson, William Morris founded the short-lived Kelmscott Press with his creative partner Edward Burne-Jones. The press produced 53 books (in 66 volumes) – as Morris championed the principle of handmade production, they were all made on handmade paper using traditional printing techniques and typefaces designed and made by Morris.
The most spectacular of these books was ‘The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer’, completed only months before Morris’ passing in 1896. Burne-Jones said of this book: ‘If we live to finish it, it will be like a pocket cathedral – so full of design and I think Morris the greatest master of ornament in the world.’
The lavish illustrations and ornamental borders coupled with the original typeface Morris developed have made the ‘The Kelmscott Chaucer’ known as one of the most beautiful books ever printed.
Come along to our free Tuesday Treasure event today and get up-close to this stunning book, along with lots more from the Kelmscott Press held in Special Collections.
Tuesday Treasure is a free, drop-in activity between 12:00 – 14:00 in Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery.