WILLIAM MORRIS Biography - Theater, Opera and Movie personalities


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William Morris (March 24, 1834 - October 3, 1896) was one of the principal founders of the British Arts and Crafts Movement and is best known as a designer of wallpaper and patterned fabrics, a writer of poetry and fiction, and an early founder of the socialist movement in Britain.


The tragic conflict in Morris’s life was his unfulfilled desire to create affordable - or even free - beautiful things for common people, whereas the real-life result was always the creation of extremely expensive objects for the discerning few. (In his utopian novel News from Nowhere, everybody works for pleasure only, and beautifully handcrafted things are given away for free to those who simply appreciate.)


Morris was born in Walthamstow near London. His family was wealthy, and he went to Oxford (Exeter College), where he became influenced by John Ruskin and met his life-long friends and collaborators, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown, and Philip Webb. He also met his wife, Jane Burden, a working-class woman whose pale skin and coppery hair were considered by Morris and his friends the epitome of beauty.


The artistic movement Morris and the others made famous was the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. They eschewed the tawdry industrial manufacture of decorative arts and architecture and favoured a return to hand-craftsmanship, raising craftsmen to the status of artists.


Morris left Oxford to join an architecture firm, but soon found himself drawn more and more to the decorative arts. He and Webb built Red House at Bexleyheath in Kent, Morris’s wedding gift to Jane. It was here his design ideas began to take physical shape. The brick clocktower in Bexleyheath town centre had, in 1996, a bust of Morris added in an original niche.


In 1861, he founded the firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. with Gabriel Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Madox Brown, and Philip Webb. Throughout his life, he continued to work in his own firm, although the firm changed names. Its most famous incarnation was as Morris and Company. His designs are still sold today under licences given to Sanderson and Sons and Liberty of London.


In 1877 he founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. His preservation work resulted indirectly in the founding of the National Trust.


Morris and his daughter May were amongst Britain’s first socialists, working directly with Eleanor Marx and Engels to begin the socialist movement. In 1883 he joined the Social Democratic Federation, and in 1884 he organised the Socialist League. One of his best known works, News from Nowhere, is a utopian novel describing a socialist society. This side of Morris’s work is well-discussed in the biography (subtitled ‘Romantic to Revolutionary’) by E. P. Thompson.


Morris and Rossetti rented a country house, Kelmscott Manor near Lechlade, Gloucestershire, as a summer retreat, but it soon became a retreat for Rossetti and Jane Morris to have a long-lasting affair. To escape the discomfort, Morris often travelled to Iceland, where he researched Icelandic legends that later became the basis of poems and novels.


Morris’s book, The Wood Between the Worlds, is considered to have heavily influenced C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series, while J. R. R. Tolkien was inspired by Morris’s reconstructions of early Germanic life in ‘The House of the Wolfings’ and ‘The Roots of the Mountains’.


After the death of Tennyson in 1892, Morris was offered the Poet Laureateship, but declined.


William Morris died in 1896 and was interred in the churchyard at Kelmscott village in Oxfordshire.


The Kelmscott Press


In January 1891 Morris founded the Kelmscott Press at Hammersmith, London, in order to produce examples of improved printing and book design. He designed clear typefaces, such as his roman ‘golden’ type, which was inspired by that of the early Venetian printer Nicolaus Jenson, and medievalizing decorative borders for books that drew their inspiration from the incunabula of the 15th century and their woodcut illustrations.


Selection of paper and ink, and concerns for the overall integration of type and decorations on the page made the Kelmscott Press the most famous of the private presses of the Arts and Crafts movement. It operated until 1898, producing 53 volumes, and inspiring other private presses. Amongst book lovers, his edition of The Canterbury Tales is considered one of the most beautiful books ever produced.


Literary Works


The Defence of Guinevere, and other Poems (1858)
The Life and Death of Jason (1867)
The Earthly Paradise (1868-70)
The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Nibelungs (1876)
Love is Enough, or The Freeing of Pharamond (1872)
A Dream of John Ball (1886)
The House of the Wolfings (1888)
The Roots of the Mountains (1889)
News from Nowhere (1890)
The Story of the Glittering Plain (1890)
The Well at the World’s End (1892)
The Wood Beyond the World (1892)
Morris also translated large numbers of mediaeval and classical works, including collections of Icelandic sagas such as Three Northern Love Stories (1875), Virgil’s Aeneid (1875), and Homer’s Odyssey (1887)


The Morris Societies in both Britain and the US are active in preserving Morris’s work and ideas.