William Morris (1834-1896), one of the most versatile and influential men of his age, was the last of the major English romantics and a leading champion and promoter of revolutionary ideas as poet, critic, artist, designer, manufacturer, and socialist.
Born at Walthamstow, Essex, on March 24, 1834, William Morris was the eldest son of a bill and discount broker with wealth and status approaching those of a private banker. Nature and reading were the passions of William's childhood, and the novels of Walter Scott inspired him with an abiding love of the Middle Ages. Morris was educated at Marlborough and Exeter College, Oxford, where he formed a close friendship with Edward Burne-Jones.
Originally intended for holy orders, Morris decided to take up the "useful trade" of architect after reading Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin, and he was apprenticed to G.E. Street, who had a considerable ecclesiastical practice, in 1856. But Burne-Jones introduced him to the group of artists known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and by the end of the year Dante Gabriel Rossetti had advised him to become a painter, which he did.
In 1859 Morris married Jane Burden, a Rossetti-type beauty; they had two daughters, Jane and Mary (May). In 1861 he founded the firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company to carry out in furniture, decoration, and the applied arts the artistic concepts of his friends. In 1875 Morris reorganized the firm and became sole owner. He himself designed furniture (the Morris chair has become a classic), wallpaper, and textiles.
Morris's literary career had commenced at Oxford, where he wrote prose romances for the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine. His fame was confined to a small circle of admirers until The Earthy Paradise (3 vols., 1868-1870) established him as a major romantic poet. He chose the device of legendary poems from classical and medieval sources recited by Norwegian seamen who had sailed westward to find the earthly paradise.
In 1868 Morris took up the study of Icelandic, published a translation of the Grettis Saga with the assistance of Eiríkr Magnússon (1869), and visited Iceland in 1871 and 1873. Morris also translated The Aeneids (sic; 1875), the Odyssey (1887), Beowulf (1895), and Old French Romances (1896). He regarded as his finest literary achievement Sigurd the Volsung, and Fall of the Niblungs (1876), his own retelling in verse of the Icelandic prose Volsunga saga, a version J. W. Mackail (1899) described as "the most Homeric poem which has been written since Homer."
Morris first entered the arena of politics in 1876 to attack Disraeli's Tory government and call for British intervention against the Turks for savagely suppressing a nationalist revolt of oppressed Bulgarians. In his appeal To the Working Men of England (1877) he denounced capitalist selfishness on grounds that appealed to both Liberals and Communists. The debate on Morris as a Socialist has given rise to a considerable literature, for the nobility of his utterances led almost every political camp to claim him, including orthodox Marxists. In 1886 Friedrich Engels described him scornfully as "a settled sentimental Socialist." A year later, in ignorance of this criticism, Morris wrote to a friend that he had an Englishman's horror of government interference and centralization, "which some of our friends who are built in the German pattern are not quite enough afraid of I think."
Arts and Crafts Movement
From a series of notable homes—the Red House, Upton, Kent; Kelmscott Manor on the upper Thames; and Kelmscott House, Morris's London house from 1878—he carried on a prodigious activity as a public speaker, member of committees and radical organizations, and leader of the Arts and Craft movement. He founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877 and the Kelmscott press in 1890. He died at Kelmscott House on Oct. 3, 1896.
Morris's plea for an integrated society in which everything made by man should be beautiful radically distinguishes him from other social theorists. His insistence on beauty as a central goal makes most modern approaches to a welfare society seem lacking in an essential nobility. For him art was the very highest of realities, the spontaneous expression of the pleasure of life innate in the whole people. An esthetic doctrine underlies his most political writings, like The Dream of John Ball (1888). Paradoxically, the designer-manufacturer who failed to grasp the esthetic possibilities of the machine was the father of modern industrial design, which aims to create a beautiful environment for mankind freed from poverty. A notable advance on his theory was made by the Bauhaus, the famed school of architecture and applied art in Germany, where Walter Gropius and his colleagues applied Morris's principles to the machine and scientific technology.
The Collected Works of William Morris (24 vols., 1910-1915) was edited by his daughter May, and The Letters of William Morris to His Family and Friends (1950) was edited by Philip Henderson. The classic work on Morris is J. W. Mackail, The Life of William Morris (2 vols., 1899; repr. 1968, 1995). A readable narrative biography with excellent illustrations is Philip Henderson, William Morris: His Life, Work and Friends (1967). An outstanding, comprehensive study is Edward P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (1955). Paul Thompson, The Work of William Morris (1967), deals especially with Morris's art in relation to its Victorian background and discusses his writings and social theory in the light of recent research. R. Page Arnot, William Morris: The Man and His Myth (1964), is an ingenious attempt to claim Morris as an orthodox Marxist.
Bloomfield, Paul, William Morris, Philadelphia: R. West, 1978.
Bradley, Ian C., William Morris and his world, London: Thames and Hudson, 1978.
Cary, Elisabeth Luther, William Morris, poet, craftsman, socialist, Philadelphia: R. West, 1978, 1902.
Faulkner, Peter, Against the age: an introduction to William Morris, London; Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1980.
Harvey, Charles, William Morris: design and enterprise in Victorian Britain, Manchester England; New York: Manchester University Press; New York, NY, USA: Distributed exclusively in the USA and Canada by St. Martin's Press, 1991.
Lindsay, Jack, William Morris: his life and work, New York: Taplinger Pub. Co., 1979, 1975.
MacCarthy, Fiona, William Morris: a life for our time, New York: Knopf, 1995.
Vallance, Aymer, William Morris, his art, his writings, and his public life: a record, Boston: Longwood Press, 1977. □
MORRIS, WILLIAM (1834–1896), English poet, political thinker, and decorative artist.
William Morris was born in Walthamstow, now part of London, on 24 March 1834 and died at Kelmscott House, Hammersmith, London, on 3 October 1896. Perhaps his greatest fame in his own lifetime was as a poet. But his work as a designer with his own firm and as a politically active socialist has been more enduring. His father made a fortune as a stockbroker, allowing Morris to experiment with various careers before choosing to pursue three: poet, designer, and political thinker and activist. His early love of the Middle Ages, which helped shape all his activities, was fostered by his reading and his explorations of Epping Forest near his home and in the Savernake Forest near his boarding school, Marlborough. He went to Exeter College, Oxford, where he joined a like-minded circle of friends, most notably the future painter Edward Burne-Jones.
Morris had already come to despise what he saw as the cheap and shoddy ideas and goods of the age. At first he thought that the way of reform was to become an Anglican minister, but his interest in religion declined. Influenced by John Ruskin's Stones of Venice (1851–1853), particularly its fifth chapter, "On the Nature of Gothic," he determined to use art as the means of reform. He was persuaded by Ruskin's argument that workers need to have a sense of pleasure in their work and in their surroundings. Morris considered being an architect, then a painter but abandoned these careers. Moving to London he found no furniture to his liking so he designed his own. Finding no house he wished to live in, he turned to his friend Philip Webb, who designed for him, in a simplified redbrick Gothic, the influential Red House in Bexleyheath outside of London. In 1861 he formed a design firm, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Company, to provide for the inside of the house, and it became a commercial operation. (With some acrimony, Morris eliminated his partners in 1875 and re-formed the firm as Morris & Company.)
Morris felt that much of the design of the time was ugly and false to nature. Its purpose was not beauty but to demonstrate the wealth of its purchaser. Morris believed in talent, not genius, and felt he demonstrated this himself by working in all areas of his firm's production. Although to modern eyes many of Morris's designs appear elaborate, in their own time they represented a move toward simplicity. He designed furniture, wallpaper, stained glass, textiles, tapestries, tiles, carpets, and, toward the end of his life, books for his last enterprise, the Kelmscott Press. As the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement he had a profound effect
on design and architecture not only in his own country but also in continental Europe and indeed the rest of the world. He wrote that his aim was "to combine clearness of form and firmness of structure with the mystery that comes of abundance and richness of detail" (Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, p. 27). He wished, in his own words, "to give people pleasure in the things they must perforce use, that is the one great office of decoration; to give people pleasure in the things they must perforce make, that is the other use of it" (Morris 1882, p. 4). In his wake, various Arts and Crafts firms were formed. The movement emphasized handmade products, simplicity of form, and fitness to purpose. As such it was a reaction against Victorian objects and an extremely important influence on the look of the world in the twentieth century.
His best-known series of poems was The Earthly Paradise (1868–1870), and one cartoon depicted him as "The Earthly Paradox." He was aware of being caught in a technological conundrum. He hated what he saw as the low quality of machine products, and is frequently seen as being antimachine. He certainly did not admire the machine, but he was perfectly willing to use it as a way of producing his wallpapers and chintzes at lower cost, although his firm's finer work was done by hand. He increasingly came to feel that corporate interests, to use the modern term, would demand cheaper and shoddier production. For instance, he hated the new chemical dyes and insisted on using natural ones.
Morris became more and more active in politics, as he felt that the only way that the ordinary person could make and have truly beautiful and useful objects was if socialism were introduced and the economic arrangements of society transformed. He became a convinced Marxist, but this did not lead him to change his business methods. Though his workers were well paid, he did not share the profits of his firm. To charges of hypocrisy, Morris pointed out that his one individual case would not change society and he needed his income to achieve political reform, indeed revolution, for all.
He devoted a great deal of his considerable energy to political agitation. The various political groups with which he was associated were the precursors of the British Labour Party, much as he would have disliked it given that in his view society needed to be totally transformed politically. He outlined his utopia in his most famous prose work, News from Nowhere (1891). Through the founding of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (1877), Morris launched the modern preservation movement. He helped create a far greater sensitivity to the need to preserve and protect the environment. Morris's legacy encompasses a belief in simplicity of form, many magnificent designs and objects, persuasive political analysis of the economic world, and a vision of socialism on a human scale.
Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. Catalogue of the First Exhibition. London, 1888.
Kelvin, Norman, ed. The Collected Letters of William Morris. 4 vols. Princeton, N.J., 1984–1996.
Morris, William. Hopes and Fears for Art. London, 1882.
——. The Collected Works of William Morris. 24 vols. Edited by May Morris. London, 1910–1915.
MacCarthy, Fiona. William Morris: A Life for Our Time. New York, 1995.
Stansky, Peter. Redesigning the World: William Morris, the 1880s, and the Arts and Crafts. Princeton, N.J., 1985.
Thompson, E. P. William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary. Rev. ed. New York, 1976.
William Morris (1834–1896) was born in Walthamstow, now part of London, on March 24 and died at Kelmscott House, Hammersmith, London on October 3. During his own lifetime he was best known as a poet, but while his reputation as a poet has continued, his work as a designer with his own firm and as a politically active socialist has been even more enduring. An early love of the Middle Ages helped shape all his activities. He rejected what he saw as the cheap and shoddy ideas and goods of the modern age.
At first Morris thought that social reform was possible through the Anglican ministry. But influenced by the work of social commentator and art critic John Ruskin (1819–1900), especially the fifth chapter of Stones of Venice (1851–1853), "On the Nature of Gothic," he turned to art instead. Ruskin convinced him of the need for workers to have a sense of pleasure in their work and surroundings. Morris considered being an architect, then a painter. Moving to London he found no furniture to his liking so he designed his own. He found no house he wished to live in. Turning to his friend Philip Webb, Morris had him design the influential Red House in Bexleyheath outside of London in a simplified red brick Gothic. He formed a design firm to work on the inside of the house and it became a commercial operation.
It was through his work as a designer and a businessman that Morris confronted issues of technology and ethics. He felt that much of the design of the time was ugly and false to nature. Its purpose was not beauty but to advertise the wealth of its purchaser; it was not true to its form; it was not true to Ruskin. Morris believed in talent, not genius, and felt he demonstrated this himself by working in all areas of his firm's production. To modern eyes, many of Morris's designs appear elaborate; in their own time they represented a move toward simplicity. He designed furniture, wallpaper, stained glass, textiles, tapestries, tiles, carpets, and toward the end of his life, books for his last enterprise, the Kelmscott Press. His aim, as he wrote in Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society Catalogue of the First Exhibition, was "to combine clearness of form and firmness of structure with the mystery that comes of abundance and richness of detail" (p. 27). He wished, in his own words, "to give people pleasure in the things they must perforce use, that is the one great office of decoration; to give people pleasure in the things they must perforce make, that is the other use of it" (Morris 1882, p. 4).
Morris was aware of being caught in a technological conundrum. He hated what he saw as the low quality of machine products. He is frequently seen as being anti-machine. He certainly did not admire the machine but he was perfectly willing to use it as a way of producing his wallpapers and chintzes at lower cost, although his firm's finer work was done by hand. He increasingly came to feel that the reliance on technology was becoming an ethical and political matter and that, to use the modern term, corporate interests would demand cheaper and shoddier production. For instance, he hated the new chemical dyes and insisted on using natural ones. He became more and more active in politics because he felt that the only way the ordinary person could make and have truly beautiful and useful objects was if socialism were introduced and the economic arrangements of society transformed. He became a convinced Marxist. This did not result in his changing his business methods. Though his workers were well paid, it was not a firm in which he shared the profits. To charges of hypocrisy, he pointed out that his one individual case would not change society and he needed his income to achieve political reform, indeed revolution, for all.
Morris devoted a great deal of his considerable energy to political agitation. The various political groups with which he was associated were the precursors of the British Labour Party, much as he would have disliked it. In his view, society needed to be totally transformed politically if it were to serve the best scientific, technical, and ethical needs of its members. He outlined his utopia in his most famous prose work, News from Nowhere (1890). Though he fought for total change, at the same time he had an important influence on contemporary capitalist society. He launched the modern preservation movement through the founding of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (1877), and he helped create a sensitivity in favor of preserving and protecting the environment. Although in practice he made compromises, he left a legacy of belief in simplicity of form and truth to materials that has had a profound effect on the look, usefulness, and technology of the modern world.
Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society Catalogue of the First Exhibition. (1888). London: London New Gallery.
Briggs, Asa, ed. (1984). William Morris: News from Nowhere and Selected Writings and Designs. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Kelvin, Norman, ed. (1984–1996). The Collected Letters of William Morris, 4 vols. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
MacCarthy, Fiona. (1995). William Morris: A Life for Our Time. New York: Knopf.
Morris, May, ed. (1910–1915). The Collected Works, 24 vols. London: Longman, Green & Co.; (1973) New York: Oriole Editions.
Morris, William. (1882). Hopes and Fears for Art. London: Ellis & White.
Stansky, Peter. (1985). Redesigning the World: William Morris, the 1889s, and the Arts and Crafts. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Thompson, Edward Palmer. (1976). William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary. New York: Pantheon.
Morris founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB—1877) in response to the over-zealous and destructive ideas of church-‘restorers’. He was anxious to publicize not only the concept of conservation (as opposed to wholesale renovation) but the qualities of hitherto unappreciated vernacular buildings, all of which led him to be regarded as a founding-father of the Arts-and-Crafts movement, the Domestic Revival, conservation, and the search for a society in which work would be a joy. His was the inspiration behind the establishment of the Art-Workers' Guild (1884), the first Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society exhibition (1888), and many other late-C19 organizations intended to improve design, craftsmanship, and the appreciation of art. His published works include The Earthly Paradise (1868–70), various beautifully produced volumes from his Kelmscott Press (which had a great influence on typography), and the Utopian News from Nowhere (1891) in which by the end of C21 London was rebuilt in a way inspired by medieval architecture (this suggests that Gropius's claims to have been influenced by Morris were absurd).
A. Crawford & C. Cunningham (eds.) (1977);
C. Harvey & and Press (1996);
MacCarthy (1979, 1994);
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004);
Pevsner (1968, 1972, 1974a);
P. Thompson (1993)
MORRIS, WILLIAM (1873–1932), U.S. talent agent. Born in Schwarzenau, Germany, Morris immigrated to America in 1898. He initially went to work for Marc Klaw and Abe Erlanger as a theatrical booking agent, and then as an independent vaudeville agent at a time when Keith-Albee United Booking Office was monopolizing bookings for vaudeville theaters. In 1907, Klaw and Erlanger joined with the Shubert Brothers to form the National Vaudeville Artists Association to compete with Keith-Albee, but they were acquired three months later and Klaw and Erlanger were forced out. Morris led a prolonged fight against Keith-Albee's monopoly with the aid of entertainment newspaper Variety and President Theodore Roosevelt. On January 31, 1918, a victorious Morris established the William Morris Agency with his son William, Jr. (born 1899 in New York) and office boy Abe Lastfogel. The agency's logo of four Xs actually represent William Morris' initials – a "W" superimposed on an "M." As silent film took hold, Morris pushed for clients like Al Jolson, Mae West, Charlie Chaplin, and the Marx Brothers to try out the new medium. By 1930, Morris had passed control of the agency to Lastfogel and his son, after 32 years in the business. Lastfogel managed the New York office, while William, Jr., took control of the Los Angeles office and later became president of the agency (1932–52). Morris died of a heart attack while playing cards at the Friar's Club in Manhattan.
[Adam Wills (2nd ed.)]