the life of william morris

Painted portrait of William Morris by George Frederic Watts. William Morris is shown from mid-chest up in front of a green background. He is a middle-aged man with bushy brown hair and beard, wearing a brown suit.

William Morris, 1870. George Frederic Watts. Oil on canvas.
National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 1078.

Author. Artist. Activist.

The Story

William Morris (1834–96) was an English poet, decorative artist, translator, romance writer, calligrapher, book designer, preservationist, journalist, political leader, and theorist of socialism and the decorative arts. For a century and a half, his admirers have been drawn to the beauty, interconnectedness, and farsightedness of his artistic endeavors and efforts to live up to radical ideals of social justice. Influential in his day as a major literary figure, avant-garde designer, and socialist polemicist, in recent years Morris has also attracted further attention as the author of romances, travel writings, and utopian literature. He is widely credited as a pioneer of modern fine press book design and major instigator of the Arts and Crafts movement. Moreover, as a social thinker he is remembered as one of several nineteenth-century pioneers who campaigned for communal ideals and the preservation and renewal of natural and built environments. The sheer multiplicity of Morris’s endeavors has repeatedly intrigued observers, who have sought to grasp their underlying patterns and sources of creative power and to apply these in multiple ways in the present.


Image: One of the opening pages of the Kelmscott Chaucer. The Kelmscott Press, 1896. British Library, C.43.h.19.

Early Life and Career

William Morris was the eldest son of Emma Shelton Morris and William Morris, a wealthy London broker and mining investor who died when Morris was fourteen. He attended Marlborough College and Exeter College, Oxford, where he made several close friends, among them future artist and collaborator Edward Burne-Jones, and began the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, the first of many cooperative projects in which Morris took an active role. In 1856 he was apprenticed briefly to the Gothic revival architect G. B. Street.

In 1858 he published The Defence of Guenevere, a brilliantly innovative volume of lyric and dramatic verse. The following year he married Jane Burden, the daughter of an Oxford stableman, and commissioned his friend Philip Webb to design the neo-Gothic Revival Red House in Upton, Kent, for which Morris and his friends designed the furniture and decorations. In 1861 he and several friends founded “The Firm” (Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co.; after 1874, Morris and Co.) With his collaborators, Morris designed and produced furniture, wallpapers, textiles, glassware, stained glass, tapestries, and carpets, and made Morris and Co. the leading English interior decorating firm and supplier of stained-glass church windows.

Photograph of William Morris, c. 1857. Sepia-toned image of a young man with dark hair and a neat beard, sitting posed with one hand on a table. He wears a dark suit and loose cravat tie, and lighter trousers.

William Morris, c. 1857. Photographer unknown.
National Portrait Gallery, London NPG x3757.

Group photograph of the Burne-Jones and Morris families, posed outside in a garden.

Frederick Hollyer, The Burne-Jones and Morris families, 1874. The Morrises are at right: May, William, Jane, and Jenny.
National Portrait Gallery, London NPG x11881.

In 1865 Morris moved to London with his wife and two daughters, Jane Alice (“Jenny,” born 1861), and Mary (“May,” born 1862). The success of The Life and Death of Jason, a long narrative poem, encouraged him to complete The Earthly Paradise, whose swift-moving, lucid, and highly pictorial tales made Morris one of the most popular poets of his age. He then recorded his 1871 and 1873 visits to Iceland in his Icelandic Journals, and began a series of Icelandic translations with Icelandic scholar Eiríkur Magnússon. One of these, Völsunga Saga: The Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs, became the source for his major poetic epic Sigurd the Volsung.

Historical Preservation, Environmentalism, and Socialism

In 1877 Morris founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), which over time has preserved hundreds of English churches and other buildings from mutilation disguised as “restoration.” Long troubled by widespread poverty among the working classes, in 1883 Morris joined England’s first socialist organization, the Democratic Federation (later the Social Democratic Federation) and in 1884 led a large faction which seceded to form the Socialist League. For the rest of his life, Morris was a tireless activist for socialism, meeting each week with his comrades, suffering arrest in 1885, and delivering hundreds of lectures throughout the UK. He edited the League newspaper Commonweal, and his socialist writings included two volumes of essays; the song collection Chants for Socialists; a narrative poem on the Paris Commune, The Pilgrims of Hope, a time-travel vision based on the Peasant’s Revolt, A Dream of John Ball, and his most influential work, News from Nowhere, a pastoral utopian eco-communist vision of England in an imagined future.

Socialist League Hammersmith Branch membership card. A bearded man works at an anvil in front of a leafy background.

Socialist League Hammersmith Branch membership card, Walter Crane, 1880s. The figure of the smith was modelled on Morris.

Photograph of William Morris, 1889. Black and white bust-length portrait of Morris in profile. He has bushy gray hair and a white beard. He is wearing a dark suit.

Emery Walker, William Morris, January 19, 1889.
National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG x19612.

Later Writings, Fantasy, and Book Design

Morris’s health failed in 1890, and divisions between anarchists and socialists brought an end to his leadership of the Socialist League, though he continued to play a role as socialist elder statesman. In 1891 he co-founded with Emery Walker the pioneering Kelmscott Press, a major influence on modern fine book design. The press produced 52 works including the magisterial The Works of Chaucer Newly Imprinted, with inset drawings by Burne-Jones and ornamental designs by Morris. Morris also composed a series of fantasy romances, including The Glittering Plain and The Water of the Wondrous Isles, which have influenced later fantasy writers such as J.R.R. Tolkien. Morris died of kidney failure October 3rd, 1896 and was buried near his beloved Oxfordshire country home Kelmscott Manor.

Since his death Morris has perhaps been most widely known as the designer whose principles inspired the Arts and Crafts movement as well as a leading spokesperson for early British socialism and its utopian ideals. He is also honored as an advocate of historic preservation and environmental protection, a major poet and forerunner of modern fantasy literature, and perhaps the most significant English book designer since the 15th century.