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The Life and Legacy of William Morris

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Although he is primarily known for his elaborate fabric and textile designs, William Morris was also a poet, novelist, illustrator, architect, translator, and social activist. Born in 1834, Morris was alive during the market revolution, during which new technology made mass production possible. Morris challenged the ideals of the time and founded the Arts and Crafts Movement, which valued nature and craftsmanship over mass production. He spent much of his life fighting the decline of true art by championing a principle of handmade production. He is known to have said, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

Born into a wealthy, middle-class family, William Morris went to Marlborough College in 1848, where he studied trees, flowers, and birds and acquired an interest in architecture and the Middle Ages. After Marlborough, he attended Exeter College, Oxford, where he met a group of like-minded poets and artists and they quickly became good friends. After finishing his degree and working briefly as an architect, he changed his interest to art and worked towards becoming an artist instead. He found some success, and in 1861, he formed the firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, & Co., manufacturers and decorators. The goal of the firm was to bring art to everyday people and elevate decoration and interior design to the level of fine art. Shortly after, Morris began his career as a translator when he became interested in Norse mythology and began reading and translating Icelandic sagas. Backtracking to his career in architecture, Morris founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877. In 1844, he took a dive into politics and founded the Socialist League in Britain. Only five years before his death, Morris established the Kelmscott Press, his publishing firm. Aiming to publish beautifully illustrated and typeset books, The Kelmscott Edition of Chaucer is regarded by many as the finest book ever printed. After an extremely successful life, he died in 1896.

One of Morris’s main goals in his life was to dismantle the popularity of mass production, as he believed that it led to dull and soulless objects. He sought to “revive a sense of beauty in home life, to restore the dignity of art to the ordinary household decoration.” Morris was also very inspired by nature. Before he went to Marlborough College, he had already acquired an almost encyclopedic knowledge of British plants. He used this vast knowledge in his art, producing mainly natural, organic forms. Another interest Morris found in college was the art and culture of the Middle Ages. Involved in the “Gothic Revival,” he attempted to bring back medieval art forms such as manuscript illumination and tapestry weaving. Morris was also influenced by and involved in a group by the influential artists he worked with. He was associated with a group called The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which included Millais and Rossetti. This group regarded classical painting as formulaic. Instead, they produced art that was characterized by abundant detail, intense color, and complex composition.

One of Morris’s most famous designs is his hand-printed wall-paper called Seaweed. Its complex design and intricate detail is representative of his style as a whole. The design has a clear repeating pattern, which is based on organic forms instead of straight lines. The piece is extremely detailed and has many layers that seem to be never-ending. Its colors are just muted greens and blues in different shades, as not to distract from the beautiful design. The Seaweed wallpaper shows just how much Morris valued beauty, imagination, and order as the three essential components of a successful design.

William Morris was best known in his lifetime mainly as a poet. It was only after his death that his designs and architecture gained the popularity they deserved. In fact, the William Morris Society was founded in 1955 to commemorate his legacy. Many people have written Morris’s biography and many studies of his work have been published. As for his architecture, many buildings that are associated with his life are open for public viewing. Art galleries and museums around the world hold his designs as well.

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