- Also known as
primary name: Morris, William
other name: Kelmscott Press
other name: Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co.
- individual; designer; publisher/printer; British; Male
- Life dates
- Designer, socialist, founder of Kelmscott Press, wood engraver and poet. See also under Morris & Co.
After coming down from Oxford in 1856 Morris went into the office of the Gothic Revival architect G. E. Street with the intention of making architecture his profession. At about the same time he and Burne Jones had come to know Rossetti, whose dictum that "the man who has any poetry in him ought to paint it; the next Keats ought to be a painter" persuaded him to give up architecture for painting, but his career as a painter was brief. In June 1857 Rossetti wrote to William Bell Scott "Morris has as yet done nothing in art, but is now busily painting his first picture, 'Sir Tristram after his Illness in the Garden of King Mark's Palace, recognised by the Dog he had given to Iseult', from the 'Morte d'Arthur'. It is being done all from nature of course, and I believe will turn out capitally". In the same year a watercolour is recorded of ""The Soldan's Daughter in the Palace of Glass" . . . seated in a heavy wooden armchair, probably studied from one of those at Red Lion Square, and the palace was in all shades of bluish glass". Both have disappeared, and the only easel-painting by Morris now known is the 'Queen Guenevere' painted in Oxford in 1858, for which 1939,0602.1 is probably a study. In the summer of 1857 Morris had been enlisted by Rossetti to help decorate the Oxford Union (see 1885,0613.81). Though his 'fresco' of a scene from the 'Morte d'Arthur' was a failure, the formal pattern which he devised for the ceiling of the room was the most successful part of the entire scheme and showed that his true bent lay in pattern-making and in decorative and applied art.
Morris's father had been a prosperous stockbroker, and he enjoyed the luxury of an independent income. This enabled him, while still an undergraduate, to buy Arthur Hughes's 'April Love' and Madox Brown's 'The Hayfield' (both now Tate Gallery), and later to subsidise the 'Firm' until it began to show a profit. More immediately, after his marriage to Jane Burden in 1859, he could begin to build the Red House at Bexley, in Kent, to the design of Philip Webb, a friend made in Street's office. The commercially produced furniture of the period did not suit the austerely mediaeval style of Webb's interior. Morris himself had devised "intensely mediaeval tables and chairs, like incubi and succibi", as Rossetti described them, for the rooms which he and Burne Jones shared in Red Lion Square, and he now asked Webb to design the furniture for the new house. This led to the foundation in 1861 of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. (see 1939,0513.7), in which Webb, Rossetti, Madox Brown and Burne Jones were also partners, dedicated to the improvement of domestic and ecclesiastical furniture and decoration. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century the influence of the 'Firm' was enormous, especially for the wallpapers and fabrics which Morris himself designed. In his later years Morris became interested in printing and book design, and in 1890 founded the Kelmscott Press.
After 1874 Rossetti and Morris ceased to see one another (see 1939,0513.7), but Burne Jones remained a close friend. Both were fascinated by his genius and, as their caricatures of him show (Gere 1994, cat. nos. 25-32, 63-66), by the egocentric vehemence of his personality. The word 'genius' is justified by his instinctive and immediate mastery of every means of artistic expression. His poems, especially in his earliest volume, 'The Defence of Guenevere' (1858), some of which are inspired by Rossetti's 'Arthurian' watercolours, establish him as a minor classic; and though his first attempt at painting on an unfamiliarly large scale was a failure, the 'Queen Guenevere', also of 1858, is a remarkably accomplished work for a novice. Eventually he came to regard easel-painting as a dead end: painting for him was part of a decorative scheme, its proper place either on walls or on furniture.
R.K.Engen, 'Dictionary of Victorian Wood Engravers', 1985