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William Morris

1 of 66 portraits of William Morris

William Morris, by Charles Fairfax Murray, circa 1870 -NPG 3652 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Later Victorian Portraits Catalogue

William Morris

by Charles Fairfax Murray
Pencil and brown watercolour on paper (stuck down on mount), circa 1870
5 5/8 in. x 5 1/4 in. (143 mm x 133 mm)
NPG 3652


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Inscriptionback to top

Signed in monogram (faint traces) lower right-hand corner;
and inscr. upper left-hand corner: ‘W[...]’.
Old backboard inscr.: ‘Attributed to / C. Fairfax Murray / 3652’;
next to trade label: ‘Francis Draper, 67 Park St, Grosvenor Sqr. / Removed to 110 Albany Street, N.W. / By Appointment to the King’.

This portraitback to top

Charles Fairfax Murray began his professional life as an assistant in the studios of Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti; he was introduced to William Morris around 1868 and did some work for ‘the Firm’, transferring designs to panels, tiles and glass. [1] The age difference was initially significant – it was Morris who first introduced Murray to continental travel, as a twenty-first birthday present – but the relationship shifted subtly over the years. In 1893 Morris was advocating Murray’s suitability for the post of director of the National Gallery. And in 1896, only months before his death, he was consulting Murray about the purchase of a medieval bestiary. Murray visited Kelmscott House on 3 October and made three very tender drawings of his old mentor on his deathbed (see NPG 3021).

Morris began work on an illuminated manuscript on vellum of his poems, A Book of Verse, in February 1870. [2] This collaborative work, involving Morris, Murray and George Wardle, was eventually presented to Georgina Burne-Jones on her birthday in August 1870. The miniature roundel of Morris on the title-page was drawn by Murray, and is clearly connected with a photograph by John Robert Parsons taken on 14 June 1870. [3] The miniature is fully coloured and facing to left, but otherwise very close to the profile in NPG 3652. However, both profiles cannot be after Parsons’s photograph as NPG 3652 bears an even greater resemblance to an earlier monochrome wash drawing, a half-length of Morris by Murray, signed and dated ‘JAN.1.1870.’, now in the collection of the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester (see ‘All known portraits’).

This set of four interrelated profiles is a puzzle, but an explanation may be offered. It seems that Morris was pleased with the first portrait by Murray, the half-length. A closely related, undated head-and-shoulders version was also produced – this was NPG 3652. In June, when it came to designing the title-page to the poetry manuscript, Morris booked a photographic sitting with Parsons and took Murray with him, to help arrange a pose similar to the successful January drawing; Murray then drew the title-page roundel from both live sittings and the Parsons photograph. [4]

Around 1935 the drawing was spotted in a bookshop by Christopher Hughes, who showed it to May Morris, then in her seventies. ‘I came across this sketch of William Morris among some prints in a bookshop. I knew Miss May Morris and sent it to her […] She told me that it was the best portrait ever done of her Father.’ [5] May Morris’s response to Hughes had been initially cautious:

I cannot absolutely pronounce upon this drawing, but feel very nearly certain that it is by Charles Fairfax Murray. It is like his execution, and the pose and whole look of the drawing resembles to my mind a profile done for one of the MSS that my Father painted for Mrs. Burne-Jones early in the seventies. The ‘William Morris’ at the bottom also looks to me like Murray’s handwriting. I suppose there would be no clue in the provenanace of the drawing? Yours sincerely May Morris It is a lovely drawing: if you ever think of having it reproduced, would you bestow a copy on me? It is a valuable record of my Father’s head in that time. I have just looked up my notes: Fairfax Murray did the delicate miniature head in “A Book of Verse”, and this was about 1870. M.M. [6]

The drawing (now NPG 3652) was, in fact, the image chosen to represent William Morris in the first volume of May Morris’s William Morris: Artist Writer Socialist, published the following year (1936), in a photogravure frontispiece by Emery Walker.

In 1973 the authorship of NPG 3652 was questioned and Murray’s name was dropped; however, the drawing was reattributed to him in 2002. [7] For stylistic comparisons, see his drawings of Burne-Jones dated 1868–9 (Whitworth AG, Manchester), and of Philip Webb dated 1873 (NPG 4310).

Carol Blackett-Ord

Footnotesback to top

1) Kelvin 1984, p.77 n1. For Ruskin, Murray’s eye and gift for drawing made him a ‘heaven-born copyist’.
2) Salmon 1996, p.48.
3) ‘I am going to sit to Parsons the photographer on Tuesday (tomorrow) could you come with me, or meet me there I should be there by 11 at the latest.’ Letter from W. Morris to C.F. Murray, 13 June 1870; Kelvin 1984, p.121.
4) ‘I will be with you tomorrow, Tuesday about 11 a.m. to finish the sittings: will that do.’ Letter from W. Morris to C.F. Murray, [21 June 1870]; Kelvin 1984 p.122. ‘[Wardle] will give you the photographs – do as you please about the title page –’. Letter from W. Morris to C.F. Murray, [July–August 1870]; Kelvin 1984, p.123. (J.R. Parsons took the famous photographs of Jane Morris for Rossetti in 1865.) See ‘All known portraits’ for the photographs, which were sold as cartes-de-visite from 1871 by ‘Ellis and Green’ (the bookseller and Morris’s publisher F.S. Ellis, and G.M. Green). For copies of prints in the NPG Photographic Coll. see NPG Ax38170 and NPG x3765|mw171016}. May Morris called it a ‘particularily happy’ image and considered it the earliest photograph after the Oxford daguerreotype (Kelvin 1984, p.122).
5) Letter from C. Hughes to the NPG, 6 Mar. 1949, NPG RP 3652.
6) Letter from M. Morris to C. Hughes, 6 Oct. 1935, NPG RP 3652. The words ‘William Morris’ are not on the drawing now; they were perhaps inscribed on a mount or backing sheet.
7) See NPG RP 3652; and NPG CIC 1981 and 2004.

Physical descriptionback to top

Head-and-shoulders, profile to right.

Conservationback to top

Conserved, 1979; 1994.

Provenanceback to top

Purchased in a bookshop by Christopher Hughes, c.1935; presented as a gift to the Gallery, March 1949.

Exhibitionsback to top

A School of Rational Builders, RIBA Heinz Gallery, London, 1982 (no number).

Reproductionsback to top

NB: Engraved prints of Morris’s profile, very similar, are derived from J.R. Parsons’s photograph rather than NPG 3652: see ‘All known portraits’.

Morris 1936, vol.1, frontispiece (as photogravure by Emery Walker).

Panayotova 2008, p.10.

View all known portraits for William Morris