William Morris and His Legacy

William Morris by G.F. Watts, 1870 © National Portrait Gallery, London

William Morris
by G.F. Watts, 1870
© National Portrait Gallery, Londont


‘Tomorrow, when the civilised world shall have a new art, a glorious art, made by the people and for the people’

William Morris lecture ‘labour and pleasure versus Labour and sorrow’, 1880

William Morris was the greatest artist-craftsman of his period, especially famous for his wallpapers and textiles. He was an extraordinarily creative designer of pattern. Morris ran a successful decorating and manufacturing business as well as a high profile London shop in Oxford Street.

But this was only one of his activities. Morris in his time was even better known as a poet, equal to Tennyson and Browning. He was a passionate social reformer, an early environmentalist, and an important political theorist. His Utopian novel News from Nowhere had a profound national and international influence.

Uniting all these activities was Morris’s belief in the power of beauty to transform human lives. In propounding this belief through his lecturing and writing, his energy was formidable in demonstrating and campaigning for the socialist cause.

When Morris lay dying in 1896 one of his doctors diagnosed his fatal illness as ‘simply being William Morris, and having done more work than most ten men’.

Prioress’s Tale Wardrobe by Edward Burne-Jones, 1859 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. WA1939.2

Prioress’s Tale Wardrobe
by Edward Burne-Jones, 1859
© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. WA1939.2


‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful’

William Morris lecture ‘The Beauty of Life’, 1880

In 1860, after William Morris married, he and his wife Jane moved into a new house, Red House at Bexleyheath in Kent, purpose-designed by the innovative architect Philip Webb.

Here Morris’s ideals first found practical expression in the decoration of the house, carried out by working parties of his artist-craftsman friends, including Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. This whole idea of camaraderie and joyfulness in labour was to be an influential Morris theme.

The design and decoration of the house was envisaged by these friends as the first stage in a campaign against the debased artistic standards of the mid-Victorian age. Resulting from this experience, the highly successful decorating company Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. (later Morris & Co.) was formed.

‘The Firm’, as it was known, set up manufacturing workshops and opened its own shop. There was later a Morris & Co. showroom in Oxford Street, taking Morris’s challenge to ugly and pretentious prevailing design standards to the heart of the commercial market place.

Edward Carpenter by Roger Fry, 1894 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Edward Carpenter
by Roger Fry, 1894
© National Portrait Gallery, London


‘The spirit of the new days, of our days, has to be delight in the life of the world’

William Morris, News from Nowhere, 1890

William Morris’s hopes, as expressed in his visionary novel News from Nowhere, involved dismantling the existing structures of society and inventing a freer, more equal and creative way of life. Morris became convinced that only from the lives of a truly democratic people could come a genuinely living art. In his activist revolutionary years from the 1880s Morris inspired and was inspired by leading radicals and anarchists of his period.

It was a time of turbulence and violence as political and sexual norms were being widely questioned. Morris was associated with the exiled Russian anarchists Prince Peter Kropotkin and Sergey Stepniak. He was a socialist colleague of Edward Carpenter, a proselytising homosexual and exponent of the simple life.

Morris’s own involvement in traditional female spheres of domestic decoration, cookery and garden design connected him to the then burgeoning movements for women’s education and female suffrage. His colleagues in London socialist circles included Eleanor Marx, Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde.

‘Craft of the Guild' brooch designed by C.R. Ashbee and made by the Guild of Handicraft, England, 1903 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

‘Craft of the Guild' brooch
designed by C.R. Ashbee and made by the Guild of Handicraft, England, 1903
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London


‘Nothing which is made by man will be ugly, but will have its due form, and its due ornament, and will tell the tale of its making and the tale of its use’

William Morris article ‘Art’, 1891

Morris’s vision of productive and contented work in idyllically beautiful surroundings had an enormous impact on the Arts and Crafts movement as it developed in late nineteenth and early twentiethcentury Britain, northern Europe and the USA.

Central to the movement was the concept of the makers’ personal responsibility for what they made in contrast to the soulless repetitive mechanical processes of nineteenth-century factory production. Morris’s ideal was that every worker ‘must have a voice in the whole affair’.

The Arts and Crafts movement was concerned with skill and the perfection of technique. Among the artistic highpoints were C.R. Ashbee’s metalwork, Ernest Gimson’s furniture, William Morris’s daughter May Morris’s embroidery, T.J. Cobden-Sanderson’s bookbinding.

But there was more to it than superb artefacts. The Arts and Crafts was a socially revolutionary movement which brought about a blurring of class boundaries, a dawning recognition of women as creative co-workers and an end to false distinctions between work and leisure in a world in which work itself was seen as joyous. The movement involved the invention of a whole new way of life.

Ambrose Heal by Frederick Hollyer, c.1895 – 1903. Heal Family Collection

Ambrose Heal
by Frederick Hollyer, c.1895 – 1903.
Heal Family Collection


‘I want the town to be impregnated with the beauty of the country, and the country with the intelligence and vivid life of the town’

William Morris lecture ‘Town and Country’, 1894

In the early twentieth century, William Morris’s imaginative concept of small self-sufficient ruralist communities gathered public support. The first Garden City was Letchworth, founded by Ebenezer Howard in 1903, followed by Welwyn Garden City, Hampstead Garden Suburb and other consciously humane communities which developed Morris’s thinking in attempting to reconcile urban and rural environments.

Garden Cities were Utopian in believing that high aesthetic standards would set a moral standard for the communities who lived there. Garden Cities were socially egalitarian, setting out to eradicate false class distinctions. They were anti-snobbery and anti-luxury. They allowed space for the things that really mattered: the life of the mind and human creativity.

The Garden Cities generated what became seen as a typically English architecture of homeliness and sweetness, exemplified by the consciously modest Arts and Crafts houses designed by Raymond Unwin and C.F.A. Voysey. Simple oak furniture supplied by Ambrose Heal, from his family firm Heal & Son in London’s Tottenham Court Road, expanded Morris’s aims in making good design available at affordable prices.

Eric Gill	by Howard Coster, 1927 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Eric Gill  
by Howard Coster, 1927
© National Portrait Gallery, London


‘A society conscious of a wish to keep life simple, to forego some of the power over nature won by past ages in order to be more human and less mechanical, and willing to sacrifice something to this end’

William Morris lecture ‘The Society of the Future’, 1887

William Morris’s ideas were still very much alive in the years that followed the First World War as artists and craftspeople struggled to find themselves a viable place within the modern world. Morris’s original ‘campaign against the age’ seemed essential at a period of increasing political cynicism and materialist frivolity and waste.

Attempts at achieving an integrated life of craftsmanship and domesticity were at their most extreme in Eric Gill’s Roman Catholic craft community at Ditchling in Sussex. Meanwhile at St Ives in Cornwall, the potter Bernard Leach grappled with the economic problems of handmaking to a high standard.

On a more ambitious scale were the inter-war experiments at Dartington in Devon where Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst strove hard to develop art, craft and culture in the context of the rural community.

The element of anarchy was ever-present with the questioning of conventional social structures. Opportunities for women continued to expand and in the craft world of the 1920s and ‘30s, where leading practitioners included the textile designers Phyllis Barron and Dorothy Larcher and the potter Katharine Pleydell-Bouverie, a creative lesbian sub-culture found its place.

Terence Conran in his cone chair by Ray Williams, 1950s © Estate of Ray Williams

Terence Conran in his cone chair
by Ray Williams, 1950s
© Estate of Ray Williams


‘What business have we with art at all unless all can share it?’

William Morris letter to The Manchester Examiner, 1883

William Morris looked forward to a genuine rebirth of art as ‘the spontaneous expression of the pleasure of life innate in the whole people’. Morris’s ideals of art for the people were a central inspiration to the planning of the Festival of Britain of 1951.

The Festival was the regenerative project of a postwar Labour government. The Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, was influenced by Morris’s visionary socialism.

Over eight million people visited the South Bank Exhibition over the summer of 1951. This was a celebration of community on a massive scale in which art, design and architecture was of the essence. The Festival of Britain took up and expanded William Morris’s original view of the importance of involving artists and designers in the processes of making as setters of standards and a humanising force.

For many young designers – for example Robin and Lucienne Day and Terence Conran – the Festival inspired them with a direct sense of mission to bring the highest design standards within reach of everyone. The optimistic spirit of the Festival encouraged the expansion of the art schools in 1960s Britain, ushering in a whole new era of cultural and social realignments and creative anarchy.