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William Morris

Morris, William, 1834–96, English poet, artist, craftsman, designer, social reformer, and printer. He has long been considered one of the great Victorians and has been called the greatest English designer of the 19th cent.

While at Oxford, Morris, along with his lifelong friend Edward Burne-Jones, became deeply interested in the ritual and architecture of the Middle Ages. However, Morris's great awakening came through his readings of John Ruskin, whose ideas on aestheticism and social progress he gradually adopted. In 1856, after being apprenticed to an architect, Morris attached himself to the brotherhood of Pre-Raphaelites and through the encouragement of Dante Gabriel Rossetti began to paint and write. In 1858 he published his first volume of poems, The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems. This was followed by The Life and Death of Jason (1867) and The Earthly Paradise (3 vol., 1868–70), in which a group of medieval Norse wanderers seek a land where there is no death or misery. Although popular in its time, his poetry is not widely read today.

With friends, he started (1861) the firm of decorators later famous as Morris and Company, which, in reaction to growing industrialism, sought a return to the working operations of the Middle Ages and a revitalization of the splendor of medieval decorative arts (see arts and crafts). He made carvings, stained glass, tapestries, carpets, wallpaper, chintzes, and furniture. Today he is especially known for his fabric and wallpaper designs, gracefully elaborate all-over patterns usually based on floral or animal motifs. In the 1870s he founded the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings.

Morris also became interested in politics and reform, joining (1883) the socialist Democratic Federation and forming (1884) the Socialist League. Two notable prose works came out of this political phase, The Dream of John Ball (1888) and News from Nowhere (1891). In these works Morris contrasts the ugliness of the machine world with the poetry and beauty of the Middle Ages, setting forth the doctrine that art is the expression of joy in labor rather than an exclusive luxury. He made no distinction between art and craft and saw fine design and workmanship as the salvation of the industrial society. His last artistic venture, and one of his most important, was the Kelmscott Press in Hammersmith (est. 1890), where he designed the type, page borders, and bindings of fine books. Morris had a profound influence on the printing industry with his brilliant graphic contrast of ink with page and his elegantly designed type.

See his collected works (24 vol., 1910–15; repr. 1966); his lectures, ed. by E. D. Le Mire (1969); selections, ed. by his daughter, May Morris (1936, repr. 1962); biographies by J. W. Mackail (1912, repr. 1970), P. Henderson (1967), and F. MacCarthy (1995); studies by P. R. Thompson (1967) and R. Watkinson (1967).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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