William Morris was a poet, artist, manufacturer, and socialist during the mid to late 19th century. He was most active as a wallpaper and textile designer and later in his life a graphic designer. Morris was born March of 1834 in Walthamstow, which was near to London. He lived with his wealthy family near London and learned to read at a young age. He later attended Oxford where he met is friend, Edward Burne-Jones, who would later become one of the greatest Pre-Raphaelite artists. Morris started at Oxford thinking of becoming a clergyman, but soon joined an aesthetic circle. Morris had a great interest in medieval art and architecture, because it was art that was made by people and for people with great skill and craft instead of art that was made by mass production. After graduating and inheriting his father’s money, Morris started working as an architect. After a few years, Edward Burne-Jones influenced him to become an artist instead. Morris started as a poet and painter, but later in his life became more interested in politics, tapestries, graphic design, and textile designs.
“The Arts and Crafts movement evolved as a revolt against the new age of mechanization, a Romantic effort on part of Morris and others to implement the philosophy of the influential critic John Ruskin, who stated that true art should be both beautiful and useful and should base its forms on those found in nature.” Morris and others fought to return to the simplicity, beauty, and craftsmanship that were being destroyed by the process of mass production. He also became more active as a socialist, and had many writings and leadership roles involving this. La Belle Iseult was the only known and finished easel painting made by Morris. It was made in 1858 and shows his model, Jane Burden, who became his wife in 1859. Jane is modeling as Iseult standing in front of an unmade bed in a medieval room. The painting shows many rich colors, and there is great emphasis on the patterns throughout the painting. These patterns can be seen in many of Morris’s work in his tapestries.
Throughout the painting Morris uses textures and patterns to make the piece feel more realistic. In the foreground he places Iseult who is standing and looking towards the left. She is not addressing the viewer and looks as though she has recently arisen from bed. In the middle ground he places an unmade bed with a dog snuggled in. In the background there is a woman musician playing for Iseult. Morris paints Iseult with illuminating skin and keeps her the main focus with her light white and pink patterned dress. There are many curtains draping from the ceiling echoing the colors in her dress. The room is full of things placing it in medieval times. This painting of Iseult is showing her mourning over her lover, Tristram, who was exiled from the court of King Mark. She was locked in the tower after attempting to kill herself.
Now she has been sick almost to the point of death mourning for her lover, and this is also shown in the mood of the painting. “She stands wistfully in her small chamber, her feelings for Tristram reinforced by the springs of rosemary, symbolizing remembrance, in her crown, and the word ‘DOLOURS’ (grief) written down the side of her mirror.” The greyhound also proves the subject to be Iseult, because it is said Tristram gave her the dog and it is now used as her identifying emblem. There has been confusion on the name of this piece, and it has also been called Queen Guenevere. This is most likely because Morris wrote a poem called The Defence of Guenevere in the same year the painting was made, which is addressing the same character in the painting. Morris struggled for months on this picture and spent more time on embroidery and woodcarving.
Many of the furnishings in the picture, such as the Turkish rug, the Persian embroidered cover, and the white work hangings are inspired by his actual collection. Strawberry Thief is a printed cotton furnishing textile that was made to be used as curtains or draperies for a wall. It could have also been used as loose covers on furniture. This pattern is based on the thrushes that Morris would often see stealing his strawberries beside his home in the kitchen garden. This is one of his best known designs and is very colorful with the deep indigo blue he used. “The pattern was printed by the indigo discharge method, an ancient technique used for many centuries mostly in the East.” Morris liked the depth of the color and clarity in the detail. In May 1883 Morris wrote to his daughter, “I was a great deal at Merton last week … anxiously superintending the first printing of the Strawberry thief, which I think we shall manage this time.”
Morris was very pleased with his design and even got it patented. It was the first pattern using this old technique where red and yellow were added to the basic blue and white ground. The entire process was painstakingly long to make and it used very expensive cotton. Even though it was sold at a high price, the textile was one of the most commercially successful patterns for Morris and one of the client’s favorites. Morris was primarily active as a wallpaper and textile designer. The flower motif was a favorite in his work. He would often make his designs simple and stylized and inspired by traditional folk art. Morris’s emphasis on the importance of skill and craft and making art for the people contradicted his expensive textiles that only the wealthy could afford. Morris worked to restore the art of fine fabric printing and often experimented and researched different methods in making fabrics. Strawberry Thief is a colorful design where Morris used an indigo discharge technique to create it.
“Morris found that in order to produce a true indigo blue the fabric could not be block printed because the indigo dye oxidizes, changing the color as the fabric dries. Morris reused an early technique of vat-dyeing the entire yardage in indigo. Then, by using either a resist process or through bleach printing, areas of the fabric could be opened (the indigo color removed) and redyed the desired color.” Morris would also study old dye recipes, and would wash his fabric in the nearby river and dry it on the grass to allow the sun to bleach away the residual color. He would use organic materials for his primary colors, and would blend dyes and change the strength of dye solution to get the secondary colors. Morris’s early works and patterns were simpler and were made from a contemporary style with more obvious repetition. His later patterns and designs became more complex with more depth. “Morris believed that a pattern should not be at once entirely self-revealing and should hold some mystery for the viewer, being sufficiently complex to maintain his attention.”
Daisy Wallpaper was made in 1862 and was hand-printed for the firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. It is a design showing a variety of plants. The colors of plants included are white, red and yellow flowers placed on a pale background with green flecks which represent grass. “The flat simple frontal motif was adapted from a tapestry shown in an illuminated manuscript at the British Museum; Block-printed in distemper colours, on paper; The second paper William Morris designed, but the first to be issued (1864).” This wallpaper is another one of Morris’s flower motifs and is simple and stylized. This was also inspired by traditional folk art. This wallpaper was hand printed which made it very expensive. This was the first pattern that Morris issued, which took place in the year of 1864. It is a simple design of meadow flowers, and these forms are very similar to those seen in the late medieval tapestries. This wallpaper has a medieval character that connects Morris’s early work with the Pre-Raphaelite painters. Morris also had an interest in making nature into ornament which also helped influence this design.
Morris said “’any decoration is futile … when it does not remind you of something beyond itself.” William often observed the plants in his garden and studied them which then they would often end up in many of his works. Morris did not intend for his designs and flowers to be taken as literal transcriptions of natural forms, but instead they were supposed to be seen as stylized re-creations. Morris designed over 50 wallpapers, and advised that the choice of wallpaper for the home must take into account the function of the room. Morris still preferred woven textile hangings over wallpaper, and thought of wallpaper as a makeshift decoration. “Though naturalistic, they were not of the over-blown chintzy floral style generally described as ‘French’, then popular with aristocratic and wealthy customers. On the other hand, though many were ‘flat’ and to a degree stylized, often drawing on medieval sources for their motifs and character, they did not have the severity and the moral overtones of ‘reformed’ design.”
During the late 1890s, Morris’s wallpapers could be commonly seen in many artistic middle-class homes. He had great success in “creating structured patterns from natural forms, with a sense of organic growth controlled by a subtle geometry, was his most important design legacy.” He also influenced the skill of making flat and complex patterns, patterns that were stylized organic forms and motifs of nature. He even changed the way the middle-class decorated their homes. Throughout Morris’s career as a designer he worked to bring people away from the commercialization of the Industrial Revolution and he pushed people to come back and reawaken to the romantic ideas of handcraft medieval design.
He would often find his inspiration in nature and today many of his designs can be found on tapestries, textiles, wallpaper, stained glass, carpets, and more. He was one of the more influential voices in Victorian art and architecture of the time. Although Morris did so many different kinds of art, there are a few stylistic elements and ideas that he incorporated throughout his work. Morris really emphasized quality in his work, not only in the quality of the actual design itself, but also in the quality of life. He believed that the two were entwined in a way and he would encourage people around him to make things for themselves. He also used a historic style which played into all of his work.
Arnason, H. H. History of Modern Art: Painting Sculpture Architecture Photography. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2003. Print Chu, Petra ten-Doesschate. Nineteenth-Century European Art. London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd, 2012. Print. Cody, David. “William Morris: A Brief Biography.” The Victorian Web. N.p., 17 Oct. 2012. Web. Nov. 2012. <http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/morris/wmbio.html>. Fowle, Frances. “La Belle Iseult.” TATE. N.p., Dec. 2000. Web. Nov. 2012. <http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/morris-la-belle-iseult-n04999/text-summary>. Mackail, John WIlliam. “William Morris.” The Dictionary of National Biography. Supp. vol. 3. London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1901. 197–‐203. Print. Marsh, Jan. “William Morris’s Painting and Drawing.” JSTOR. The Burlington Magazine Publications Ltd., 1986. Web. Nov. 2012. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/882655>. Oman, Charles C., and Hamilton, Jean. “Wallpapers: a history and illustrated catalogue of the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum.” London: Sotheby Publications, in association with the Victoria and Albert Museum, 1982. “Strawberry Thief.” Search the Collections. V & A Collections, n.d. Web. 02 Dec. 2012. <http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O78889/strawberry-thief-furnishing-fabric-morris-william/>. Whipple, David. “Textile Designs and Books by William Morris.” JSTOR. Cleveland Museum of Art, 1978. Web. Nov. 2012. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/25159593>. “William Morris & Wallpaper Design.” Victoria and Albert Museum. Victoria and Albert Museum, 2012. Web. Nov. 2012. <http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/w/william-morris-and-wallpaper- design/>.
Images of the Works:
Title: La Belle Iseult Date: 1858 Medium: Oil Paint on Canvas Size: Support: 718 x 502 mm, Frame: 960 x755 x 61 mm Source: Tate Britain (http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/morris-la-belle-iseult-n04999) Title: Strawberry Thief Date: 1883 Medium: Furnishing Fabric/Textile Size: 60.5 x 95.2 cm Source: Victoria and Albert Museum (http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O78889/strawberry-thief-furnishing-fabric-morris-william/)
Title: Daisy Wallpaper Date: 1864 Medium: block-printed in distemper colors, on paper Size: Height: 687 mm, Width: 544 mm Source: Victoria & Albert Museum (http://thetextileblog.blogspot.com/2010/09/william-morris-and-daisy-wallpaper.html)
[ 1 ]. Mackail, John WIlliam. “William Morris.” The Dictionary of National Biography. Supp. vol. 3. London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1901. 197–‐203. [ 2 ]. Chu, Petra ten-Doesschate. Nineteenth-Century European Art. London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd, 2012. [ 3 ]. Cody, David. “William Morris: A Brief Biography.” The Victorian Web. N.p., 17 Oct. 2012. Web. Nov. 2012. . [ 4 ]. Arnason, H. H. History of Modern Art: Painting Sculpture Architecture Photography. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2003. [ 5 ]. Marsh, Jan. “William Morris’s Painting and Drawing.” JSTOR. The Burlington Magazine Publications Ltd., 1986. Web. Nov. 2012. . [ 6 ]. Fowle, Frances. “La Belle Iseult.” TATE. N.p., Dec. 2000. Web. Nov. 2012. . [ 7 ]. Fowle, Fances. “La Belle Iseult.”
[ 8 ]. Marsh, Jan. “William Morris’s Painting and Drawing.” [ 9 ]. Fowle, Fances. “La Belle Iseult.”
[ 10 ]. “Strawberry Thief.” Search the Collections. V & A Collections, n.d. Web. 02 Dec. 2012. [ 11 ]. “Strawberry Thief.” Search the Collections. V & A Collections. [ 12 ]. “Strawberry Thief.” Search the Collections. V & A Collections. [ 13 ]. Chu, Petra ten-Doesschate. Nineteenth-Century European