William Morris, The Arts & Craft Movement – Art That Is Life

The Arming and Departure of the Knights. Number 2 of the Holy Grail tapestries woven by Morris & Co. 1891-94 for Stanmore Hall - detail
The Arming and Departure of the Knights. Number 2 of the Holy Grail tapestries woven by Morris & Co. 1891-94 for Stanmore Hall - detail

In England, during the second half of the nineteenth century, painter, writer, textile designer and social activist William Morris (1834-1896) became the motivational leader of a revival in arts and crafts that encompassed stylistically all the visual arts, especially architecture and interiors.

The Arts and Crafts movement that he led in England had ramifications that spread world wide. It was perceived, romantically, as being contrived at a much simpler time, when life was lived at a pace that was manageable.

Morris believed in a Utopian style of socialism and his affinity with natural handcrafted wares was doggedly pursued.

‘History has remembered the kings and warriors, because they destroyed; art has remembered the people, because they created’. 

Willliam Morris definitely created. Like many of his peers William Morris was trying to help people in his time find their way in a world moving forward at a very fast pace that was for many like himself, completely overwhelming.

Peacock and bird carpet c.1800s, courtesy William Morris Gallery, London Borough of Waltham Forest

He said ‘The true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life’.

During his own lifetime Morris produced hundreds and hundreds of designs for textiles, including tapestries and superb hand woven carpets.

Morris Holy Grail tapestryHis inspiration for their composition was both nature and the medieval world.

His truly sensational Peacock and Bird Carpet is a beautiful combination of carefully chosen colours for his stunning symmetrical design. The carpet was woven using high quality hand knotted techniques and brilliant natural dyes.

Morris wanted to find a way out of industrial ugliness, back to the joys of creation experienced in the ‘Golden Age’ of English history when Elizabeth 1 (1533-1603) was on the throne.

Challenging industrial age leaders at the time to produce handcrafted goods was indeed a lofty ideal as they were intent on profit over quality.

There was however two realities. The first that it was profit driving the market for William Morris products being sold through Morris & Co, which he founded in 1861.

The second was the aims he and his peers (like art critic John Ruskin and designer Auguste Welby Pugin) extolled ended up being an example of hypocrisy, because so many manufacturers were producing a superior ‘hand crafted’ product in dirty, overcrowded sweatshops, where most of the workers were children.

The exploitation of working class children as cheap labour was vital to the economic success Britain enjoyed during the nineteenth century. For many working class families, it was far more important for a child to bring home a wage than to have an education.

The combination of dangerous working conditions and long hours meant that children were worked as hard as any adult, but without the laws in place to protect them.

Children were cheaper to employ than adults, and easier to discipline. The tide of public opinion changed government legislation in 1844, 47, 50, 53 and 1867, so that no one could employ children under 8.

In 1867 workers between 8 – 13 years of age had their hours reduced so that they would be able to receive 10 hours education per week, again. It would not be until the closing years of the century that the majority of children began to be treated as children, not as miniature adults.

The Red House designed by Phillip Speakman Webb

In 1858 Morris’s friend and colleague architect Phillip Speakman Webb built the Red House for he and his family.

When it was completed in 1860, it was described by British Pre-Raphaelite Painter Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) as ‘the beautifullest place on earth’.

Today the house retains many of its original features including furniture by Morris and Philip Webb, ceiling paintings by Morris, wall-hangings designed by Morris and worked by himself and his wife Jane, furniture painted by Morris and Pre-Raphealite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and wall-paintings and stained- and painted glass designed by Edward Burne-Jones.

It was designed to reflect a man’s house was his castle and, for its time, it was completely revolutionary.

To complete the Red House Webb borrowed handmade red bricks from the Tudor period, inserted circular windows from the Italian Renaissance period, as well as small-paned sash windows from the English Georgian age.

Many of the windows are surmounted by pointed Gothic (relieving/set back) arches as described in the treatise of first century Roman architect Vitruvius and used by sixteenth century architect Andrea Palladio.

Its steeply graded roof is reminiscent of chateaux in France and its hand laid roof tiles are made of natural slate. They acted as an electrical insulator, were fireproof and had an extremely low water absorption rate.

The roof allowed water or melting snow to run into wide gutters and be recycled via a ‘well’ in the garden, which symbolically and practically became the ‘font’ of the house.

Stained Glass window at Kelmscott Manor

His ‘middling’ English house was, at least for Morris, a place ‘after his own heart’ a most noble work…more a poem than a house…but an admirable place to live in to’.

It was refreshingly simple and Morris was well pleased with it.

It was a kind of moral architecture if you like, paying tribute to England’s ‘golden age’, while reflecting the needs of a contemporary middle class citizen and craftsman such as himself.

The Arts and Crafts styled building symbolized warmth and shelter, informality and welcome.

House on the Appian Way Burwood, Sydney with Arts & Crafts (Federation) style influences

Between the wars the Arts & Crafts style house, which was also just a little bit fancy, burgeoned out into the suburbs of busy, bustling cities around the world including Australia, calling upon rural traditions too, which signified order and stability.

St John’s Cathedral at Brisbane, Australia was the last Gothic Revival Style Cathedral in the world to be completed (2006). In its precinct is a number of buildings influenced by Arts and Crafts architecture, which was well underway in England when it was first being built (1906).

St Martin’s House (Hospital) in the precinct of St John’s Cathedral, Brisbane, architecture inspired by the Red House of Phillip Speakman Webb in England. The Cathedral itself, designed by John Loughborough Pearson, also an English architect.

They include St Martin’s House, whose style was inspired by the philosophy of arts and crafts movement and The Red House.

Built following World War I of red brick, relieved by detailing in stone, it has a slated high sloping roof, Georgian style sash windows, Italian Renaissance touches, including a Juliet balcony.

There are also some delightful fanciful turret style chimneys at the roofline.

It has the addition of an extended room, surmounted by medieval battlements. Originally the main operating room of the hospital, it has been converted into an office for the current Dean of the Cathedral.

Morris and his associates introduced a new dimension to the reform of design and decoration.

He explored, in particular, the techniques of traditional country furniture because it was not only the debased quality of contemporary furniture that alarmed him, but also the decline of ancient skills needed to produce a quality product.

They produced a line up of furniture designs that were a distinct breakaway from anything else the industrial era had offered.

In America Gustave Stickley was a self appointed standard-bearer for the arts and crafts movement. Through his factory stocked with everything needed to create the home beautiful he promoted and extended Morris’s principles in both an artistic and socialist sense.

He targeted the average American homeowner, whose limited budget called for a subtle marketing technique.

He offered to ‘substitute the luxury of taste for the luxury of costliness’… employing those forms and materials made for simplicity, individuality and dignity of effect.

His magazine The Craftsman evangelized through articles submitted by influential guest writer’s on such issues as style, home décor, urban landscapes and architecture. It was all about the home beautiful, and he supplied everything needed for those seeking to embrace the future in comfort and style.

All his life Morris tried to recreate the idyllic, almost medieval life; self sufficient, financially secure, practical in close contact with nature.  Morris described the Cotswold village of Bibury in Gloucestershire as ‘surely the most beautiful hamlet in England’.

In this he was both inspired and supported by art critic John Ruskin, whose thoughts had a profound influence on Victorian attitudes.

Morris tried to make his vision of beauty, an actual part of everyday life. He saw modern mechanical industry destroying ‘mans natural purpose and sense of life’

John Ruskin said he believed that working with the hands and producing arts and crafts were essential to the moral fibre of the home.

Objects were meant to be fashioned with great pride, integrity and attention to beauty.

He sincerely feared without such a focus the quality of family life would be severely degraded and diminished.

Morris agreed. He said “If I were asked to say what is at once the most important product of Art, and the thing most to be longed for, I should answer, a beautiful House.

And that included everything and everyone inside it.

By now Morris and his family had a retreat in the countryside at Hammersmith overlooking the Thames. Kelmscott Manor with its high pitched roof and its delightful rustic portico sheltering the front door is where he established the Kelmscott Press, the last great enterprise of his life.

Between 1891 and 1898 it produced 53 books (some 18,000 copies).

The books Morris produced were modeled on books of the fifteenth century, such as those of printer Nicolaus Jenson of Venice, whose examples inspired the Roman ‘golden’ font Morris used.

Noteworthy for their harmony of type and illustration, the main priority was to have each book seen as a whole, re-awakening the early ideals of illuminated book design.

He wanted to inspire other printers in standards of production at a time when the printed page was generally at its poorest.

Numerous other presses were set up to perpetuate Morris’ aims, including the Doves, Eragny, Ashendene and Vale Presses.

The enterprise was the culmination of Morris’s life as a craftsman in many diverse fields as he set out to prove the high standards of the past could be repeated – even surpassed – in the present.

William Morris died before the end of the century and he did not live to see the success that the Arts and Crafts philosophy of he and his peers had on both sides of the Atlantic and in British colonies like Canada and Australia.


Anne-Marie Duff, Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter in Suffragette

Janey-Morris-Guinevere By 1901 the population of the United Kingdom was 41.5 million with twenty percent living in poverty. Emmelline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903 and it became a focus for militant action in the campaign for women’s suffrage.

It was not until 1904 that the Children’s Act of 1904 officially banned employment of children between nine PM in the evening and six am in the morning.

A reaction to the  de-humanizing affect of late nineteenth century industrialism revived the artisan guild system, which was similar to that of medieval times.

Its members were promoted as being both merry and jolly and they offered an interesting role model for those searching for a panacea to escape the ills of the age. It was all about suspending reality. The remedy lay in creating and constituting a new philosophy of life for the worker and so a traditional hero was revived.

Britain’s great legendary medieval hero, Robin Hood, who had championed the working class man and his honest labour became a new hero for the age.

Robin was merry, his men were merry and, putting him forward to project an image of artisans being happy at completing a day of hard work, was instantly appealing.

His  popularity and merry image was re-affirmed when a movie emerged from the new glamorous, Art Deco loving capital of America, Hollywood in 1938 in a world torn asunder. Australian born Errol Flynn starred as the romantic hero Robin Hood romping through the movie, with his merry men and the lovely Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marion.

They both smiled a lot, as did his men, and his merry disposition was completely infectious.

In the movie the virtues of hearth and home in Sherwood Forest were about Spartan design and not only would this help reinforce the attitudes and philosophies, fashions and passions of the Arts and Crafts movement as it continued its merry way, but it would also help everyone survive the global conflict to come.

‘We are here to lead you back to the realities of life’, Morris had said, ‘to show you how to use your hands and your heads, which machines have already made over half of the population lose’.

The social ideal of the arts and crafts movement is ongoing.

It was the ‘Art that is Life’.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2010 – 2014

Watch the Trailer of the original Robin Hood movie with Errol Flynn, it may give your day a boost.


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