Chances are you’ve heard the name William Morris popping up from time to time on the TV and in newspapers and magazines. He is quite famous, after all. But how much do you really know about the famed textile designer? We delve into the man behind the myth.
Born in Walthamstow in 1834, Morris seemed to be jack of all trades and master of them all. Not only was he into pattern design in a big way (we’ve even got some William Morris table linen up for sale – featured in Real Homes, no less!), but he was a translator, novelist, poet and socialist activist. Quite a lot of fingers in quite a lot of pies!
What you’re likely to have heard most about him, however, is just how closely associated he was with the arts and crafts movement here in good old Blighty. He studied classics at Oxford University and found himself passionately interested in medievalism, alter forming close friendships with artists like Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
In fact, he founded a decorative arts company with Burne-Jones and Rossetti, a business that went on to have a huge impact on Victorian interior design. We’re talking wallpaper, fabrics, tapestries, stained glass and furniture, all designed by William Morris himself. What a talented fellow!
He came up with more than 600 designs for textiles, wallpaper and embroideries, reviving a range of old unused techniques, while making sure he used good quality materials. He taught himself to embroider and learnt the art of dyeing, and later was instrumental in the resurgence of carpet weaving as an art form. (He was also particularly fond of hand-knotted Persian carpets, apparently.)
However, don’t fall into the trap of overestimating the influence that Morris had in the wallpaper field during his lifetime. He was a big supporter of the idea of art for all but the items that he produced were all handmade and expensive, so the take-up was relatively small. That said, he has had a massive effect on wallpaper design, still evident today, and his motifs are increasingly popular with long-lasting appeal.
Morris’s legacy certainly lives on and you can go and see collections of his work all over the place. There’s the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow and the V&A has its own Morris Room. (If you go there, don’t forget to visit the gift shop – there are some amazing present ideas all bearing his designs.)
If you find yourself in Australia, go to the Art Gallery of South Australia, a collection that has books, fabrics, sketches, stained glass, furniture and a whole lot more, while Wightwick Manor in the West Midlands is home to original fabrics and wallpapers that are definitely worth a look.
As William Morris himself once said, “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”. This is something that we should all take to heart when it comes to interior design, whether you apply it to your new choice of PVC tablecloth or the colour of your bedroom.