William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites

a love of craft

Acanthus wallpaper, 1875 by William Morris.

THE MAN WHO did so much to inspire members of the literary circle called The Inklings, of which JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis were members, and establish the fantasy genre, died at age 62 in 1896, after which an eminent doctor wrote, “I consider the case is this: the disease is simply being William Morris, and having done more work than most ten men.”

Multi-talented people are often scattered, their energies divergent, but fame in his own time as a poet, interior designer, architectural conservationist and committed socialist testified to the immense vitality of a man who even when ill at the end of his life had the will to explore yet another area of design: printing and typography.

the arts and crafts movement

A circle of friends around Morris and artist Edward Burne-Jones concerned themselves with traditional craftsmanship and, later, a social vision. The aesthetics the Industrial Revolution had imposed upon Victorian life were perceived by them to be barbaric. The movement was romantic in the sense of looking backwards to a pre-industrial age the splendours of which apparently had been lost.

Over London by Rail, 1870 by Gustave Doré showing the squalor of the living conditions of workers.

The two as youths had decided to become priests but after touring the cathedrals of France, they embarked upon careers as visual artists, Burne-Jones resolving to be a painter and Morris an architect. It’s a tendency among humans to divide themselves into camps, no less so than in the design and production fields. The departure Morris took was to attempt an integration of these. In addition to the art of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, early on the arts and crafts movement had discovered the writings of art critic John Ruskin who anticipated environmentalism, sustainability and craft; he had argued that separating design and production was damaging socially and aesthetically.

Shakespeare’s Ophelia, 1852 by John Everett Millais of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

After a stint as an architect, Morris founded a company with friends which designed and created tapestries, wallpaper (see above), furniture (such as the famous reclining Morris chair pictured at right, widely copied, notably by Gustav Stickley in the US), and stained glass. Later Morris and Company became Kelmscott Press which designed and printed contemporary and historical works of English literature.

Kelmscott Press

Kelmscott Press was founded at Hammersmith, London, by Morris with William Bowden, a retired compositor and master printer, to produce beautiful books in limited editions with the technology of the fifteenth century, including illuminations.

The first page of John Ruskin’s The Nature of Gothic, printed by Kelmscott Press in 1892 and set in the Golden typeface, one of two designed by Morris, the other being Venetian, both inspired by the fifteenth-century Venetian printer Nicolas Jenson who may have studied with Johannes Gutenberg, the German printer who introduced the mechanical moveable-type printing press to Europe in 1439.

William Morris was an important figure in the founding of socialism in Britain, so the obsession with printing, bookmaking and romance seems a paradox, but his ideas were based on the mediaeval system in which the nobility were obliged to consider the welfare of the poorer inhabitants of their lands, as well as a response to the rise of the mechanization of mass production. After Morris the Bauhaus art school in Germany would likewise try to heal the split between the deadening tendency of mass production and the artistic spirit (see “The Bauhaus and The International Style”).

His views, dismissed as mere romanticism in the first half of the twentieth century, languished until the 1960s after the phenomenal success of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Nowadays Morris’s designs have enduring appeal; for example, Brooks+Grey Design studio is in a modest townhouse constructed over a century after Morris died, in the arts and crafts architectural style (also known as craftsman, the American version) so commonly seen in new residential developments in the twenty-first century. After the failure of modernism with its centralization, bloated governments, rationalism and industrialism which was supposed to impose order on chaos, his ideas have renewed relevance as technology advances. It’s now possible to build an entire house with a 3D printer!

Aintree Mansion, constructed 1929 in Burnaby, British Columbia, an example of arts and crafts architecture.

~ Robert Grey