William Morris: His Philosophy and Working Practices

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This essay is going to look at the life of William Morris and his working practices by analyzing his writing and historical and social background, and discuss to what extent Morris’s actual practices reflected his views on social and artistic reform.

William Morris and the Victorian Britain
William Morris is one of the most famous British designers of the 19th century. Although his reputation today relies on his textile designs and decorative arts business, he was actually far more than just a designer. He was a poet, writer, socialist, and activist. Morris was born in Walthamstow, a rural area in East of London, on 24th March 1834. His father, William Morris Senior was a bill broker, and the Morris family was relatively wealthy in the society at the time (Harvey and Press, 1996).

Morris was born into the period, which is referred as the Victorian era. This period is highly significant in British history because it is when Britain took its first step towards modernization by the industrial revolution and the expansion of the British Empire. The society at the time was changing rapidly because of the invention of machineries. It enabled cities to grow more rapidly and become more urban. The invention of steam power was led by the birth of the stagecoaches and steam ships, and it changed the whole situation of the society by improving communication links (Sussman, 2009). Although the industrial revolution contributed to the development of the society, it certainly had a negative effect as well. As a result of the industrial progression and the urbanization, Britain saw a rapid increase in population, and it stimulated the serious problem of the widening gap between rich and the poor. (Sussman, 2009)

The Victorian industrial society and Morris’s ideal
The Victorian era was definitely the era of massive progress in terms of economical and industrial development, however, behind the glory of the modernization, there was opposition happening at the time as well. While the society was rapidly becoming urbanized and mechanized, the rise in the interest in medievalism and the past, especially in the Art and Design sphere was becoming significant. Design from the middle ages was slowly gaining in popularity, and the idea that design reflected the ethical values was spreading.

William Morris was definitely playing an important role in this ‘anti-modernization’ movement. Burdick (1997, p.4) mentions in his writing that Morris said in his lecture one day:

“Apart from my desire to produce beautiful things…the leading passion of my life is hatred of modern civilization.”

Clearly, Morris’s motivation for creation was his strong passion for going against the trend of Victorian society. He was concerned about degraded taste of the industrial society, and his passion was to revive the beauty of the art in everyday life. He believed that there was a strong relationship between quality of art and social tendency, and he thought that he could embellish the world by altering the tastes of society. His theory was that “healthy art was not possible in an ill society” (Burdick, 1997, p.7), and that was to say that bad design directly reflected moral decay of the society.

An encounter with John Ruskin
Morris started to gain the idea of social criticism through an encounter with various artists and thinkers, and it is possible to say that John Ruskin is the most influential person of all in terms of the formation of Morris’s ideal. Ruskin, a social thinker and also an artist himself, argued that the industrial society was morally decaying, and it was forcing the working class into poverty, both culturally and materially (Harvey and Press, 1996). It was also Ruskin’s belief that a man can only fulfil himself through work, and he was against the trend of the industrial society, that to force workers to do monotonous tasks (Harvey and Press. 1996). Ruskin strongly believed that one should learn practical...
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