William Morris was an English designer, poet, artist and craftsman whose designs for textiles, stained glass, furniture, wallpaper and many other decorative arts helped create the Arts and Crafts Movement during the Victorian era. The talents of Morris knew no bounds. He had an innate curiosity and an appreciation of all things beautiful and he tried his hands at almost everything in the applied arts.
Morris was born in March 1834 in Walthamstow, Essex and had a comfortable childhood before attending Marlborough and Exeter College, Oxford. Whilst studying for Holy Orders at Oxford in 1853 he met Edward Burne-Jones who would later become his business partner and lifelong friend. He abandoned his studies after reading the social criticisms of Carlyle, Kingsley and Ruskin and decided instead to become an architect. The young novice became an apprentice to G.E. Street, an architect involved in the Gothic revival. But impulsively creative he soon tired of this and began, like his friend Burne-Jones, to paint. Finding art his forte he embraced it fully, writing poetry, printing, learning how to weave and dye and work a loom. It was the latter pursuit that would come to demonstrate William Morris tapestry art at its most impressive. His beautiful tapestries became among his most famous creations.
In 1879, Morris set up a loom in his house (in his bedroom!) and taught himself to weave with only an old French crafts manual for guidance. William Morris tapestry art was born! Within a matter of months he had completed his first tapestry design, Acanthus and Vine. He founded Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company along with friends Peter Paul Marshall and Charles Faulkner. Together with Edward Burne-Jones and fellow artists Ford Maddox Brown and Dante Gabriel Rosetti the group produced some of the most creative paintings and tapestries Britain had seen.
One of William Morris’s most enduring legacies was his revitalization of tapestry weaving. By the mid-19th century tapestries had become just another mass-produced item, generally from Les Gobelins factory in Paris of which Morris was scathing. Driven by the need to demonstrate the importance of the individual over the means of production Morris used tapestry and textile design to revitalize the central importance of creativity in art. It was his ambition to breathe new life into the art and he achieved it: his tapestries still remain an important influence on design today. His most famous works generally featured figures drawn by Burne-Jones. Morris would design the background and the tapestry would be woven by Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co, which became simply Morris & Co in 1874 when Morris took sole control.
The Quest for the Holy Grail, currently exhibited at the Birmingham Museum, is one of the best known works of Morris & Co. Like many of the others, the tapestry, which depicts the fascinating story of the search for the Holy Grail, was designed by Edward Burne-Jones. Six wall hangings illustrate the story, woven in 1895-96.
A further example, one of the most intricate and beautiful creations from the company is the Tree of Life tapestry. Designed by Morris it demonstrates his talent with patterns and his awareness and appreciation of the use of colour. Symbolising growth and continuous life, the Tree of Life wall tapestry is still one Morris’s most recognisable works; one of the most popular French tapestries available today.
The works of Morris are proof that real beauty can be timeless. As popular today as they were over a century ago, William Morris tapestry art, has continued to inspire new generations of artists and craftsmen to reach beyond convention and to genuinely create.