From Poetry to Tapestries: The Life of William Morris

By: Christine Toner

The talents of William Morris knew no bounds. An extraordinarily gifted craftsman he succeeded at everything he tried his hand at. And with an innate curiosity and an appreciation of all things beautiful he tried his hands at almost everything.

Early life

Born on 24th March 1834 in Walthamstow, Essex Morris 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 criticism of Carlyle, Kingsley and Ruskin and decided instead to become an architect. The young novice became an apprentice to the 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 and printing and learning how to weave and dye and work a loom. It was the latter pursuit that would come to demonstrate Morris’s talent at it’s most impressive. His spectacular tapestries became his most famous creations.

Morris developed an array of skills. He learned to embroider by unpicking antique pieces to learn the stitches; he set up a loom in his house and taught himself to weave with only an 18th century French manual for guidance. Within a matter of months he had completed his first tapestry design. Acanthus and Vine was designed and woven by Morris in 1879.

Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co.

In 1861 Morris founded Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company along with friends Peter Paul Marshall and Charles Faulkner and subsequently begun the Arts and Craft Movement. Together with Edward Burne-Jones and fellow artists Ford Maddox Brown and Dante Gabriel Rosetti, the group produced some of the most creative tapestries and wall hangings Britain had seen. Indeed it was Morris’s ambition to breathe new life into the art and he achieved it. Morris’s wall hangings and tapestries still remain an important influence on design today. It was Morris himself who once said “Whatever you have in your room, think first of the walls, for they are that which makes your house and home" (1882).

His most famous works generally featured figures drew 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.

William Morris tapestries

The Quest for the Holy Grail, currently exhibited at the Birmingham Museum is one of the most well 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. It is one of six wall hangings illustrating the story and was woven in 1895-96.

One of the most intricate and beautiful creations from the company, known as “the Firm", 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 hanging is still one Morris’s most recognised works.

Morris & Co.’s most popular religious tapestry ‘The Adoration of Magi’ was first produced in 1890. As well as being Morris’s most ecclesiastical it was also the most complex. At least ten similar versions of the tapestry were woven between 1890-1907. Originally designed by Burne-Jones the tapestry depicts the Nativity scene.

Possibly the most captivating and charming of Morris & Co.’s tapestries is the Ehret die Frauen.

Designed by Marianne Stokes the hanging was inspired by a quotation from Friedrich von Schiller's 1796 poem "Wurde der Frauen" (Women's Worth), which appears in the upper border: "Honour the Women, they broid and weave heavenly roses into earthly life."

Real beauty does not age

Morris was one of the most prolific artists of the nineteenth century. The works of William Morris are proof that real beauty does not age. As popular today as they were over a century ago, Morris tapestries have continued to play a big part in sophisticated home décor. As Morris himself once said “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful" (1882).

Copyright © The Tapestry House, all rights reserved.

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