How one man's opinion became a mantra for how we decorate our homes

How one man's opinion became a mantra for how we decorate our homes

'Have nothing in your house which you do not know to be useful, or believe top be beautiful," said William Morris, one of our most renowned artists and textile designers, whose influence can still be seen in homes and other buildings up and down the country.

Born this month in 1834, he – with John Ruskin – was the founding father of the Arts and Crafts movement in the mid 19th century that was set up in protest against Victorian mass production which, its adherents believed, demeaned artisans and craftsmen and resulted in ‘shoddy wares.’

It was as concerned with social reform as much as design change and William Morris, a multi-talented man of immense intellect, outstanding vision and immense practical talent, became its poster boy.


Artistic beginnings


It started at Oxford university where Morris, who was studying theology at Exeter College, became part of The Birmingham Set, a group of young men who dedicated themselves to a love of literature from the Romantic Age (1785 – 1832) and social reform. They included artist Edward Burne-Jones, one of the most influential artists of his age (1833 – 1898) who became a life-long friend to Morris.

Morris abandoned plans to enter the church to become an architect then ditched that idea for art. He started to experiment with various crafts and established a number of workshops where he insisted that no work could be done before he personally had understood and mastered the techniques involved. He began to make furniture and decorative objects for the home, including tiles, wallpapers and carpets, using bold forms and strong colour. He took his inspiration from the English countryside, influenced by romantic style elements from medieval times, so there was a strong rustic theme to his work, venerating nature and the simplicity of form.

These beautiful Morris-style curtains with their floral motif and the lampshade in Morris’s famous ‘Strawberry Thief’ design are classic examples of his design.

William Morris Fabrics

Morris married artists’ model Jane Burden in 1858 and came to public attention after taking part in the Great Exhibition held in London in 1862 to showcase industrial and cultural products from across the globe. His eponymous Morris and Co business was founded in 1875 after an earlier company was dissolved.

Much of Morris and Co’s early work was for the church, where his influence encouraged others to embrace his style. One notable example is the church of St Mary in the village of Stogumber, which lies between Watchet and Wellington in Somerset.

This 14th century building was transformed during the late Victorian period by Prebendary Edward Jones, an admirer of William Morris. He had the church altered in the Arts and Crafts style with stencilled walls, patterned floor tiles and a painted wagon roof. Commenting on the church, the village website states: ‘The Victorian alterations are vividly coloured and create a contrast to the earlier medieval stonework and plain furnishings.’

The impact of these changes are clearly illustrated in these stunning photographs taken by the owner of Kernow Furniture on a recent visit.

Stogumber Church 1Stogumber Church 2

Morris also won high-profile interior design commissions for St. James’s Palace in London and what is now the Victoria & Albert Museum. The former green dining room at the museum is now designated the ‘Morris Room’ in his honour and memory and the V&A’s galleries house other decorative works by Morris.


Influence at home and abroad


It is almost impossible to overstate Morris’s influence. By the end of the 19th century, Arts and Crafts design was the foremost style in Britain and increasingly popular across Europe and in the United States. Associations and craft communities based on Morris’s principles sprang up everywhere between 1895 and 1905, with around 130 of them in Britain.

There are still wonderful examples of his work to be seen in some of the great country houses, notably Wightwick Manor in Wolverhampton, West Midlands, and Standen House in East Grinstead, West Sussex. Both properties are owned by the National Trust and open to the public.

During the later part of his life, Morris got more involved in politics as a staunch socialist, giving talks and lectures across the country. He was a prolific writer of poetry, essays and novels. He also translated ancient and medieval texts. He continued to develop his practical skills, designing wallpapers and weaving tapestries. He taught himself embroidery and worked with the Royal School of Art Needlework. He also taught himself the art of fabric dyeing, reviving forgotten techniques and promoting the use of natural dyes and hand processing.


Legacy with a Cornish flavour


Morris and Co continued after his death in 1896 until he start of the Second World War. His legacy, however, lives on and is still one of the most recognised design trends in modern homes.

Cornwall-based potter Bernard Leach (1887 – 1979), described as ‘the father of British studio pottery’, was heavily influenced by Morris’s Arts and Crafts movement. Born in Hong Kong, he lived in Japan and studied in London. He was invited to St Ives in 1920 to join an artistic colony in the town. He established the Leach Pottery, which exists to this day as a working pottery, studio and art gallery.

Leach promoted plain and utilitarian forms of ceramics. He promoted ethical pots, designed to be useful, modern and ‘democratic in usage’ as opposed to what he described as ‘fine art pots’.

Bernard Leach

Prophetically, Morris spoke about the influence art can have in our homes and lives. It is equally applicable to the man himself and is a suitable tribute to a remarkable man: ‘The past is not dead, it is living with us, and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make.’


March 17, 2022 — Francesca Peterson

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