William Morris and historical design

Appalled by what he saw as the crude ugliness of contemporary machine-age goods, William Morris looked backwards into history for alternatives. He focused on producing what he saw as more 'honest' work, often making objects that relied on the revival of craft-based styles and techniques from the past.

Apart from the desire to produce beautiful things, the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilisation.

William Morris

William Morris nurtured a romantic enthusiasm for historical design from childhood. This was fully ignited while he was at Oxford, when a tour of the Gothic cathedrals of northern France led him to realise that he wanted a 'life of art' not a career in the Church. Morris was enthusiastic not only about the 'crispness and abundance of detail' of medieval art but also the collaborative, craft-based system that produced it. A passionate critic of, as he saw it, the ugliness of contemporary life, he was inspired throughout his career by the ideal of trying to make more beautiful and more 'honest' products with the help of like-minded associates.

To a large extent, Morris was a product of his times. The Gothic Revival had made medieval style fashionable in Victorian high society, and Morris would no doubt have seen and been influenced by the cultural promotion of this particular period. What made Morris unusual, however, were his exacting standards and his passionate commitment to research. He spent many hours studying objects in both his own and museum collections, looking for stylistic ideas or an understanding of how to recreate particular effects that he admired. The following items from our collections demonstrate just some of the ways in which Morris (and his collaborators) found inspiration in the design of previous eras.

Stained Glass

Some of the first commissions won by Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., were for church clients, and the firm went on to create interiors schemes – including stained-glass windows – for a number of Britain's new ecclesiastical buildings. The popularity of this work led the firm to produce a repertoire of glass adapted for the domestic sphere. These stained-glass designs demonstrate Morris and his collaborators' romantic enthusiasm for the past, and their particular interest in the narrative themes and style of medieval stained glass. Although their designs were reserved only for the richest clients, the influence of these pieces was significant, making Morris's firm instrumental in the reintroduction of stained glass into domestic design.

Stained glass panels, designed by William Morris, made by Morris & Co., 1872 – 1874, England. Museum no. C.677-1923. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

As a young man Morris showed real enthusiasm for stained glass and later created window schemes for Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., but the firm relied mainly on the figurative talents of Edward Burne-Jones. Morris did however offer a detailed understanding of process, overseeing the recreation of the simple spirit of medieval originals without falling into pastiche. As Burne-Jones explained, 'All his life (Morris) hated the copying of ancient work as unfair to the old and stupid for the new.'

Baptism of Christ, panel, designed by Edward Burne-Jones, made by Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., about 1862, England. Museum no. C.440-1940. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Tiles

Soon after 1862 Morris wrote to prospective clients and mentioned his firm's 'revival of the art of painting on china tiles'. By this date the collections in the South Kensington Museum (later the V&A) were already rich in historical Italian ceramics, and as frequent visitors there, Morris and his collaborator Philip Webb would probably have been well aware of the technique. Patterns for Dutch Delftware – a type of tin-gazed earthenware first developed in the 17th century – were another influential tradition. These hand-painted decorations feature simple scenes and patterns, often flowers, reduced to stylised elements, and are often painted in a distinctive vibrant blue on a white background.

Tile, designed by William Morris, decorated by Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., 1862, England. Museum no. C.58-1931. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Tiles were the least expensive of Morris's firm's products and were used to decorate fireplaces, furniture and walls. Designs were painted onto plain blanks produced by other firms and then fired in a stained-glass kiln. Work such as Morris's 'Primrose' and 'Daisy' tiles both show his early preoccupation with repeat patterns of small clumps of flowers, and the visual influence of medieval herbals (manuscripts illustrating botanical specimens). There is also a particular historical influence notable in the firm's tile panels, in which paintings of figures sit on a flat-pattern background, as they do in many medieval manuscripts. Morris often designed these backgrounds, as in a panel from 1862–65 depicting Sleeping Beauty sitting on a background of swans.

Tile panel, designed by Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, painted by Lucy Faulkner, made by Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., 1862 – 1865, England. Museum no. CIRC.520-1953. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Pattern

The main source of the patterns for Morris's famous wallpapers was the plants he had observed since childhood. But he also took inspiration from the images of plants he found in illuminated manuscripts, tapestries, woodcuts and historical books (he owned copies of several 16th- and 17th-century herbals, including John Gerarde's famous The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes (1597)). Morris's 'Daisy' design, the first wallpaper issued by Morris, Faulkner, Marshall & Co., in 1864, was a very simple flat motif printed on a neutral ground suggestive of grass. The source of this central flower image can be seen in a wall hanging illustrated in a 15th-century illuminated version of Froissart's Chronicles (a prose narrative about the Hundred Years War) that is held at the British Museum.

'Wandle', furnishing fabric, William Morris, 1884, England. Museum no. T.425-1934. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Direct historical references can also be traced in examples from Morris's later pattern design. For example, in the striking textile design 'Wandle' of 1884 – Morris's most ambitious repeat in terms of scale – the striped 'barber's pole' motif has definite medieval origins. The main source of inspiration here was a 16th-century Italian brocaded velvet acquired by the South Kensington Museum (later the V&A) in 1883 (a year when Morris was helping the museum select pieces to purchase). Clearly using the winding vine and rhythmic pattern as a foundation for 'Wandle', Morris substituted large stylised chrysanthemum heads for the crowns used in the original pattern.

Furnishing fabric, 1500 – 1600, Italy. Museum no. 442A-1883. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Furniture

Morris's brief apprenticeship in the offices of Neo-Gothic architect G.E. Street after graduation had fed his interest in the decorative style of the medieval period, as well as introduced him to Philip Webb, a designer who went on to be responsible for the majority of the furniture produced by Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. Influenced not only by its staff's personal interest but also by the dominance of Gothic Revival in contemporary decorative fashion, most of the firm's early furniture was medieval in style. The solid outlines of this period spoke to Morris's aesthetic taste. Everyday pieces in heavy wood were sometimes formed almost crudely, with decoration reserved for grander items designed to occupy more prominent positions.

Table, designed by Phillip Webb, made by Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., about 1865, England. Museum no. W.45-1926. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Painted furniture was already fashionable. Morris and his collaborators were significantly influenced in their decorative tastes by the work of William Bruges, a designer who in the late 1850s had begun using a medieval technique for decorating furniture with varnish that he had sourced from a 12th-century manuscript. In 1861 Morris began painting a cabinet designed by Philip Webb for the 1862 International Exhibition. Morris attempted a figurative scheme (based on the Legend of St George) that was similar to those often used to decorate cassones (bridal chests) in the Middle Ages.

St George Cabinet, designed by Philip Webb, painted by William Morris, manufactured by Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., 1861 – 2, England. Museum no. 341:1 to 8-1906. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The interior decoration of the cabinet demonstrates not only Morris's early interest in pattern, but also his use of Bruge's borrowed decorative technique: layering tinted varnish on a ground of silver leaf. Although the press praised its 'true medieval spirit', some people criticised the cabinet for the lack of coordination between its decoration and its construction (ironwork ran up the middle of some of the painted panels). As time went on, it was Burne-Jones who painted most of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co.'s pieces – buoyed by the success of his wallpaper and textile designs, Morris soon realized that his talents lay more in pattern than figuration.