Morris, William (1834-1896)

William Morris, 1834-1896. William Morris, 1834-1896. Photograph by Frederick Hollyer, 1887

William Morris was an English architect, designer, publisher, social activist and writer, who was involved in a number of significant changes in English textile forms, including embroidery, during the nineteenth century. Morris and a group of influential, London based artists called the Pre-Raphaelites, were instrumental in the revival of traditional crafts production techniques.

In 1861, for example, they founded a decorative arts firm called Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. This company produced and sold a wide range of decorative items, including cloth, furniture, metal work, stained glass, tapestries and wallpaper. The designs used for these items were deliberately co-ordinated so that they could be used to decorate and furnish a complete interior of a home.

In 1875 Morris took overall control of the firm and renamed it Morris & Co. At the same time he started to work closely with Thomas Wardle, a silk dyer from Leek (Staffordshire, England), and together they produced a wide range of designs suitable for embroidered, printed and woven textiles. William Morris’s interest in embroidery appears to date back to the 1840's when he was apprenticed to George Edmund Street (1824-1881), the co-author of a book entitled Ecclesiastical Embroidery (1848). This book was written with Agnes Blencowe, the founder of the Ladies Ecclesiastical Embroidery Society.

Blencowe and Street advocated abandoning the popular wool work (Berlin wool work) forms and the return to medieval English embroidery techniques, notably Opus Anglicanum. Morris is known to have learnt a wide range of textile techniques, including dyeing and weaving, as well as embroidery. It is said that he taught his wife (Jane Burden) and her sister, Bessie Burden, to embroider, although it is more likely that these ladies were already well-versed in this skill. It is feasible that he instructed them in the styles of embroidery he advocated. Morris also taught his daughter, May Morris (1862-1938), to embroider and his concepts became very influential in her life and career.

William Morris is regarded as the ‘father’ of the Arts and Crafts Movement, which was very popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The movement was to influence similar ones around the world in the early twentieth century (compare the Mingei movement in Japan). During the late nineteenth century Morris was also credited with (re)establishing a style of free embroidery that became known as art needlework.

William Morris was also an author and poet. One of his most famous books is The Well at the World's End, published in 1896. Another fantasy novel is The Wood beyond the World, published in 1894. Both books were published by Kelmscott Press, which was set up by William Morris himself when he was dissatisfied with the quality of printed works by other publishers. For more information about this project of William Morris, see William S. Peterson (1991). The Kelmscott Press: A History of William Morris's Typographical Adventure (Oxford: The Clarendon Press). Kelmscott Press lasted for seven years (1891-1898), and in all 53 books were published.

See also: John Ruskin


  • MORRIS, Barbara (1962). Victorian Embroidery, London: Herbert Jenkins, pp. 95-112.

Digital source  (retrieved 3 July 2016).


Last modified on Sunday, 05 February 2017 09:16