Highlights from the William Morris Society’s Collection

“History has remembered the kings and warriors, because they destroyed; art has remembered the people, because they created.” – William Morris 

William Morris (1834 – 1896) was a revolutionary force in Victorian Britain: his work as an artist, designer, craftsman, writer and socialist dramatically changed the fashions and ideologies of the era. Morris was born to an affluent family in Walthamstow, near London. He studied at the University of Oxford with the initial intention of joining the clergy, but altered course to a life of creative occupation. Morris developed friendships with the Pre-Raphaelite artists Philip Webb and Edward Burne-Jones, both of whom fostered and would contribute to Morris’s artistic pursuits. 

In 1861, Morris and a group of like-minded individuals founded the design company Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. The firm was born out of a desire to improve poor practises in Victorian decorative manufacturing and produced a wide range of goods, including tapestries, wallpaper, fabrics, furniture, and stained glass windows. The company saw great success and was influential in establishing the Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain. Morris assumed sole control in 1875, at which point it was renamed Morris & Co. and it subsequently traded until 1940. Included in this exhibition are several rare original designs by Morris, such as ‘Windrush’, which encapsulates his emphasis on creating hand-crafted works, a principle held firmly against the mainstream focus on industrialised ‘progress’ of the time. 

Alongside his work for the firm, Morris achieved success as an author, publishing poetry and novels, such as News from Nowhere. In later life Morris became a seminal force in the private press movement, founding the Kelmscott Press in 1891 to publish limited-edition books, including the Kelmscott Chaucer. Morris sought to show that by adding “beautiful ornament and pictures, printed books might once again illustrate that a work of utility might also be a work of art”

Highlights from the William Morris Society’s Collection illustrates the diverse interests that William Morris passionately pursued in his lifetime. Morris had a profound admiration for craftsmanship, utilising and reviving traditional methods of dyeing and printing. Morris’s process of making extended to more than an idea of material craft; he believed that labour itself should be valued and that the learning of manual skills made for a well-rounded life. He believed in the value of good design for the maker as well as the consumer.

The attention to craft and making animate Morris’s patterns, poems, literature, politics and printing, and a belief that the designer should have a working knowledge of a wide variety of mediums. He was constantly teaching himself different processes and experimenting with new techniques. Morris’s ideas about how we might live and work creatively remain relevant in our own age. 

Design for ‘Windrush’ chintz, by William Morris, 1881

Pencil, pen, ink and watercolour on paper

Inscribed “Windrush chintz, 3 block white, brown, blue.”

‘Windrush’ is a complex design depicting vertically meandering stems with large flower-heads, overlapping with the scrolling foliage and flower-heads of a smaller plant on a blue background. Morris would draw in black ink from the original design to outline one unit of the repeat. The design was then translated into wood by block-cutters, with the narrower lines made in metal to ensure durability during printing. Textiles were produced by a similar block printing process.

Like many of Morris’s later designs for both wallpaper and fabric it shows a strong diagonal bias, perhaps influenced by the design of a seventeenth century Italian cut velvet at South Kensington Museum. The design also introduces what Morris called the ‘inhabited leaf’, a floral pattern within a flower or leaf, derived from Middle Eastern art and the medieval textiles influenced by it.

‘Windrush’ was one of thirteen designs named after tributaries of the Thames, the river which was a source of inspiration for Morris and linked his two homes Kelmscott House in Hammersmith, London and Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire. Morris’s daughter May claimed ‘Windrush’ was “named in memory of pleasant summer journeys along the Windrush valley”.

Sample of ‘Windrush’ linen, designed by William Morris, registered 1883

Hand printed from wooden blocks on linen at Merton Abbey

After early experiments in printing textiles Morris used Thomas Wardle in Leek until the early 1880’s when the dyeing and printing of textiles was transferred to his newly established Merton Abbey works. The wooden blocks for printing were cut off site by Alfred, and later, James Barrett of Bethnal Green Road, London.

The design was transferred to the block by tracing paper, and then a separate block was cut for each colour. For surface printing, the printer pressed the block onto a dye pad and then onto the cloth, working his way along the cloth. When dry, another colour was printed. It is believed that the indigo discharge process, which Morris experimented with for a long time, was also used with this design. The cloth was dyed with indigo then a bleaching agent was block-printed onto the areas of cloth not to be blue, removing or reducing the colour. The cloth was then washed and prepared for printing with other colours.

Framed Sample of ‘Bird’ textile, designed by William Morris, 1878

Hand-loom jacquard-woven woollen double cloth, manufactured at Queen’s Square 

This is a sample of the ‘Bird’ woollen double cloth which was designed for Kelmscott House. Photographs show ‘Bird’ hangings around the walls of the drawing room, in the Morris family’s home from 1878-1896.

Morris’s daughter May believed the pattern to be “intimate and friendly…the most adaptable to the needs of everyday life. It suggests not the wealth of the millionaire but the modest competence of a middle-class merchant who lives…with the few beautiful things he has collected slowly and carefully.”

In November 1879 Edward Burne-Jones ordered a set of bed hangings in this textile. Sydney Cockerell and Emery Walker, other friends and colleagues, also had hangings of this design in their homes.

Donated by John Kendall.

Design for ‘Sunflower’ wallpaper, by William Morris, 1877-1879

Pencil and watercolour on paper 

This design shows several working stages, the earliest being a pencil sketch design. A colouring of black wash was laid over the sketch before the whole repeat structure was finalised.

Compared with many of the earlier patterns of the 1870’s this is a straightforward design with a rigidly symmetrical ‘turnover’ pattern of a type more associated with woven fabrics and hand-knotted carpets. There is no attempt to mask the obvious horizontal and vertical repeats and there is no background to draw attention from the main pattern. The use of line on flowers, leaves and fruit gives only the slightest sense of depth.

George Wardle, manager of Morris & Co.’s site at Merton Abbey, reported that great care was needed to match the repeats of the pattern.

Sample of ‘Sunflower’ Wallpaper, designed by William Morris, 1879

Block-printed in black and gold by Jeffrey & Co. for Morris & Co. 

‘Sunflower’, ‘Acorn’ and ‘Mallow’ wallpapers (‘Mallow’ being designed by Lucy Faulkner) were registered as a group in 1879 and are all simple, single-coloured patterns issued for the most part in soft and pale tones with blues and browns predominating. These designs cost 4 shillings and sixpence to 5 shillings and sixpence a roll, the equivalent of around £32-35 today.

A greenish-black oil-coloured version of ‘Sunflower’ on a gold crape embossed ground, issued in 1879, and a red and gold embossed, foiled and lacquered version c.1881 were among Morris & Co.’s most expensive papers, selling at 30 shillings a roll.

‘Sunflower’ wallpaper was used in the drawing room at Standen, East Grinstead, a house designed in the 1890’s by Philip Webb, a friend and colleague of William Morris. The house was furnished by Morris & Co.

Design for ‘Jasmine’ Wallpaper, by William Morris, 1872

Pencil and watercolour on paper

‘Jasmine’ was one of an early group of wallpaper designs completed prior to 1876 that used a complex geometrical repeating pattern whilst giving the appearance of natural growth. Later designs tended to be less naturalistic and more formal. The background of ‘Jasmine’ is an overall pattern of hawthorn leaves, blossoms and branches on a disguised vertical meander. A scrolling tracery of jasmine delicately but clearly defined, provides the foreground.

Morris’s earliest identified fabric design was ‘Jasmine Trellis’ and one of the firm’s earliest printed textiles wasJasmine Trail’ (1868-70) but these were less complex designs.

Sample of ‘Jasmine’ Wallpaper, designed by William Morris, 1872

Hand block-printed in distemper, by Jeffrey & Co. for Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co.

This is an early example of one of forty wallpapers and five ceiling papers designed by William Morris himself. Morris & Co. produced forty-one other designs, ten, during Morris’s lifetime. Jeffrey & Co. printed the wallpapers after initial attempts by Morris failed. 

All Morris & Co. wallpapers, apart from six, were printed by hand from woodblocks. Jasmine’ was a complex design and records suggest some difficulties, with the number of blocks used being reduced from twenty to eleven. 

‘Jasmine’ was a very popular design. The drawing room at The Grange, the Fulham home of Morris’s friend and collaborator Edward Burne-Jones, was hung with ‘Jasmine’ wallpaper.

Design for ‘Larkspur’ wallpaper, by William Morris, 1872

Pencil and watercolour on paper

Inscribed on reverse “Larkspur Merton Abbey wallpaper portfolio”

‘Larkspur’ has been described as “An informal meander design, throwing off scrolls or sprays to right and left in the characteristic pattern structure of the group of naturalistic papers produced before 1876.”

William Morris said in a lecture on pattern-designing that “I must have unmistakeable suggestions of gardens and fields and strange trees, boughs and tendrils.” The repeat pattern is disguised, in keeping with Morris’s recommendation “to attain an air of mystery”.

Initially, ‘Larkspur’ was issued as a monochrome paper and in a multi-coloured version in 1874.

The same design was registered as a textile in 1875 and block-printed for Morris & Co. by Thomas Wardle on silk and cotton.

Sample of ‘Larkspur’ wallpaper, designed by William Morris, 1872

Handprinted from woodblocks by Jeffrey & Co.

‘Larkspur’ was first issued as a monochrome wallpaper, the detail of the design breaking up the monotony. In 1874 it was issued in this multi-coloured version.

The wallpaper design conforms to the original design for ‘Larkspur’, except that larkspur replaces the thistle. The veining on the flowers, variations in the green, and a dotted background give a pattern with depth and variety.

William Morris 1889 (aged 55 years)

Portrait photograph taken by Emery Walker, printed from half plate glass by Walker and Boutall

Emery Walker (1851-1933) photographer, typographer and engraver, was a close friend of William Morris, and lived nearby at Hammersmith Terrace. They met at Socialist meetings in the 1880’s. Sydney Cockerell commented that “Morris… did not think the day complete without the sight’ of Emery Walker.” An illustrated lecture on printing given by Emery Walker at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in 1888 inspired Morris to set up the Kelmscott Press in 1891 with Walker as an advisor.

In 1889 William Morris had been living at Kelmscott House for over ten years. He was very involved in designing tapestries, but less active in the management of the firm. Morris was a member of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society and had co-founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) in 1877. He worked actively for the Socialist League, touring, lecturing and holding regular meetings at Kelmscott House. In this period Morris also embarked on writing prose romances, including The House of the Wolfings, 1888 and The Roots of the Mountains, 1889.

Donated by D. J. F. Davis.

Sussex Chairs, designed by Philip Webb, c.1880

This chair is constructed of stained beech and features its original rush seat, finely turned spindles across the back splat and characteristic hanging support stretcher. It has a rich patina acquired over a lifetime of use.

This chair range was named after a country chair found in Sussex, which inspired the design with the turned frame and rush seat. Similar types of chairs, with imitation bamboo frames and rush seats, were fashionable between 1790 and 1820. Practical and lightweight, William Morris and his wife, Jane, used Sussex chairs in all their homes. Morris’s friend, the artist Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) had Sussex armchairs in his studio. Robert Edis recommended this chair as “excellent, comfortable and artistic” in his influential book, Decoration and Furnishing of Town Houses in 1881.

‘Flowerpot’, c.1880s

Hand-painted ceramic tile, tin-glazed earthenware 

This may have been the last tile pattern that Morris himself designed. Whilst the design was not taken directly from the ‘Flowerpots’ design for printed cotton from 1883, the scale and colouring are similar. Unlike tiles made in Holland and the Middle East, the main uses for ceramic tiles in late nineteenth century England were for relatively small areas, for example decorating a fireplace. Patterns that spread across multiple tiles would not work in such a small space. It is here where ‘Flowerpot’ would fit – its small-scale, design can be appreciated from a singular example.


Hand-painted ceramic tile, tin-glazed earthenware 

The humble daisy was a motif used repeatedly over the years by William Morris in designs for different media. As early as 1860 it was incorporated into his design for wall-hangings at Red House, informed by an illumination in Froissart’s Chronicles, a fifteenth century French manuscript. Morris knew the original in the British Museum well and owned a copy of HN Humphrey’s book Illuminated Illustrations of Froissart, published in 1845. It is not surprising that when he chose to design a Daisy’ tile, along with other designs depicting meadow flowers such as primrose and columbine, he again turned to Froissart for inspiration.

‘Daisy’ tiles first went into production around 1862 and remained in production until Morris & Co. closed in 1940.

‘Rose’, c.1870s/1880s

Hand-painted ceramic tile, tin-glazed earthenware 

Roses played an important part in Morris’s life. His first wallpaper pattern ‘Trellis’ was inspired by the roses that grew on the trellis at the first home he shared with his wife Jane, Red House. Roses continued to play a part in Morris’s work, on carpets, wallpapers, textiles and ceramics. This tile design has its origins in an embroidery design of 1875. Whilst a lovely design that works for wallpaper and fabrics, the ‘Rose’ tile may not have been suitable for most Victorian homes. The vertical grout lines bisect the single flower in the pattern, meaning that the design could not be complete unless used in a double column – difficult for the majority of Victorian cast-iron fireplaces.

‘Morris Chintzes, Silks, Tapestries, Etc. by Morris and Company’

Pattern book of Morris & Co. fabrics

Tapestry – “the noblest of all the weaving arts”, or so it was according to Morris. He set up his first tapestry loom in 1877 and completed his first tapestry, ‘Acanthus and Vine’, in 1879, supposedly taking over 516 hours to complete it.

Morris tapestries used a mellow palette reminiscent of the historic wall-hangings that had so impressed him as a boy. Initially, Morris & Co. had to rely on outside contractors to produce tapestries until the acquisition of Merton Abbey in 1881, when it could move to in-house production. Whilst large-scale tapestries became increasingly popular with rich clients, the company made more income from the sale of smaller, more affordable tapestry panels, such as those to adorn a cushion. These smaller designs were available to view in catalogues like this at the company’s showroom at 449 Oxford Street, London.

‘Embroidery Work, Morris & Company’

Pattern book of Morris & Co. embroidery designs 

Embroidery was Morris’s first exploration of textile craft for commercial purposes, initially using the technique to recreate the medieval designs that he had long admired. In the early days particularly, embroidery was often a tricky medium and could sometimes limit Morris’s vision. Despite the limitations, Morris wrote in 1893 that the aims of embroidery should simply be “the exhibition of beautiful material. Furthermore, it is not worth doing unless it is either very copious and rich, or very delicate – or both.” After 1877, embroidery became a primary focus of Morris & Co.’s Oxford Street shop, and as techniques developed, became much more financially viable. Morris initially just designed embroideries for his friends and for many of the new churches being built around Britain. Later, the company could not keep up with demand and so began producing kits that allowed the public to embroider their own Morris & Co. designs.

Morris’s younger daughter, May, herself a gifted designer and highly skilled needlewoman, took charge of Morris & Co.’s embroidery department in 1885, aged just 23.

‘Morris Wall-Papers by Morris and Company’

Pattern book of Morris & Co. wallpapers

Morris began experimenting with wallpaper designs in the 1860s, with his first design being ‘Trellis’ in 1862 – inspired by the rose trellis at Red House. However, Morris’s wallpaper techniques were still developing and it was not until the 1870s that he refined his art. Morris was a perfectionist and wrote that a good pattern “was a look of satisfying mystery, which is essential in all patterned goods, and which must be done by the designer … colour above all should be modest.” In other words, well-designed wallpaper should only be seen in passing, and should never become the main focus of the room.

Morris wallpapers took a long time to produce, with some designs taking up to four weeks per roll, and so were often expensive. The intricate designs contrasted with the popular geometric styles influenced by French design of the time. Despite this, Morris received two Royal commissions in the 1880s, being asked to redecorate rooms in St. James’s Palace and to create a special design for Queen Victoria based around her initials, ‘VRI’, for Balmoral Castle.

William Morris’s Socialist League Membership Card, designed by Walter Crane, 1884

Paper and ink

Inscribed “William Morris, Hammersmith” on the 30th October 1884, this card formalised Morris’s membership of the Hammersmith Branch of the Socialist League, of which he was a founding member. The League met on Sunday evenings and notable speakers included politician Keir Hardie, playwright George Bernard Shaw and Lucy Parsons, a freed African-American slave, among many others.

Morris had a key role in the League, bearing much of the financial running costs – in fact, Friedrich Engels, co-writer of the Communist Manifesto, remarked just how influential Morris’s voice was within the Socialist League due to the organisation’s financial dependence on him. The group was never completely harmonious, containing Fabians, Christian Socialists, anarchists and Marxist revolutionary socialists, naturally causing some tension.

By 1889, the Anarchist faction had completely taken control and Morris was stripped of the editorship of the League’s publication Commonweal. Despite this, he was asked to continue covering the cost of running the publication at £4 a week. Morris left the League in 1890. It disbanded just over 10 years later.

William Morris’s Albion Press

This press, which dates from 1835, was purchased by Morris in late 1890, and is one of three Albions used by the Kelmscott Press. It was inaugurated on 31st January 1891, when a trial page of The Golden Legend was printed in the presence of Morris and Emery Walker. It was likely used for all the subsequent Kelmscott books, including the Chaucer of 1896. Morris’ insistence on establishing a ‘from scratch’ understanding of process, from the designing of fonts to the composition of the paper and the type of ink used, was a hallmark of Morris’s career.

Its later history is no less distinguished. After Morris’s death, it was acquired by C.R. Ashbee for the Essex House Press on the demise of which, in 1906, it was purchased by Ananda Coomaraswamy for use at Broad Campden. By 1912, it was in use at A.H. Bullen’s Shakespeare Head Press in Stratford-upon-Avon where it passed into the hands of Sir Basil Blackwell. In 1929 Blackwell moved the press to Oxford where it remained in use until 1942-43. In the 1970s, following the gift of the house to the William Morris Society by Helena Stephenson, Sir Basil gave the press to Kelmscott House.

‘A Dream of John Ball’ by William Morris

Red leather, paper, title embossed in gold

Published in 1888, A Dream of John Ball is Morris’s fictional novel about the Great Revolt of 1381, often known as The Peasants’ Revolt, a period of history that particularly resonated with Morris’s socialist beliefs. Using the narrative device of time travel, Morris compares the conditions of Medieval Feudalism with the poor working conditions that existed in post Industrial Revolution England. Morris portrays the Middle Ages in a positive light, seeing it as a period when peasants and workers were happy and protected from exploitation, contrasting it with the relatively poor quality of life of the working classes in Victorian society – a common theme in Morris’s canon of work. In the novel, John Ball (one of the leaders of The Peasants’ Revolt) despairs when he discovers that his hopes of an egalitarian future for England have remained unfulfilled.

Originally published in serial form in the Socialist League paper The Commonweal between 1886-87, it was then published complete in book form in 1888. Through this medium, Morris aimed to educate his literate working class and socialist audiences about their common class history and provide historical examples of how a socialist future could be and how a potential revolution could work.

Thank you for visiting our online exhibition! 

To see even more objects from our Collection, purchase our book ‘Highlights from the William Morris Society’s Collection’ via our online shop, here.

If you want to learn more about William Morris, consider joining our membership; in addition to our exhibitions programme, we publish a magazine and journal as well as hold a wide range of events and workshops. Click here for further details. 

This exhibition was curated by Theresa Kneppers and Mallory Horrill.



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