Saturday 24 March 2012

The Three Lives of William Morris

Happy Birthday William Morris! 

William Morris (1870) G F Watts
You would have been 178 today, had you been unnaturally long-lived, but just imagine the amount of things you would have achieved had you lived.  Blimey, we might all be living on Mars by now, with really great wallpaper.  Anyway, it strikes me that William Morris had three definite periods to his life, which I will elucidate now.  I have no idea what the word 'elucidate' means, by the way.

The Young William Morris
Self Portrait (1856)
William was born in Walthamstow in 1834, to an affluent family with pretensions to nobility.  Mr William Morris Senior was a partner in a firm of bill brokers in London and was granted his own coat of arms in 1843.  William Jnr's money came from his father's 1840s speculation on a west country copper mining project, and provided not only a larger family home, but also the means on which all his adult life endeavours were based.  He was six years old when the family moved toWoodford Hall, where the young William was able to play at being a Walter Scott hero as he rode his pony through the grounds and woodland around his home.  A fact I never realised was that when William went to school at Marlborough College in the centre of Wiltshire, he learnt nothing but an appreciation of history, from visits to Silbury Hill, Avebury and the Pewsey Vale.  He was tutored at home after being kicked out of Marlborough following a riot (heavens above, how naughty) and by the time he entered Oxford, he was a well-read and knowledgeable young man.

Self Portrait, 29 July 1856
When Edward Burne-Jones (at that time, plain Edward Jones) met William Morris, he thought that there was no-one else in the world like him, 'From the first I knew how different he was from all the men I had ever met...he talked with vehemence and sometimes with violence.  I never knew him languid or tired.' It was Ned that nick-named him 'Topsy' after the character in Uncle Tom's Cabin (to 'grow like Topsy' meant enormous and unplanned growth, and described how the originally slight Morris became somewhat more solid).  Between them they formed a 'set' or 'brotherhood' (oh, look, another one) that included Charles Faulkner and Crom Price, who were to remain life-long friends.

Both Ned and Topsy believed their futures lay in the clergy.  In his self portrait of 1856 (right) there is definitely something of the curate about his appearance, so young and studious.  He was clever, rich, generous and well bred.  His passion and intelligence gave him friends, gave him purpose and provided him with the drive to see his aspirations through.  When Ned and Topsy toured Northern France together in 1854, the both realised that their future lay in art and architecture.  Despite not finding his feet as an architect, Morris found the training he received invaluable to his future as a designer, and also led to a life-long friendship with Philip Webb.  Actually, it strikes me that with one very notable exception, any friends that William Morris made during his life held him dear and repaid his friendship with devotion, which should tell you something about him.  Isn't it interesting that more often than not, the image we have of William Morris is due to the one person who really should not have been rewarded with his friendship, but I'll come to that in a minute.
William Morris in 1857

Here ends the first part of William's life.  He was clever, he was rich and he knew his life would be spent in pursuit of art and beauty, which given his level of drive and commitment, was sure to succeed.  Then he attended an art class given by Rossetti...

The Rossetti Years
I don't know how William's life would have been different without Rossetti.  Before they attended his class, both Ned and Topsy were already fans, and so when they accompanied Rossetti back to Oxford to paint the Debating Room, they were sealed as the merry band, a defining moment in second generation 'PRB'.  The actual project was fraught with issues - inexperience with the paint and difficulties in the building worked against them, but on one evening trip to the theatre Ned and Rossetti came across a young woman called Jane Burden.

Jane Burden, c.1858
I struggle to imagine how Jane was ever thought ugly, as this picture of her is utterly gorgeous.  She doesn't look like a tiny woman with a neat bun hairdo, maybe that's it.  Anyhow, Morris took one look at her and was smitten: 'Topsy raves and swears like or more than any Oxford bargee about a "stunner" that he has seen' wrote Crom Price to his father.  Only her apparent attachment to Rossetti stood in their way, and once he cleared off back to Lizzie, Morris proposed, and she took one look at his bank balance and said yes.  Okay, I'm being unfair, but it is obvious that Morris was completely flattened by her, it is hard not to feel a little disgruntled at the subsequent treatment he received at the hands of his wife and be friend, but I am getting ahead of myself (again).  While Morris worked on the Oxford mural, he took the opportunity to draw and paint the object of his affection...
Jane Burden (1858) D G Rossetti

Jane Morris (1858) William Morris
Above are two contemporary drawings of Jane, one by William and one by Rossetti.  I was struck by how very similar they are, in fact I had seen the one by William before and assumed it was by Rossetti, as I already knew about the picture on the right.  We are more familiar with the following image, also from 1858...

La Belle Iseult (1858)
William famously wrote that he couldn't paint Jane, but he loved her, across the canvas, and declared that he was finished with painting due to his dissatisfaction with it.  Now, I wonder, seeing that William's portrait of Jane perfectly matches that of Rossetti, and his picture, although somewhat formal, gives a gorgeously patterned, medieval feel to the endless pictures of sighing damsels produced by his friends at this time, if anyone suggested to William that he wasn't good enough to continue painting.  Rather like Fred Stephens, who seemed perfectly good at painting yet gave it up, he may have found the process too difficult to justify the results.  Mind you, judging by his subsequent embracing of all manner of different crafts which he mastered, it is hard to imagine Morris quitting because he found it a bit tricky.  Well, we shall never know exactly, other than Philip Webb's account that William 'struggled' and found he hated the results.  Yet his results were almost identical to his admired friend, Rossetti.

Jane and William were married in 1859 and William made plans to build The Red House in Bexleyheath in Kent (now a spectacular National Trust property).  Their daughters Jane Alice (Jenny) and Mary (May) were born in 1861 and 1862 respectively, and William set up the company Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co with his friends.  Of all the partners, William was the only one who didn't have to split his time between the company and his own work during the first five years of the company, as he had the luxury of his own wealth.  Until the company started earning money, William was the only one who dedicated all of his time to it, making the move from Kent back into London inevitable, especially when the company began to attract more and more work.  Coming back to the city also meant that Jane could begin modelling for Rossetti again.

The Bard and Petty Tradesman (1868) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Rossetti refused to call William a 'poet and designer', proposing this other title in a letter to Jane.  Although Rossetti gives a quite genial account of himself to Morris in these letters, there is more than a little mocking in the cartoons, more of which followed in the following year, when William removed himself and his family to Germany for the good of Jane's health.

Resolution, or The Infant Hercules (1869) D G Rossetti
The tone of Rossetti's cartoon about William are mainly to do with how ridiculous it was for someone like William (fat and clumsy) to be with a goddess like Jane.  William is portrayed as a fool, obese, hopeless, trying too hard, and generally not being good enough for Jane, who is perfect.  Throughout these cartoons, Rossetti refers to William by his nickname 'Topsy', disguising malice with a friendly smile.  Going back to what I wondered about William's rejection of painting, it seemed that Rossetti continuously inferred that Morris was not good enough to be with Jane, and on 6 July, 1871, Morris set off to Iceland, leaving his wife to be alone with Rossetti.

A lot of what is felt about William Morris by a good many people seems to be based on the events of two summers in the early 1870s.  That is a book all of its own, but it cemented William's reputation as a cuckold and an unfit husband.  I heard that Jane's infidelity was the fault of the brutish, unpleasant Morris recently in a talk by Franny Moyle, and I was astonished as apart from a tendency to bursts of noisy enthusiasm, we have no proof that he was unpleasant and in no way was he reported to be violent towards his wife or children.  It does seem a damn shame that the man who created this...

and this...

and this...

...should be remembered for allowing adultery to happen under his roof.  Mind you, if Morris was such an unpleasant, violent man, it makes you wonder why he didn't react with unpleasant violence under such provocation.

Despite Rossetti's continued obsession with Jane that lasted until the end of his life, the Morris family remained more or less intact, and William's passion turned to politics, which he saw as a natural extension of his work.

Freedom to be William Morris
William's later years, after the death of Rossetti in 1882, became increasingly involved in the world of politics, and he formed the Socialist League in 1884. 

Proper Socialist have beards like Karl Marx
His writing also continued with the advent of the Kelmscott Press, founded in 1891.

I'm sure it's damage on the photograph, rather than any members of staff having been 'offed'
After William and Rossetti's relationship became understandably strained, Morris and Burne-Jones seem to have become even closer (if that was possible) and the two families spent considerable time in each others company without anyone having to go to Iceland or anything.

Friends don't make friends go to Iceland in order to sleep with their wives.
Burne-Jones was also the creator of a set of cartoons of Morris, in some ways very similar to the work of Rossetti...
William Morris in the Bath Edward Burne-Jones
I think the difference is that Ned often appears beside his friend in the pictures, a weary wraith to Morris' chubby ball of dynamite.  Unlike Rossetti's snide digs, there seems actual affection in the relationship, and the pictures often refer to incidents between the two of them where Ned is as ridiculous as his friend.

William Morris, at work (1890s) Henry Halliday Sparling
I love that the photo portrait of Morris above seems to show him in a blur of action, because that is how I think of him.  He died at the age of 62, presumably from either exhaustion or combustion, and left a legacy so enormous it changes and challenges the way we think about design, politics, preservation of our heritage, the Victorian age and notions of Victorian manhood.  There is no way I can amply express in one short piece of writing how extraordinary William Morris was, but I will leave you with this final photograph, possibly my favourite of Topsy...

William Morris (1875)
You can almost hear him saying 'Hurry up and take the blessed picture, I have things to do!'
You do indeed, Topsy, you do indeed.


  1. Thank you! I love William Morris. I don't believe he was abusive or Georgie Burne-Jones never would have been a close friend to him. I think he had bursts of bad temper which were like little thunderstorms.... loud, noisy sometimes frantic and when over just left puddles. I quess we won't ever know exactly what was between Jane and William. I have to say he made friends and they remained afectionate towards him. Whatever the fault in the marriage William seemed to accept whatever happened. It seems a gentlemanly gesture on his part in a funny way. Did he ever say anything rude or negative about Jane in public? or to friends? I need to look it up.

  2. That was lovely, Kirsty, well done!

  3. A lovely tribute to a great Victorian. I agree – if he was so violent and abusive, as some make out, how come he put up with Rossetti’s frequent charicatures and cartoons of himself and sometimes even of Jane! Often these could be very cruel, and could really only be accepted within the context of a very close friendship. In fact, Morris must have been remarkably tolerant. I always think of him as a highly motivated and vivacious individual with probably a fantastic sense of humour.

  4. Thank you all for your comments. I am especially looking forward to going back to Kelmscott over Easter for my birthday, but it always strikes me as a somewhat sad place. I don't think I've ever read anything negative said by William about Jane, or anything about his marriage. The only person he was a bit rude about (that I have read) was W M Rossetti, who he thought was a fool (and he wasn't wrong).

  5. Thank you for bringing William Morris to life, as if he were a contemporary!

    If you are interested, I am working on a clay figure of Jane, it is now drying slowly before it hits the kiln.

    Jane Burden Morris in 3D

    1. Your 3D Jane is lovely indeed, thank you for linking :)

  6. Beautiful job! You really captured dear Topsy to the life, my dear!

    And honestly, I wouldn't take Franny Moyle seriously about anything to do with the Pre-Raphs. I'll refrain from going off about Desperate Romantics, but...nuff said.

    Now if Jan Marsh or Fiona McCarthy had said that in a talk, then I'd be likely to take their word for it. But they certainly don't seem to think that Morris was unpleasant. Quite the contrary. Although McCarthy spends a little too much time, in my opinion, dwelling on Rossetti's cartoons and jibes toward Morris, she ultimately portrays him as a very decent man, I thought.

    I will say that, at least among my circle of friends, while they know about the whole unpleasantness with Jane and DGR, they prefer to dwell on the gorgeousness of his designs, or the excellence of his socialist politics.

  7. Thanks for a great post. I love William Morris and think he was a genius in his fields. I think he was very shy with women and was perhaps not the most accomplished lover.Jane can't be blamed for taking the opportunity to better herself in the climate of the times but she and Rossetti were cruel and selfish together. She was a streange woman ,think about her affaire with Blunt. He was another rotter.Morris wanted to make the world a better place and I think he did!

  8. Good post! I started researching the Pre Raphs when I was 15 and fell in love with Edward Burne-Jones's art. Through him I found William Morris and I knew no other man could meet my standards (pretty sad, seeing as I'm 17 and don't know any guys who are into tapestry or wallpaper design).
    Anyway, I've read a lot about him and my opinion on Jane and William's relationship is: it fell apart because William Morris was meant to marry ME. I appreciate Willaim, find his looks adorable, and am not attracted to Rossetti at all. I even look kind of like Jane (I have the scary eyebrows, big hair and freakishly long fingers!). So my life goal is now to go back in time and get to him before Jane does.

    . . . Just typing this I can feel all my friends looking at me weirdly. I'm off to go do something more socially acceptable for a teenage girl, instead of fantasizing about dead Victorian men.

  9. RA: You are talking to someone whose friends (and husband) often look at her strangely, so I shouldn't worry. Also, as you get older, you end up meeting oodles of lovely men who like wallpaper and tapestry. In fact, I begin to feel like I should be running a dating site for Stunners and Artists.... Gosh, and I'm 21 years older than you, I feel I ought to adopt you as my Pre-Raphaelite daughter....

    Thanks everyone for expressing the Morris love. He deserved it.

  10. Beautiful write-up, thank you! Now I will always think of Ned as a "weary wraith". It's interesting you should remark how similar Morris's "La Belle Iseult" painting is to Rossetti's own work, because it seems Rossetti probably worked on it after Morris gave up! I first heard about this in Jan Marsh's article in the Journal of the William Morris Society, in the summer '11 edition. Apparently Philip Webb said "Rossetti took it to finish, and then Madox Brown". When I read this, so much was explained...

  11. A dating site for Stunners and Artists! That's a hilarious yet perfect idea. You should call it Muse-Finder or something. I'll sign up! ;)

  12. This is one of the best tributes to Morris that I have ever read. Such a truly talented and genial soul.

  13. I wont hear a word against Morris, and in fact I wasn't aware that anyone had seriously suggest he was either violent or abusive, the idea is preposterous. The best thing I've read on Morris was the tribute paid to him after his death in the Clarion:
    "It is true that much of his work still lives, and will live. But we have lost him, and, great as was his work, he himself was greater ... he was better than the best. Though his words fell like sword strokes, one always felt that the warrior was stronger than the sword. For Morris was not only a genius, he was a man. Strike at him where you would, he rang true ... he was our best man. We cannot spare him; we cannot replace him. In all England there lives no braver, kinder, honester, cleverer, heartier man than William Morris. He is dead, and we cannot help feeling for a while that nothing else matters."

  14. just came across this and thoroughly enjoyed reading it! Thank you.


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx