The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
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William Morris, 1834-1896

Nationality: English
Date of Birth: 1834.03.24
Place of Birth: Elm House, Clay Hill, Walthamstow
Date of Death: 1896.10.03
Place of Death: Hammersmith, London


William Morris was a painter, designer, printer, poet, socialist, lecturer, protector of ancient buildings and collector. His father was a successful stockbroker in London whose fortune was made by speculation in a Devonshire copper mine. Morris was the third child and eldest surviving son. His father died in 1848, leaving Morris an annual income of £900 when he turned twenty-one. In 1859 Morris married Jane Burden, the daughter of a local groom. Together they had two daughters, Jenny and Mary ('May').


Morris received a classical education at Marlborough College, and then entered Exeter College, Oxford in 1853 with the intention of joining the clergy. There he met Edward Burne-Jones, and through him was introduced to Dante Gabriel Rossetti. His interests turned from theology to art and design.

Like Whistler, Morris was interested in breaking down the barriers between the fine and decorative arts to create an all-encompassing world of beauty. In 1857 he became involved with Rossetti and Burne-Jones in painting mural decorations for the walls of the Oxford Union Debating Hall. This was followed by the interior decoration of the Red House at Bexleyheath, Kent, a house built by Philip Webb in 1859. Morris' artist friends joined him in this venture, designing tiles, glassware, furniture, murals, tapestries etc. It led to the foundation in 1861 of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., a decorative arts company which specifically sought to reform design by collaborating with artists. Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Ford Madox Brown were involved with the production of stained glass, furniture, wallpaper, ceramics and textiles. The company became Morris & Co. in 1875.

Unlike the sparse interiors made famous by Whistler and the architect E. W. Godwin, Morris interiors tended to be more visually cluttered, Morris favouring elaborate floral designs for wallpaper, carpets and chintzes. Whereas Morris frequently turned to the natural world for the motifs of his designs, Whistler disdainfully declared, 'Nature is very rarely right' and that 'the artist is born to pick, and choose'.

Morris' chief source of inspiration was the medieval world, as opposed to Whistler's concern for the art of Japan and ancient Greece. In January 1856 Morris had joined the office of the Gothic Revival architect G. E. Street in Oxford, although he stayed there only nine months. In April 1877 he founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. He collected early printed books and medieval illuminations and in the early 1890s established the Kelmscott Press, producing beautifully illustrated and bound publications in the manner of medieval texts. Throughout his work it could be said that he sought to bring something of medieval craftsmanship into modern design.

In contrast to the elitism displayed by Whistler in his art and writings, for example in the 'Ten O'Clock Lecture', Morris was a socialist and believed in an art for the people. As a young man his imagination had been captured by the socialist writings of Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin. In January 1883 he joined the Social Democratic Federation, a Marxist–Socialist political group and later formed the Socialist League, which he left in 1890 and formed the Hammersmith Socialist Society.

Whistler disapproved of Morris. He called him a mere 'dabbler in decoration' and talked of 'his foolish interference in Art' (#02521). He believed Morris to have succumbed to the rewards of the market-place although preaching the dignity of simple craftsmanship. He attacked Morris in the 'Ten O'Clock Lecture' when he declared, 'Art is upon the Town! [...] The people have been harassed with Art in every guise, and vexed with many methods as to its endurance. They have been told how they shall love Art, and live with it. Their homes have been invaded, their walls covered with paper, their very dress taken to task'. Whistler caustically noted in 1883 that, despite being concerned with the preservation of beautiful buildings, Morris did nothing to preserve the White House which was being 'desecrated' by Henry Quilter (#11403). Whistler also scorned Morris' political activism (#02521).

It is worth noting that Whistler saved a press-cutting reporting on a lecture given by Morris at the Russell Club in which Morris declared that 'if art should fade and die then [...] civilisation would die too' but that if socialism took the place of 'competition among men in the conditions of life' art would 'revive'.


Morris, M. (ed.), The Collected Works, 24 vols, London, 1910-15; Morris, M., William Morris: Artist, Writer, Socialist, 2 vols, Oxford, 1936; Le Mire, E. D. (ed.), The Unpublished Lectures of William Morris, London and Detroit, 1969; Kelvin, N. (ed.), The Collected Letters of William Morris, 2 vols, Princeton, 1984-87.

Mackail, J. W., The Life of William Morris, 2 vols, London, 1899; MacCarthy, F., William Morris, London, 1994; Parry, L. (ed.), William Morris, London, 1996; Stansky, Peter, 'William Morris', The Grove Dictionary of Art Online, ed. L. Macy, (accessed 27 June 2002).