Essay: How William Morris has influenced the art and design world.

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  • Published on: January 12, 2020
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  • How William Morris has influenced the art and design world.
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This essay will aim to discuss how William Morris has influenced the art and design world and how he still continues to in contemporary art today. The analysis of the essay will focus on a brief overview of the arts and crafts movement, then lead on to the impact Morris made during the era and the theories of John Ruskin, as well as examining artists like David Mabb who have been influenced by Morris heavily in their work, whether that be by using Morris’s designs or by his ideologies.

The Arts and Crafts movement began around 1880 in Britain and quickly spread across the world, eventually developing into Mingei Japanese Folk art. The movement was built upon growing concern of the effects that industrialisation was having on art and design and the traditional skills that people had learnt through the trade were being replaced by machines.
One of the most influential people of this era was William Morris who ‘Above all… was an artist- an identity that for him involved being a craftsman, designer and entrepreneur ‘(The Craft Reader, Glenn Adamson, page 146). He had trained as an architect and had “unfulfilled ambitions to be a painter” ( V & A). He and a group of friends focused their attention on starting up the decorating business Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. The firm that these artists formed found commercial success with their innovative patterns they designed for wallpapers, ceramics and textiles, as well as designing furniture. Morris’s vision was to link art into industry, he did this by applying the rules of fine art and “the idea of reviving the medieval tradition” ( The original Morris & Co.) to production of commercial design, this was a significant stage in the growth of design contributing to art and design today. The company helped elevate the decorative arts to a level of fine art, for which now Morris is famous for. Although Morris believed that every household should have a specially designed piece inside and overall challenged the nature of industrialisation for a more beautiful world, this however was not cost effective due to the ornate nature of his work. Morris himself wrote “…sideboards, cabinets and the like, which we have quite as much for beauty’s sake as for use: we need not spare ornament on these, but may make them as elegant and elaborate as we can with carving, inlaying or painting; these are the blossoms of the art of furniture” (Arts & Crafts Style, Anscombe and Grey, 1996, p.29).

Morris began an wide-ranging lecture program on the decorative arts in 1877 which “won over many young men to the cause of Arts and Crafts” (Arts & Crafts Style, Anscombe and Grey, 1996, p.36). These lectures “…challenged the traditional approaches to decorative art, the way people lived with and used their art: he brought this together with the thinking of Ruskin to reveal the significance of art as a social force. This in turn inspired him greatly and after Morris’s achievements in decoration and his literature he became interested in creating a real social change. He then became a founding member of the Socialist League which was his ideal solution to the problems of Victorian society, and predominantly the complications emerging from the industrial revolution. In Ruskin’s work he studied ‘the relationship between art, society and labour ‘, and ‘Morris put Ruskin’s philosophies into practice, placing great value on work, the joy of craftsmanship and the natural beauty of materials.’ The two men had similar ideas about the nature of craftsmanship, including Morris’s ‘commitment to making art for the masses'(The Craft Reader, G. Adamson, page 146).
As well as this Morris founded the society for the protection of ancient buildings. this was to fight against the drastic methods used for restoration in Great Britain.

The William Morris gallery is a public gallery devoted to Morris and was opened in 1950 by the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, at the artist’s previous family home in Walthamstow, in north-east London. Plans to establish a gallery dedicated to Morris were first discussed in 1914. Due to the fact that the gallery was specifically dedicated to Morris and as he died in 1896 and he was still being considered a major at influence 18 years after his death this shows that he had a considerable impact on the arts and crafts movement.

As part of an exhibition that was held at the William Morris gallery several of the E17 designers produced a collection of their own contemporary art inspiration by Morris. This shows “… how the artistic legacy of Morris still lives on through modern contemporary artists today” ( E17 Designers). The artists involved used a medieval style as their starting point as Morris was influenced by this himself.

David Mabb is a contemporary artist who has been working for around fifteen years with the designs created by Morris. Mabb explores Morris’s renowned patterns through “aesthetic interventions” (patchwork paper). Morris’s patterns are “highly schematized representations of nature, where it is always summer and never winter; the plants are always in leaf, often flowering, with their fruits available in abundance, ripe for picking, and with no human labor in sight” (Contemporary art society). Whereas Mabb’s art pieces work with and against Morris’ utopian designs by contrasting them with other forms of modernist production, these include Malevich, Rodchenko, Stepanova and Popova paintings and designs, modernist architecture and photographs of industry. Mabb never completely paints over the Morris pattern but allows elements of the pattern to show through, for example Mabb will paint out the flowers and leaves of a plant in the pattern and leave the branches to show through. This almost destroys Morris’s utopian image and replaces it with something more realistic. This combination of painting over the patterns or layering them with other artists work and photography produces a very interesting image as they can completely clash and “…are never able to fully merge or separate.” ( Contemporary Arts Society).

Overall William Morris has heavily influenced the art world with his Utopian dreams of beauty and equality and although the visual style of the movement may have degenerated many of the aims of Morris are still current and active.

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