Description: This image depicts William Morris, a prominent artist, craftsman, and textile designer from the Victorian era.

William Morris: A Tapestry of Art and Ingenuity

Ah, what am I, you ask? "I am an artist and a literary man, well-known, I believe, across Europe." Thus spoke William Morris, an eloquent testimony given on the 21st of September, 1885, amid a rather spirited affair. At the Thames Police Court, Morris stood among fellow members of the Socialist League, defending the right to public speech. Despite a charge of disorderly conduct in court, he was acquitted, his impassioned outburst of "shame" at the sentencing being the only mark against him. This statement captures Morris not just as an artist but as a man profoundly connected to the wider cultural and social movements of his time, his influence and renown undeniably vast and still resonant today.


Let us muse on the remarkable reach of William Morris's works across the pond! His artistic flair is fervently studied and revered in the United States, a fact well documented by a plethora of articles gracing the pages of periodicals from New York to New Haven. And across the Atlantic, in France—long deemed the paragon of artistic mastery—there stirs a burgeoning discontent with its own artistic outputs and a dawning acknowledgment of the English decorative school's superior charm, with Morris at its illustrious helm.

A charming note from a discerning French critic recently celebrated the artistic prowess of Eugene Grasset, suggesting that Grasset might now serve as a beacon of artistic homage closer to home, rivaling the distinguished William Morris. This sentiment underscores a pivotal shift, as until Grasset's belated recognition, the French seemed poised to cede the pinnacle of artistic honor to Morris, an English master whose influence was felt widely even beyond his native shores.

William Morris, a son of Welsh descent born in 1834 in Walthamstow, Essex, imbibed his first tastes of art and romance from the writings of Sir Walter Scott. Morris's lifelong admiration for Scott was so profound that it influenced his love for Gothic architecture and shaped his artistic sensibilities. Recalling his early experiences with the romantic settings described in Scott's works, Morris cherished these formative memories, which fueled his creative passion and his enduring love for integrating natural and historical motifs in his designs.

Reflecting on the carol "Good King Wenceslas," Mr. Morris recalls with fondness the genuine legend and its Christmas spirit, evoking cherished memories of his youth. These pleasant recollections starkly contrast with his less favorable experiences at Marlborough, where the clerical oversight chafed against his more rebellious spirit, leaving a profound, albeit less pleasant, imprint on his education.

William Morris, though just fourteen in 1845, noted the emergence of the Pre-Raphaelites but felt unready to be influenced by them, considering himself a layman in the arts. He humorously recalled his indifference to paintings shown to him, noting that while he recognized they contained elements expected in art, they did not genuinely interest him. Morris believed this lack of engagement was common among those without formal artistic training.

The scholarly journey of Mr. William Morris at Oxford, commenced on the 2nd of June, 1852, marks a truly pivotal chapter in his life. During this era, the aesthetic flourishes within the university's halls were sparse, yet the intrinsic charm and historic gravitas of Oxford left an indelible mark on his soul. Despite the later modern intrusions that marred the city’s ancient beauty—alterations he lamented—the original spirit of Oxford during those formative years greatly shaped his artistic and philosophical pursuits. This sentiment was particularly potent before the zeal of reformist movements and architectural modernization began to reshape the landscape he so cherished.

The stewards of our nation's culture, those tasked with its guardianship, have sadly relegated the architectural splendor of Oxford to mere background noise, overshadowed by commercial imperatives. One can acquire scholarly knowledge in many corners of England, but the unique educational essence once imbued by Oxford's venerable streets, a blend of history and aesthetics, is irreplaceable. Reflect on this as sentiment if you will, but its truth resonates deeply. His recollections of discovering Rouen, a living relic of the Middle Ages, echo this sentiment—the profound joy and beauty he witnessed there has since faded from the world, a lost treasure of the past.

Though Oxford may not have possessed the overwhelming medieval allure of Norman cities, it retained much of its venerable charm during those days. The memory of its quaint, grey streets has left a lasting impression on him, far surpassing the academic teachings it offered—teachings that, ironically, no one really attempted to impart to him, nor he to learn. Reflecting on a similar sentiment towards the churches of northern France, he felt an overwhelming desire to share the profound connections and memories these places inspired within him.

However, in fact, he does not go into detail about any church other than the one mentioned in the subtitle of his article, "Shadows of Amiens," where he notably anticipates Mr. Ruskin's "Bible of Amiens" by many years. Mr. Morris first entered through the northernmost door of the grand triple porch on the west front. "I felt like shouting when I first stepped into Amiens Cathedral; it is so vast, noble, and liberating. I wasn't overwhelmed or diminished by its size and majesty. It’s rare for me to feel this way when encountering architecture; usually, I feel a surge of elation at its beauty right away. That, along with a certain satisfaction from observing the geometric tracery of the windows and the sweep of the massive arches, were my initial impressions in Amiens Cathedral." He goes on to describe the splendid choir stalls and the sculptured figure subjects on them, particularly remembering the scenes from the story of Joseph, especially the one depicting Pharaoh’s dream. "I think the lean cows are some of the best carvings I’ve seen, the most remarkable symbol of famine imaginable. I never truly grasped the meaning of Pharaoh’s dream until I saw the stalls at Amiens.

But let us, if you will, wend our way back to the dreaming spires of Oxford. It seems more than mere happenstance that on that very same day, in that very same hallowed hall, both William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones—names forever twined—should matriculate. Indeed, in 1891, speaking in Birmingham, Morris himself confessed to some difficulty in discussing Burne-Jones, so dear was he as a friend. The two young scholars swiftly struck up an acquaintance, discovering a shared passion for the art and literature of the Middle Ages, which bound them in the closest of friendships—a friendship that endures to this day.

Yet their interests were not confined to mere medievalism. The burgeoning Pre-Raphaelite movement, already taking root in Oxford, counted among its local champions Mr. Combe of the Clarendon Press—a gentleman with both a liberal disposition towards the arts and a nascent collection that included Holman Hunt's esteemed "Light of the World," his lesser-known "A family of Converted Britons succouring Christian priests," and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s exquisite watercolor, "Dante celebrating the anniversary of Beatrice's death." The works of Rossetti particularly resonated with Morris and Burne-Jones, who saw in him the purest expression of their own lofty ideals. It is hard to say which of the two harbored a deeper admiration for the master of Pre-Raphaelite art.

Compelled by their convictions, and undeterred by the prevailing academic skepticism of the time—as noted by a contemporary in the "Oxford and Cambridge Magazine"—both decided to pursue careers in the arts. This was despite the prevailing view at Oxford that the fine arts were but trivial pursuits, suitable only as ladylike accomplishments or superior trades, a sentiment bitterly lamented by Mr. Ruskin.

It was shortly after Christmas in 1855 that Burne-Jones sought out Rossetti in London, intent on becoming his disciple. It wasn't long before he introduced Morris to his new mentor. Following Rossetti’s advice, Burne-Jones left Oxford without taking his degree to commence his studies in art posthaste. Morris, feeling no such urgency and perhaps more attuned to the rhythms of academic life, chose to remain at Oxford a while longer, earning his B.A. in 1856.

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