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Celebrating William Morris

“Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

William Morris (1834-1896) is considered to be one of the greatest designers in history and he was an iconic figure from the Arts and Crafts movement. He is best known for his intricate fabric and wallpaper patterns but he also designed embroideries and tapestries. As a designer he revived many traditional arts which had been lost through industrialisation and he mastered the hand making process and studied all of the materials and equipment he used, so he knew all of their characteristics. By knowing what he was working with so well, he was able to create the best and highest quality possible and from that he was the able to teach the art to others.

Most of his original designs were hand printed using carved wooden blocks and natural dyes. Morris preferred mineral based dyes rather than synthetic modern equivalents as they produced a much truer colour and aged beautifully. As each piece was handmade there were subtle differences between them, adding to their unique and distinctive qualities.

During Morris’ life he was commissioned to produce work for stately homes and manors, one of the most important being wallpaper for the entrance and banqueting rooms of St James Palace, London in 1880. Although Morris dedicated most of his working life to design, it was in the later years that he produced his most iconic work. A lot of his designs originated in the form of wallpaper, but were then translated onto fabric after seeing their success.

‘Fruits’ (1864) & ‘Willow Bough’ (1887)
‘Snakeshead’ (1876)
‘Pimpernel’ (1876)
‘Lodden’ (1883)
‘Strawberry Thief’ (1883)

When Morris died in 1896, aged 62, business started to withdraw as there were no new designs added to the collection. To try and boost sales five wallpaper designs were created; Carnation, Tomtit, Merton, Thistle and Oak Tree. However these were printed on machines and although a similar appearance was created, the true essence of the designs were lost.

It wasn’t until 1926 that the wallpaper production was taken over by Arthur Sanderson & Sons. In 1940 they bought the entire company, merging both Morris & Co and Sanderson. Through the 50’s Sanderson continued to print Morris designs despite them being unfashionable and then in the 60’s the Arts and Crafts movement took off again and the designs were once again a favourite. It was around this time that the fabrics started to be screen printed which allowed designs that were once only wallpaper to become fabrics. For example Marigold, Golden Lily and Chrysanthemum.

Golden Lily
‘Golden Lily’

Sanderson carried on showcasing William Morris’ designs and advertised him as a ‘great artist’ and a ‘genius’. They revived old designs, changing colourways to create a wider variety of fabrics and wallpapers. In 1982 Morris & Co was resurrected as its own brand identity for the first time in 45 years. By the end of the 80’s the two companies were marketed separately, strengthening both names within the furnishing industry. At this time designs such as Willow Bough were printed onto bedlinen and tableware increasing their popularity and allowing people to display the prints elsewhere in their homes.

In more recent times, Morris’ work is still very popular especially in period homes where the owner wants to capture the property’s heritage. New collections are released every couple of years but all have elements of the original designs. The designs are still hand drawn and painted but are then worked on a computer before being printed by machine. Different printing techniques are used to ensure the most perfect and true to original design is made. In 2011 the 150th anniversary was celebrated with fabric and wallpaper from the archive including prints, weaves and embroideries.

A new collection has just been released called ‘Pure Morris’ which includes prints, embroideries and even sheer fabric in classic designs such as Strawberry Thief. The colourways are different to the usual Morris designs as they are all neutral with soft greys and creams. This allows historic and iconic designs to be used in a more contemporary setting.

For more information about the history of William Morris and the current designs that are available, visit the William Morris website.

There are plenty of places to visit that beautifully showcase the history and works of William Morris including:

William Morris Gallery, London
Red House, Bexleyheath (National Trust)
Standen, East Grinstead (National Trust)
Wightwick Manor, Wolverhampton (National Trust)
V & A Museum, London

Our stores offer a huge collection of William Morris fabrics and wallpapers to order – just pop into our furnishing departments and we will be happy to help!

Written by

Jess, Horsham Store, Furnishing Dept.


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