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William Morris and the Birth of the Arts and Crafts Movement

William Morris 'The Forest' tile backsplash

What joy this space 'twixt birth and death can give. ~William Morris

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Red House, the Birth of Arts & Crafts

The Arts & Crafts movement has been called the Decorative Arts wing of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. And for cause. While William Morris (born 24 March 1834) is considered the father of Arts & Crafts, many of his friends who were instrumental in its beginnings were principals in the second wave of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

When William Morris built Red House, his first married home, it became a gathering place for a circle of Pre-Raphaelite artists, Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Lizzie Sidal, and others. Red House was designed by William Morris in collaboration with his friend, architect Philip Webb. 'The Firm' (Morris, Marshall, and Faulkner) was conceived with friends after a dinner at Red House, later dissolved, and Morris & Co. formed. Pre-Raphaelite ceramics master, William De Morgan, began his career in stained glass with William Morris but his interests and gift for ceramics inspired him to establish his own tileworks.

At the center of Arts & Crafts, is a philosophy, and a reactionary one at that: To elevate the decorative arts to the level of fine art, and to make them personal and accessible.

What are William Morris Tiles?

I specialize in William Morris tile and Morris & Co. designs, and then a slightly wider circle around that in both time and space: William De Morgan, the Rossetti Pre-Raphaelites, English and Morris-inspired next-generation Arts & Crafts, Glasgow School, Victorian themes, and William Morris interests: Chaucer and Camelot, Scandinavian, Medieval, and Forest themes. If you aren't familiar with William Morris and the Arts & Crafts movement, you might like to read my article, William Morris, The Soul of Arts and Crafts.

William Morris vs Morris Style

Style is death. Finding the measure is finding
a freedom from that death, a way out, a movement
forward.
~Robert Kelly, Prefix: Finding the Measure

Defining Morris Style

For Morris, things are more than things; they carry meaning and meaning allows us to form our values. A mass-produced item that looks just like the hand-crafted thing lacks its meaning and core. It cannot therefore be art. Arts & Crafts items are made by people for people, not by machines for money. Morris did not want wpoor quality, cheap, and especially soulless mass-produced decoration for his first home, Red House. He was directly involved in the medieval-influenced design of Red House, designed by his friend and architect Philip Webb. He chose the site for the home along the path that Chaucer's pilgrims would have traveled, even creating a "Pilgrim's Rest" porch at Red House.

In planning and decorating Red House, Morris found the soul of decorative arts in myth and in quality of medieval craftsmen. He had the means to mass-produced medieval-style art; instead, he painted his own tiles, taught himself weaving and a host of other artisan crafts. Red House was decorated with hand-crafted and hand-painted items as a collective effort with his bride, Jane, and their friends. But Red House is not a historically accurate recreation of anything. Rather, Morris took three steps back in time in order to go forward in a new direction. It was that experiment that prompted them to form 'The Firm' (the first incarnation of what was to become Morris & Co. )

And Why tile?

Tile was one of the first media taken up by Morris. Tile designs are "portable" and he could make something tangible and beautiful without years of apprenticeship. Designs such as Burne-Jones's fairy tale tiles were revisited in paintings, and tapestries, with designs adapting to the media.

The Firm: Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, and Co.

Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, and Co. (Morris and Co.'s predecessor) was established as a decorating business of "fine art workmen" including artists Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Maddox Brown, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Morris and Burne-Jones were the principal designer but the entire Pre-Raphaelite community of artists worked there, as well as Arthur Hughes and William De Morgan. 'The Firm' designed objects to decorate home with the intention of elevating the decorative arts to the level of fine art.

Some tiles began as stained glass, textile designs came from tile, paintings, such as Burne-Jones's Morgan Le Fay, came from designs for embroidery and textiles. I've taken this a step farther, just as Morris did for some of his designs. Glasgow Arts & Crafts, and some art tile that speaks to the Victorian fascination with fairies, fairy tales, and the spiritual world are a current interest.

At the Center: Morris Values

As I get older, my respect for this man, and the values he chose to live by, deepens. Betrayed by his wife and best friend, he abandoned neither, despite the affront and humiliation, despite the titters and jokes about his "cuckolding", despite a heart clearly broken on both counts. I find him particularly remarkable in this age of disposable relationships and the dehumanization of people and situations by labeling them as psychologically "toxic" when they become difficult or do not meet personal needs. And that, I think, is the attraction: Not trying to recreate a style, but returning to one's values in order to create something new from something old and real.

I make tiles for people. For this reason, I tend not to respond to requests for a "source" for mass-produced "Morris-style" designs. The web abounds with cheap knockoffs, often enlarged versions of my web images selling for prices less than my cost of materials. These can be purchased online without any human contact whatsoever.

You Can Break Rules and It's Still Morris

Morris took freely from the interests of Victorian culture and combined them with his love of nature, of myth and medieval, taking what he wanted and leaving what he did not like. A design for one wall at Red House was to be a fresco of the Fall of Troy, yet Morris chose 13th century ships for the Greeks. Red House has little external decoration, preferring to let the bones of the house speak for it. Windows are not symmetrically placed or even similar when viewed from the outside; rather their placement was based on the flow of the house, and the needs of the family.