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19th century painter, textile designer, artist, writer, and socialist William Morris is renowned throughout English arts and left-wing political groups. His love for medieval art and design painted a dramatic contrast to the industrial Victorian world he lived in, which he saw as full of greed and exploitation of the poor. Although born into an evangelical family Morris lost his faith at a young age and pursued his love for the creative arts. Although not a politician he became a firm believer in socialism and the class struggle between the rich and poor forming the Socialist League in 1885.

Life

William Morris was born on the 24th March 1834 in Walthamstow, Essex, to a wealthy Anglican middle-class family. Due to his family’s wealth, he received an education at Marlborough College at the age of 13 in 1847. Despite not enjoying his time at Marlborough due to bullying, Morris started to gain an interest in Romantic art. After leaving Marlborough in 1853, Morris studied Theology at Exeter College at the University of Oxford. It was during his time at Oxford that William Morris’ enthusiasm for the creative arts excelled, especially architecture. Morris started to become more aware of the class divisions within industrial England from reading the works of contemporary writers John Ruskin, Charles Kingsley and Thomas Carlyle. Despite his early convictions of the inequality within England, Morris nearly became a clergyman and was heavily affected by the Oxford movement (the renewal of Catholicism practices within the Church of England). However, the heavy influence of John Ruskin and the morality of architecture started to turn him away from the church and instead he began a career in the arts.

William’s career as a full time architect was short-lived, as when he was travelling through Northern France he was persuaded by poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti to give up architecture and take up painting instead. From here William would experiment with various dyes and develop his admiration for medieval art and architecture, founding the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877. Morris did this to try and combat the increasing industrialisation of towns and old buildings that was occurring. He wanted to preserve and promote the old creative and imaginative ways of the past against the black and mechanical world he lived in. 

This approach to art was further implemented into his political thinking as well. Losing his faith completely after his time at Oxford, Morris became further intertwined with Marxist and socialist groups, becoming a committed revolutionary socialist activist. He joined the Democratic Federation (later the Social Democratic Federation) in 1884 and would travel to industrial areas of England, promoting the ideas of Socialism while being hounded by the authorities. He participated in the protest that led to Bloody Sunday on November 13th 1887 and later formed the Socialist League. While he was in the league he published two of his most important romances, A Dream of John Ball (1887) and News from Nowhere (1890). The two pieces promoted an idealistic vision of a socialist rural utopia. In Morris’ final years he continued with his political writing and founded the Kelmscott Press in 1891. Although short-lived, the Kelmscott Press published Morris’ work and embodied his ideal standard of what artwork should be like.

William Morris died from tuberculosis on the 3rd October 1896 in Hammersmith. He was 62 years old.

Influence

Morris is everyone’s favourite British socialist. Every socialist camp has tried to claim him as one of its own.

Mark Bevir 

William Morris’ influence is extremely broad, spanning across the creative arts and political theory. His impact on Victorian style and fashion is uncanny, as he turned away from the mechanical style that enveloped the country and focused on romanticisms, myths and the old ways of life. He wanted to use his art to help rebuild society by focusing on the principles of simplicity and honesty. This was also applied to his political writings as well, as he sought the injustices faced by the everyday worker such as their working and living conditions. 

Morris’ loss of faith further drove his passion for socialism and equality. He described puritanism as one of ‘the things which I hate most in life’ due to the cold austerity which radical puritans would preach. Morris wanted to influence a simpler, more compassionate society that did not follow greed or exploitation, believing that art could one day instead replace religion as a source of guidance.

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