William Morris, c. 1887 by Frederick Hollyer. Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft, Jr. Manuscript Collection, Delaware Art Museum
William Morris
Date: English designer, writer, and activist, 1834–1896
School: Pre-Raphaelite
Biography: The career of William Morris is uniquely rich in its broad array of interests and accomplishments. Born into a well-to-do middle-class family, he was schooled briefly at Marlborough College before setting off for Exeter College, Oxford, to study theology, inspired by the Anglican reform movement.

At Oxford he quickly befriended the young Edward Burne-Jones, also destined for a career in the Church. The two shared an interest in all things medieval and in the new Gothic Revival in architecture, which was further enhanced by their trip through France and Belgium in 1855. The outcome was a change in vocation, with Burne-Jones vowing to become an artist and Morris taking work in the architectural firm of G. E. Street in London. Both sought out and became friends with the older artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti; the three shared a studio at Red Lion Square, Bloomsbury, in 1856. The following year, with Rossetti and a group of other painters, Morris and Burne-Jones took on the decoration of the debating hall of the recently completed Oxford Union Society.

This project at Oxford, the designs Morris and his friends carried out for the furnishing of their lodgings at Red Lion Square, and the building and fitting out of his new home, Red House, outside of London, served to focus his attention on the need for home decorations that were well designed and crafted. In the spring of 1861, he co-founded Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company, a collaborative enterprise involving artist-designers (Rossetti, Burne-Jones, and Ford Madox Brown, among others) and craftsmen imitative of the medieval guild system. A successful display in the Medieval Court at the International Exhibition of 1862 in South Kensington helped to put the company on a firm footing. In 1875 Morris bought out his partners, re-forming the business as Morris and Company, intensifying the production of wallpapers and textiles for which the firm is best remembered today.

A visit to Iceland in 1871-1872 inspired in Morris an interest in socialism and the ideal of a classless society. His involvement in the formation of the Art Workers' Guild in 1884 and the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in 1888 are directly tied to his strong sense of equality and his desire for a decent lifestyle for the working class. In 1885 he was directly involved with the formation of a new political advocacy group, the Socialist League, and he played a significant role in the content and production of the League's newspaper, The Commonweal.

Inspired by John Ruskin's Seven Lamps of Architecture and the debate over restoration, Morris formed the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877. All the while he continued to write, publishing prose and fiction, including The Life and Death of Jason (1867), The Earthly Paradise (1868-1870), and News from Nowhere (1891), among others. In 1891 he founded the Kelmscott Press, producing books of the highest quality materials and design, revolutionizing and revitalizing the printing industry. The most famous publication of the firm, the so-called Kelmscott Chaucer, occupied Morris for the last years of his life, in close collaboration with his old friend Burne-Jones, who carried out the illustrative designs, a total of eighty-seven. The book was completed in June 1896, shortly before Morris's death in October.

From "Biography of William Morris (1834-1896)" by Stephen Wildman, in 'Waking Dreams: The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites from the Delaware Art Museum' (Alexandria, VA: Art Services International, 2004), p. 365-366.