Progression of Art
La Belle Iseult
Although this painting has been listed since its creation as 'unfinished', it is the only easel painting by Morris to reach this level of near-completion, and a quintessential work of Pre-Raphaelite-era portraiture. The model for the painting was Jane Burden, Morris's soon-to-be wife, and it is believed that he started work on it very early during their courtship. The artist reportedly struggled during the composition process with the proportions of the human body, which he was never able to execute as effectively as his peers. It is rumored that when he stopped working on the painting, he scribbled a note on the back to Jane: "I cannot paint you, but I love you".
Jane poses as the female protagonist of the story of Tristram and Iseult (Tristan and Isolde), a legend of Celtic origin made popular during the medieval period by the treatment of Thomas Mallory, on which Morris based his composition. The narrative of doomed lovers contains all the aspects of Medieval romance - thwarted desire, chastity, honor, chivalry - that attracted the Pre-Raphaelites to the literature and art of the period. In the scene depicted, Iseult is mourning the exile of Tristram - a knight sent to fetch her from Ireland to marry King Mark of Cornwall, only for the two to fall in love en route - from her husband's court. The tale was one that Morris had previously represented in the Oxford Union Murals, and the influence of the Pre-Raphaelite artists with whom he undertook that project, particularly Rossetti, is obvious. At the same time, we might trace a thread of affinity with the nascent Symbolist movement in continental Europe, given the heavily allegorical nature of the composition. The dog on the bed, given to Iseult by Tristram in Mallory's story, stands for loyalty, the rosemary in her crown for remembrance.
The painting also alludes in various ways to Morris's artistic and personal biography. Whilst figural painting would never be his true calling, we can sense clues as to his future endeavors as a designer and craftsman in the finer details of the scene. On the bed is an illuminated manuscript similar to those Morris would produce with Kelmscott Press, while the lavish textiles and tapestries are reminiscent of those Morris would spend most of his career creating. As for his model, Jane's strong, striking features, which epitomized the Pre-Raphaelite ideal of beauty, also caught the attention of Morris's friend and mentor Rossetti, with whom Jane embarked on a lifelong affair, grudgingly tolerated by her husband.
Oil on Canvas - Tate Britain, London
Created in collaboration with the architect Philip Webb, many consider this building the jewel in Morris's crown. After his marriage to Jane, Morris longed for a country home for the family, a place where he could live out his visions of medieval romance and collaborative creativity. The result was a strange and magnificent red brick construction which brought together the pointed arches of Gothic religious architecture, the gabled roofs of a Tudor mansion, and turrets from a medieval fairytale. This was not just a house to be lived in, but to be explored and experienced: for Rossetti, it was "more a poem than a house".
Everything in the creation and decoration of Red House was carefully considered. Perhaps in a nod to Morris's growing socialist principles, the red bricks of working-class housing were favored over the stone blocks that would have befitted his class status. He also abandoned bourgeoise taste by filling the garden with native British trees and flowers - those which inspired his decorative designs - rather than the exotic plants favored by the upper classes.
The decoration of the house has become as famous as its architecture, a collaborative endeavor involving not just Morris and Webb, but all of their artistic friends as well. Apparently, whenever a guest arrived to view the completed building, they would be invited to assist with its decoration. Morris would even prick out his designs in plaster, for less creatively inclined friends. The result is a work of interior decoration which showcases the talents of some of the best-known artists of the era. Murals, painted panels and chests, stained-glass windows and textiles: all were created in the spirit of collective joy and industry that Morris so valued.
Red House has been seen as the ancestral home of the Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain. Its construction also marked a decisive shift in architectural aesthetics, one whose effects were still playing out in the early twentieth century. In 1904, the German critic Hermann Muthesius described Red House as "the first house to be conceived and built as a unified whole, inside and out, the very first example in the history of the modern home". This concept would be hugely influential on architects of the Art Nouveau era such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and modernists such as Walter Gropius. 150 years after its construction, the building, now owned by the National Trust, continues to fascinate and excite visitors.
Green Dining Room
This Green Dining Room (also knonw as the Morris Room) is one of three refreshment rooms created for the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum) during the 1860s. This commission was not given to Morris alone, but to Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., the company known as The Firm. The prestige of this commission was a testament to the critical and commercial success that Morris and his collaborators had been enjoying since establishing The Firm in 1861. The individuals chiefly involved in this project were Morris, Philip Webb, and Edward Burne-Jones. As with their other joint-endeavors, each worked on the sections of the room that best suited their skills. The Green Dining Room thus embodies the spirit of collaborative artisanship which the company championed.
As the resident architect of the group, Webb designed the window frames, working with Morris on the floral and geometric designs pricked into the plaster of the ceiling. Burne-Jones painted the paneled frieze along the walls of the room, and, as an accomplished stained-glass designer, filled the window panels with scenes of medieval domestic bliss, including the ubiquitous, lissome Pre-Raphaelite beauties. The patterns inscribed into the green-painted plaster walls were the work of Morris alone, however. Olive boughs, raised up in the plaster, wrap around the room in an endless pattern, punctuated by the splashes of color introduced by flowers and berries. While these walls were created as reliefs, the designs pre-empt those Morris would later create for wallpapers and furnishing fabrics, particularly Willow. The latter is one of Morris's best-known designs, a simple pattern of intertwined willow leaves that gives the "unmistakable suggestions of gardens and fields" within a domestic setting.
Plaster, paint, wooden panel, and stained glass - Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Strawberry Thief is the best known of Morris's decorative textile designs, one on which he worked for several months before finding a way of printing it successfully. The fabric was intended to be used for curtains or hung along walls, a medieval style of decoration which the artist advocated. The pattern, meanwhile, was based on the thrushes that would steal strawberries from the kitchen in his country home at Kelmscott Manner, and was therefore imbued with nostalgic sentiment. Whilst the foliate designs are complex and eye-catching, and the design provides little depth between foreground and background, the birds remain a focal point due to their light color and the naturalism of their rendering. They also create an element of narrative interest, as the mischievous protagonists of a story that plays out across the surface of the fabric, entertaining with their song while they make away with the precious berries.
These themes are redolent of the natura naturans spirit of much medieval textile art, and loosely evocative of the romance and fantasy narratives of the same era. In practical terms, Morris took a great deal of interest in the practical craftsmanship of the Strawberry Thief design, learning the theory of fabric-dyeing and block-printing in order to create a pattern amenable to his chosen production process. Eventually, he settled on the ancient technique of indigo discharge, in spite of its costly and laborious nature, applying bleached blocks to dyed fabric. His main concern was the depth of color in the finished product, and the artisanal authenticity of the creative process.
This design has attained extraordinary commercial success since its release in the late nineteenth century, and continues to sell widely, with English department stores having featured it in several high-end fashion collaborations. Its popularity has recently led the Victoria and Albert Museum's designer-in-residence to create a digital game based on the design, while contemporary artists continue to look back to it. The conceptual and video artist Jeremy Deller, for example, has named an exhibition after the work, and created the piece Strawberry Thief (2014), a neon light depicting one of the birds with a captured berry, in homage to it.
Indigo-discharged and block-printed cotton - Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Most of Morris's best-known tapestry designs were created in collaboration with artists, such as Philip Webb and Edward Burne-Jones. The classic design for Woodpecker Tapestry, however, is the product of his imagination and technical skill alone. Standing at three meters high, the work was devised on a grand scale, originally intended to be hung in a billiard room in London. It depicts a woodpecker and songbird in a tree; above and below are two scrolls, bearing an inscription that would later be published as one of a series of "Verses for Pictures" in Morris's Poems By the Way (1891): "I once a king and chief/ now am the tree bar's thief/ ever twixt trunk and leaf/ chasing the prey". This playful little poem is based on a tale from the Roman poet Ovid's Metamorphoses, in which the sorceress Circe curses King Picus to become a woodpecker, after he spurns her sexual advances.
The extent to which Morris drew from medieval sources is abundantly clear from the design of this work: not only in its gothic lettering and busy pattern-work, but from the decision to employ tapestry as an artistic medium. Whilst hand-woven textiles had lined the halls of royal courts in the Middle Ages, by the nineteenth century tapestry had fallen far from fashionable taste. Morris remedied this not only by creating various modern takes on medieval tapestry patterns, but also by learning the craft himself. Synthesizing these ancient sources of inspiration with a modern attitude to nature, he created a decorative design that is as complex in thematic association as it is beautiful.
The combination of words and image, that is, means that the viewer is not only invited to follow the curves of trunk and branch, but also to contemplate the allegorical value of the illustration. Perhaps the poem contains a kernel of Morris's socialist worldview. The king appears to mourn his fall from power, but it is easy to question the validity of his lament: how can he mourn in such a beautiful natural setting?
Wool on Cotton - William Morris Gallery, London
The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer now Newly Imprinted
The Kelmscott Chaucer, as it is widely known, is one of the defining achievements of the last great artistic project of Morris's life, the Kelmscott Press. For over two decades, Morris had enjoyed translating and illustrating medieval narratives, and he had gifted several hand-made manuscripts to family and friends. In 1891, he decided to set up a business that would produce beautiful handprinted books, spending months sourcing the correct handmade papers, woodblock carvers, and typefaces for the Kelmscott Press to use. In the case of the Kelmscott Chaucer, the medieval-style typeface originally chosen did not create the desired visual effect, and so an entirely new typeface, "Chaucer", was created solely for the project.
The Kelmscott Chaucer was the result of several years' labor involving Morris and his close friend Edward Burne-Jones. Morris designed foliate patterns for the pages, whilst Burne-Jones lent his decorative skills to the illustrated panels. The two then collaborated on the overall format and design of the book, while the artist and engraver William Harcourt Hooper etched the pages for printing. Less than 500 copies were made, each costly to produce and buy. They turned reading into a luxurious experience, to be appreciated visually as well as intellectually. Each page was to be savored, the words of the fourteenth-century poet placed in an aesthetic space inspired by the world in which they were written. Burne-Jones described The Kelmscott Chaucer as the culmination of the ideas that he and Morris had shared since they were students, finally brought to fruition "at the end of our days". Morris only just lived to see the release of the book, dying just a few months later in 1896.
The pages of the Kelmscott Chaucer have provided enjoyment and inspiration for artists and craftsmen ever since they were published. For his 2015 installation work Announcer, the contemporary artist David Mabb covered the walls of a gallery space with facsimiles of the Kelmscott Chaucer and the Russian Constructivist artist El Lissitzky's edition of the revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky's For the Voice. Both books are the product of utopian socialist ideals, and of an approach to book-making that was both artisanal and avant-garde.
Woodblock-printed pages - British Library, London