Thames Pathway

Journal of a Walk Down the River Thames

by Keith Pauling

William Morris

The small village of Kelmscott along with its splendid Elizabethan Manor House attracts me to take a short diversion to take a closer look, for one man described this place as his own “Heaven on earth”.

That man was William Morris, who fell in love with the Manor House at first sight, and lived there from 1871 until his death in 1896. He would wander the fields collecting reeds and flowers to use as dyes and patterns for his textile work.

Morris was a massive influence in Victorian times, not only as a designer and manufacturer but also as a radical political thinker. He was a founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement and a committed member of the Socialist League.

William was originally an Essex boy, born in Walthamstow in 1834. He spent his schooldays at Marlborough School and then attended Exeter College, Oxford. It was at Exeter College that he met the artist Edward Burne-Jones who would become his life-long friend and business partner.

His original career plan was to enter the church, but his readings of the social commentaries of Ruskin and Carlyle influenced him to join the arts world instead. After graduating from Oxford Morris worked for the architect George Street who specialised in Gothic Revivalist styling. There he met another person who would later contribute to his works, Philip Webb. Morris soon moved from architecture to explore the world of painting under the tutelage of Dante Gabriel Rosetti.

However, it was to Philip Webb that Morris turned to when he wanted to build a new house in Bexley Heath. He commissioned his friend to design the building in a simple vernacular style using traditional materials. It was at this point that Morris’s life was to take a turn and leave us with the wonderful heritage of his works.

Try as he might, Morris just could not find the furniture and textiles to decorate his new home. Having been dragged around DFS and IKEA by my own dearly-beloved on many occasions on a similar mission I know exactly how frustrated he must have been. Our brains must have something in common, for we both came to the same conclusion – “We can do it ourselves”. The results however could not have been more different. I ended up with a few wonky shelves and shapeless curtains, while Morris produced outstandingly fine works of art that were the envy of everyone.

It is but a short distance to the next logical step. In true “Del-Boy” style he must have thought along the lines of “We can flog this stuff and this time next year we will all be millionaires”. Morris with his socialist tendencies probably did not think exactly that thought but it must have been pretty close. With his friends Burne-Jones, Rosetti and Webb he formed Morris and Company with the purpose of selling the products they designed to the general populace.

The company blossomed and flourished under Morris’s inspired leadership. Demand for its products soared. The products ranged through stained glass, textiles, soft furnishings, furniture and wallpaper. Many of the designs were based on the natural shapes of the flowers and foliage he collected at Kelmscott.

Morris remained a staunch socialist despite his entrepreneurial successes. He detested mechanisation and mass-production and insisted that his products were made by hand. His aim was to restore the values of traditional hand craftsmanship to all of his works and encourage others to do likewise.

There was an unfortunate paradox to his ambitions. The fine work he was producing by hand was too expensive to be affordable to any but the rich and the ordinary “man in the street” was unable to possess such wonderful works.

Today the influence of Morris remains with us, and there are dedicated followers of his work. He rests in St Georges Churchyard at Kelmscott, at peace in his own “heaven on earth”.

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