Illustration: William Morris. Jasmine, 1872.
The original artwork of William Morris can only begin to give us an idea as to the creative workings and indeed journey of both the man as an individual and as the designer of prodigious amounts of fabrics, tapestries, carpets, embroideries, and wallpapers. That nature and the portrayal of the natural world were central to the artistic core of the man is undoubted, as the few examples shown here of his original design and decorative work are made clearly abundant.
In some respects, Morris creative work ran along similar lines to a certain element of English poetry. It could be said that his perceptive details of the flora of the English countryside was a form of visual poetry that savoured the leaf and the flower of the natural world that Morris both inhabited and idealised. Admittedly, many of Morris creative works were contrivances and not all of the flora was necessarily natural to England. However, the observational poetry of balance and harmony between flower and leaf, which is always present in Morris decorative pattern work, gives the appearance that the decorative design, whether on textile or wallpaper, could only ever be at most one step away from the real.
Illustration: William Morris. Acanthus, 1874.
Morris always seemed happiest either in his garden or along the banks of the rural Thames and this submergence in the sensory experience of the natural world is one of the more obvious analogies that can be drawn from much of his work. Many examples of both his textile and wallpaper pattern work contain tangled and undulating foliage, sometimes with birdlife, but often with either a mixture of plant life or a single plant that meandered and trailed, often crossing and recrossing itself, completely filling the composition.
Morris work undoubtedly fed a need and a passion with the English public. Many by the later nineteenth century had become far removed from the natural world, and it is no coincidence that his work appealed much more too urban populations than it ever did to those that were still part of rural communities. However, with the coming of the railways, urban populations could take part in visits to the natural world, and while keeping the parameters of these visits well within the safety zone of the idyll of nature - parasols but no mud - Morris played to the needs of this public and provided them with their idyll which could be genuinely enjoyed in the comfort of their sitting rooms.
Illustration: William Morris. Honeysuckle, 1883.
Although flora and fauna were undoubtedly common themes within English decorative pattern work during the last half of the nineteenth century, it would be hard to find a decorative artist or designer that was as truly immersed in the portrayal of the natural world as much as that of Morris. Although by no means unique in his subject matter, other designers English designers did tend to lend the natural world a certain element of formality and in some cases an obvious symmetry, one that was often missing or at least appeared to be missing from the work of Morris.
Possibly one of the reasons for the enduring popularity of Morris is that same feeling of poetry that can be seen or at least felt in his decorative work. It could also be said that the poetic feeling in Morris work is fairly trite and sentimental, but the test of time is always a good judge of a product or style. While other popular and fashionable English decorative artists and designers have today been drastically reduced in size and influence by the general public, Morris work has doggedly held the public imagination and looks set to continue well into this present century.
Illustration: William Morris. Rose, 1883.
Perhaps with a century which may well see the disappearance of ever more natural environments, whether they be in more exotic parts of the globe or within our own neighbourhoods, the sentiment real or otherwise, of Morris work will stay with us. Eventually perhaps an English country experience will only be available on a piece of fabric or a wallpaper design.
Illustration: William Morris.
Further reading links:
William Morris: Patterns & Designs (International Design Library)
"Wallflower" Design (Textile) Giclee Poster Print by William Morris, 18x24
Designs of William Morris (Phaidon Miniature Editions)
The Beauty of Life: William Morris and the Art of Design
William Morris and the Arts and Crafts
The Flowers of William Morris
Morris, William: Redesigning the World
William Morris Textiles
William Morris Full-Color Patterns and Designs (Dover Pictorial Archives)
William Morris (Temporis)
William Morris on Art and Socialism
V&A Pattern: William Morris: (Hardcover with CD)
The Essential William Morris Anthology (12 books) [Illustrated]
William Morris and Morris & Co.
William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Home
William Morris Decor and Design
The Gardens of William Morris
William Morris Designs CD-ROM and Book (Full-Color Electronic Design Series)