William Morris was the father of the Arts and Crafts Movement. I have often seen that statement in print. Have you? Is it true? What was his importance to the movement? Let’s have a look.
Artist, Architect, Designer, Socialist
The roots of the English Arts and Crafts Movement are grounded in the medieval styles and values associated with the Gothic Revival. Writer and art critic John Ruskin held a keen interest in the Gothic Revival and promoted the preservation and restoration of Gothic architecture in his writings and lectures, which were in turn an inspiration to the early leaders of the English Arts and Crafts Movement – a vanguard of wealthy, educated men trained as architects and designers.
The most energetic and well-known architectural designer of those early days of the movement was William Morris.
An enthusiast of the Gothic style and spirit, Morris believed that art, including architecture and decorative arts, should be both beautiful and functional, and his ideals were influenced by the simple, handmade beauty of medieval craftsmanship.
Trained and educated as both an artist and an architect, he developed a belief in the ideal that art and craft went hand in hand, that the artist and the craftsman stood on equally important ground. He stated it simply in his own words…
“Art is man’s expression of his joy in labor.”
Furthermore, Morris did not separate his artistic ideas from his social ideas. His belief in the intrinsic value of beautiful handcrafted works that provided both function and art led to his belief in the laborer’s right to perform useful work in a pleasant environment – the right to be a craftsman.
He ascribed the superiority of Gothic art and architecture to the greater degree of independence and creative freedoms available to medieval craftworkers. He believed firmly that design belonged in the domain of the craftsman.
Morris himself was an artist skilled at many crafts and as he pressed forward putting his ideals into action, leading by example, he called for socio-economic reform to integrate labor and art and create a social reality based on simple, functional virtues that included honest hand labor and natural materials that were both intrinsically beautiful and eco-friendly.
Through his writings, lectures, and most effectively, through his own artistic creations, he was the guiding spirit of the Arts and Crafts Movement. His businesses produced furniture, wallpaper, tapestries, rugs, textiles, stained glass, tiles, glassware, metalwork, and other decorative arts. His business associates and fellow designers included architect Phillip Webb and artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones.
The societal contributions of William Morris and his leadership of the English Arts and Crafts Movement were of tremendous significance. By the late 19th century, his arts and crafts ideals and convictions were taking root in America and are still alive and well today.