William Morris, the son of a successful businessman, was born in Walthamstow, a quiet village east of London, on 24th March, 1834. After successfully investing in a copper mine, William's father was able to purchase Woodford Hall, a large estate on the edge of Epping Forest, in 1840.
Morris was educated at Marborough and Exeter College. At Oxford University Morris met Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The three men were all artists and formed a group called the Brotherhood. During this period their work was inspired by the history, ritual and architecture of the Medieval period. Morris and Burne-Jones were committed Anglicans and for a time they talked of taking part in a "crusade and holy warfare" against the art and culture of their own time.
Burne-Jones later recalled: "When I first knew Morris nothing would content him but being a monk, and getting to Rome, and then he must be an architect, and apprenticed himself to Street, and worked for two years, but when I came to London and began to paint he threw it all up, and must paint too, and then he must give it up and make poems, and then he must give it up and make window hangings and pretty things, and when he had achieved that, he must be a poet again, and then after two or three years of Earthly Paradise time, he must learn dyeing, and lived in a vat, and learned weaving, and knew all about looms, and then made more books, and learned tapestry, and then wanted to smash everything up and begin the world anew, and now it is printing he cares for, and to make wonderful rich-looking books - and all things he does splendidly - and if he lives the printing will have an end - but not I hope, before Chaucer and the Morte d'Arthur are done; then he'll do I don't know what, but every minute will be alive."
Members of the Brotherhood were influenced by the writings of the art critic, John Ruskin, who praised the art of medieval craftsmen, sculptors and carvers who he believed were free to express their creative individualism. Ruskin was also very critical of the artists of the 19th century, who he accused of being servants of the industrial age. David Meakin has argued: "A rebel against his own time, he was yet deeply of his time, deeply Victorian, and this is only one of the many fertile paradoxes that make his manifold activity so fascinating."
In 1857 Morris joined with Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti to paint frescoes for the Oxford Union. He also began writing poetry and in 1858 his book The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems was published. Morris wrote: "With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on."
Morris and his Pre-Raphaelite friends formed their own company of designers and decorators. As well as Burne-Jones and Rossetti, the group now included the architect Philip Webb and Ford Madox Brown. Morris, Marshall, Faulkener & Co, specialized in producing stained glass, carving, furniture, wallpaper, carpets and tapestries. The company's designs brought about a complete revolution in public taste. Their commissions included the Red House in Upton (1859), the Armoury and Tapestry Room in St. James's Palace (1866) and the Dining Room in the Victoria and Albert Museum (1867). In 1875 the partnership came to an end and Morris formed a new business called Morris & Company.
Despite the large number of commissions that he received, William Morris continued to find time to write poetry and prose. His work during this period included The Life and Death of Jason (1867), The Earthly Paradise (1868) and the Volksunga Saga (1870). In one article Morris argued: "So long as the system of competition in the production and exchange of the means of life goes on, the degradation of the arts will go on; and if that system is to last for ever, then art is doomed, and will surely die; that is to say, civilization will die."
The art critic, Patrick Conner, has argued that the writings of John Ruskin inspired artists such as Morris and Edward Burne-Jones: "Ruskin... proved an inspiration to William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, whose enthusiasm carried Pre-Raphaelite principles into many branches of the decorative arts. They inherited from Ruskin a hostility to classical and Renaissance culture which extended to the arts and design of their own time. Ruskin and his followers believed that the nineteenth century was still afflicted by a demand for mass-production... They opposed themselves to mechanized production, meaningless ornament and anonymous architecture of cast iron and plate glass."
In the 1870s Morris became upset by the aggressive foreign policy of the Conservative Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli. In began writing to newspapers and publishing pamphlets where he attacked Disraeli and supported the anti-imperialism of the Liberal Party leader, William Gladstone. However, he became disillusioned with Gladstone's Liberal Government that gained power after the 1880 General Election and by 1883 Morris had become a socialist. Morris later explained his new political philosophy: "What I mean by Socialism is a condition of society in which there should be neither rich nor poor, neither master nor master's man, neither idle nor overworked, neither brainslack brain workers, nor heartsick hand workers, in a word, in which all men would be living in equality of condition, and would manage their affairs unwastefully, and with the full consciousness that harm to one would mean harm to all - the realisation at last of the meaning of the word commonwealth."
Morris joined the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and began contributing articles to its journal Justice. However, Morris was soon in dispute with the party leader, H. H. Hyndman. Morris shared Hyndman's Marxist beliefs, but objected to Hyndman's nationalism and the dictatorial methods he used to run the party.
In December, 1884, Morris left the SDF and along with Walter Crane, Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling formed the Socialist League. Strongly influenced by the ideas of William Morris, the party published a manifesto where it advocated revolutionary international socialism. Morris was also the main contributor the the party's journal, Commonweal.
Over the next few years Morris wrote socialist pamphlets, sold socialist literature on street corners, went on speaking tours, encouraged and participated in strikes and took part in several political demonstrations. In July, 1887 Morris was arrested after a demonstration in London. Four months later he participated in what became known as Bloody Sunday, when three people were killed and 200 injured during a public meeting in Trafalgar Square. The following week, a friend, Alfred Linnell, was fatally injured during another protest demonstration and this event resulted in Morris writing, Death Song.
Morris devoted a lot of his time to political writing. This included Chants for Socialists (1883), The Pilgrims of Hope(1885) and the Dream of John Ball (1888). The following year Morris wrote one of his most important books, News from Nowhere. The book, a Utopian fantasy, tells the story of a man who falls asleep after an evening at a Socialist League meeting. He wakes in the future to find England transformed into a communist paradise where men and women are free, healthy, and equal. Money, prisons, schools and government have been abolished and the industrial squalor of England in the 1880s has disappeared. At the close of the book, the man has returned to the present, but has been inspired by what he has seen and his determined to work for a socialist future.
It has been argued by David Meakin that Morris was not a very successful politician: "Morris had little talent for politicking, and the intransigence of the Socialist League tended to cut it off from parliamentary politics. He feared and denounced the tendency for socialism to sink into compromise and palliatory reform, offensive to his total ethical vision. Only in his final years, uncompromisingly styling himself a communist, did he come to accept the educative value of local struggles, whilst always insisting that these should be catalysts for total change."
Henry Snell met Morris during this period: "It was William Morris who first made me consciously aware of the ugliness of a society which so arranged its affairs that its workers were deprived of the beauty which life should give. I remember him as a bluff, vital, and challenging personality, whose influence upon those who knew him was both marked and lasting. I knew Morris only as a humble and admiring devotee may know the master. In my mind his gifts and experience placed him among the supermen. I might have known him better if I had been less aware of his greatness." Bruce Glasier has argued: "William Morris was to my mind one of the greatest men of genius this or any other land has ever known."
Margaret McMillan was another young socialist who was impressed with Morris: "We were invited to meet William Morris at Kelmscott House. Mr. Morris received us with patient cordiality. Dressed in navy blue, and with his hair much ruffled, he looked like a sea captain receiving guests on a stormy day, but glad to see them. He wanted to hear about his Edinburgh friends, especially John Glasse, with whom he could discuss handloom weaving as well as literature or Socialism. He lighted his pipe and talked, sitting upright in a high chair. We listened to his copious, glittering talk. Morris belonged to a rich, radiant, present world. He created it. He was practical as well as impatient." W. B. Yeats has pointed out: "No man I have ever known was so well loved. He was looked up to as to some worshipped medieval king. People loved him as children are loved. I soon discovered his spontaneity and joy and made him my chief of men."
In 1891 William Morris became seriously ill with kidney disease. He continued to write on socialism and occasionally was fit enough to give speeches at public meetings. Morris political views had been influenced by the anarchist theories of Peter Kropotkin. Morris was also sympathetic to syndicalism of Tom Mann. Although Morris supported trustworthy socialist politicians such as George Lansbury and Keir Hardie, he believed that socialism would be achieved through trade union activity rather than by getting socialists elected to the House of Commons.
William Morris died on 3rd October, 1896.