William Morris: The Strawberry Thief who Stole our Hearts

His vibrant designs, full of colour and life. Each drenched in intricate detail and maximalism. Enriched with a story so magnificently designed that even the most profound words could never be found to tell its narrative.

Although the work of William Morris has never faded. It can be argued that it has never been quite so visible as it is now. Over 125 years’ have passed since his death and yet he continues to inspire artists and designers today.

His bold, exciting and innovative body of work resounds and resonates through past, present and surely into the future.

We see it adorning all walks of life. It is embedded into our culture, our homes, restaurants and cafes. Fashionistas and social media alike have all been seduced by his unique and alluring designs.

It begs the question. Who was the Strawberry Thief who stole the hearts of so many? A man whose influence and legacy run deep throughout the very fabric of society.

The Strawberry Thief’ textile designed by William Morris. Arguably one of his most famous and widely celebrated pieces of work.

William Morris Society

We spoke with Helen Elletson, Curator for the William Morris Society to learn more about a man who was a revolutionary force in Victorian Britain: Whose work as a poet, artist, designer, craftsman, writer and socialist dramatically changed the fashions and ideologies of the era.  

The William Morris Society was founded in 1955 with ambitions to perpetuate the memory of one of the greatest men of the Victorian era. The life, work and ideas of William Morris are as important today as they were in his lifetime. The Society exists to make them as widely known as possible.

The Society also works relentlessly to develop partnerships that encourage the manufacture of Morris’s wallpapers and textiles, maintaining Morris’s beliefs that art should be available for all. “I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few or freedom for a few.” Remains one of his greatest quotes.

The Society’s office and museum are in the basement and Coach House of Kelmscott House, Hammersmith, Morris’s London home for the last eighteen years of his life.

William Morris Society and Kelmscott House Museum

Curator Helen Elletson lets us in to see behind the curtain of a man who was so much more than his indelible designs. She describes an all-encompassing man who worked tirelessly for the greater good.

“The variety of Morris’s ideas and activities bring together those who are interested in him as a designer, craftsman, poet, and socialist, and who admire his robust and generous personality, his creative energy and his courage. His ideas on how we live and how we might live, in regards to creative work, leisure and machinery, ecology,  conservation, politics and the arts.”

The Significance of William Morris 

He left an almighty thumbprint on all aspects of life in Victorian Britain. Morris would become one of the most significant figures in the arts and crafts movement, a man of far-ranging creativity and knowledge.

He died on 3rd October 1896 at the age of 62, leaving behind some of the most iconic pieces of decorative art of the nineteenth century. The obituaries and reminiscences that followed the death of  Morris refer to him as a great poet, thinker and tireless worker in the service of humanity, securing his reputation as “the most all-round gifted man of the 19th century.”  

Morris’s doctor stated that the cause of death was “simply being William Morris and having done more work than ten men.”

“Morris’s work is as relevant today as it was in his lifetime.” Remarks Helen. “He strongly believed in traditional, handmade crafts and even prevented some from almost dying out. For instance, he resurrected the almost lost art of hand block printing fabric with natural plant and vegetable dyes.”

In April 1861, Morris, along with his friends; Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Philip Webb, Ford Madox Brown, Charles Faulker and Peter Paul Marshall, set up a decorative arts firm.

This was in response to the fact he bought his now famous Red House and was unable to furnish it with textiles that were up to his standard and taste.  He wanted to create and he saw an opportunity here.

In March 1875, Morris disbanded the company and it became Morris & Co. with the original partners working on their individual projects. However, lifelong friends Burne-Jones and Philip Webb continued to produce designs for Morris & Co.

This was a man with innovation and creativity coursing through his veins. He had high standards, and demands, taking  immense pride in his work. It was this drive and determination that not only created his legacy but also brought the best out of others as Helen explains:

“Morris started a private printing revival which led to a worldwide increase in standards of book design and typography. Morris and Company’s wallpapers raised the status of English wallpapers to the highest standards, becoming internationally respected, and Morris’s delightful patterns continue to be enduringly popular.” She adds that:

“Morris believed in the principles of the Arts and Crafts Movement, that designer and maker should be one and the same, and it was through Morris putting his beliefs into practice that made the Arts and Crafts Movement the highly respected movement that continues to be greatly valued to this day.”

Morris and Co. continue to keep the spirit of William Morris alive today through their journey of over 160 years of lovingly crafted interiors.

Kelmscott Manor

A place once described by Morris as ‘Heaven on Earth’ Kelmscott Manor was his inspirational Cotswold retreat.  It is also where the work of Morris is being kept alive today with its array of intricate interiors, prints, wallpaper and curtains and is now a place of pilgrimage for those captivated with his world.

The pioneering designer, poet and socialist owned the house for more than 20 years. Now, after a recent £6 million renovation project, the farmhouse in Oxfordshire is reopening to the public.

During the past 30 months, a major conservation and refurbishment programme has been achieved. Practical completion of the capital phase was made possible by a £4.3 million grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and £1.3 million raised to date from the still ongoing Kelmscott Manor: Past Present & Future Campaign, which continues to actively raise additional necessary funds.

Heaven on Earth. The poet and socialist owned Kelmscott House for more than 20 years. Now, after a recent £6 million renovation project, the farmhouse in Oxfordshire is reopening to the public.

The restoration of Kelmscott Manor is an indication of how much the work of Morris is valued and the importance of keeping it in the consciousness of the public so that it can be witnessed by generations to come. As the polymath once said himself: “The past is not dead, it is living in us, and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make.”

Modern Day Morris

The renaissance of Morris’s work has been wonderful to see and indeed, his popularity seems to be on the increase in recent times.

Helen ponders why this could be. “I think there are several reasons for this resurgence. The recent pandemic has given many the opportunity to re-discover craft, particularly due to the imposed isolation necessary during the pandemic. People have turned to handicraft for consolation have found the many benefits that this has brought, including gaining confidence, self-esteem, and new-found creativity which has had a very positive impact on the nation’s mental health during such challenging times.”

A new generation is realising Morris’s importance and the true value of the handmade as opposed to the mass-produced – products which may have been manufactured in factories which have poor conditions for their workers, just as in Morris’s time. The vitally important issues of sustainability and ethics which Morris spoke out about remain of great concern.

Perhaps we need a modern day Morris those same values into today’s society.

Remembering his Contribution to Society

It is how Morris is remembered in the annals of time and history and his telling contribution to society that allow us to see what kind of man he was as Helen describes:

“Morris was a true polymath, multi-talented at all the crafts he chose to practice. He was full of energy, intelligent, well-read, a great orator and successful businessman while also being a kind and caring husband and father.”

Not content with creating a body of work that would inspire generations to come. He also worked tirelessly to help improve the lives of others. Something which should never be forgotten.

Morris: Full of energy, intelligent, well-read, a great orator and successful businessman while also being a kind and caring husband and father.

He dedicated so much of his life to trying to change the system which we are born into and change society for the better, through Socialism and the attempt to improve the working and living conditions of Victorian workers.

“His contribution to society cannot be overestimated, and is found in so many facets, from continuing to influence politicians to his beautiful designs and improving our quality of life.” Helen says thoughtfully, as we are left to cherish his lifetime and legacy which thanks to the work of so many, continues to live in.

Please visit here for more information on the William Morris Society