Art Nouveau – William Morris & Medieval Knights
“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
William Morris (March 24, 1834 – October 3, 1896) was brilliant, rich, spoiled and somewhat temperamental. Anyone inviting him over for dinner would agonize over the meal arrangements, given his penchant for hurling food out of the window if not prepared to his liking or high standards. But minor eccentricities aside, he was a gift to the world. A poet, writer, architect, painter, William Morris is credited as being one of the most important pioneers of Art Nouveau.
William Morris was passionate about mediaeval times. At age four, he was reading Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley Novels (when most children are at the “see Spot run” level). His father supported his dreams by giving him a miniature suit of armour to wear and a gallant pony to ride on his knightly quests into the depths of the nearby Epping Forest. These outdoor forays forged within him a deep attachment to forests, gardens, flowers and birds, which would be recurring themes in his art, poetry and fiction. His wallpaper and fabric designs transformed interior decoration.
William Morris, along with John Ruskin, the influential British art critic, were the originators of the new decorative art movement. Ruskin embraced art and beauty with religious zeal; Morris envisioned an idealized medievalism which was heavily influenced by Tennyson’s Arthurian poems. Their lives were as complex as the times in which they lived.
In 1853 at age 19, William Morris entered Exeter College at Oxford, with the idea of becoming an Anglican clergyman. There he first met his closest lifelong friend, Edward Burne-Jones, who would become one of the greatest of the Pre-Raphaelite (more on this in later posts) artists. Recall that Edward Burne-Jones mentored Aubrey Beardsley. Creativity does not exist in a vacuum – it thrives within a context of diversity and feeds on curiosity.
William Morris, Cray, 1884
Printed Cotton, Victoria and Albert Museum, London