How Nature Influenced William Morris’s Timeless Designs

How Nature Influenced William Morris’s Timeless Designs

William Morris (1834 – 1896) was a multifaceted creative figure known for his work as a textile designer, poet, artist, writer, and socialist advocate. He was pivotal in reviving traditional British textile craftsmanship and production techniques, read on to find out how nature inspired him!
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How Nature Influenced William Morris’s Timeless Designs

William Morris (1834 – 1896) was a multifaceted creative figure known for his work as a textile designer, poet, artist, writer, and socialist advocate. He was pivotal in reviving traditional British textile craftsmanship and production techniques. He was also a writer, poet, and novelist whose literary works shaped the modern fantasy genre. As a wealthy, respected, and famous figure, his advocacy and activism were influential in promoting Socialism in Britain during the late 19th century.  

This article will focus on the natural world's influence on William Morris, but it is important to note he found inspiration from many sources, including the art, literary works and chivalric principles of the Medieval era, his travels (notably to France and Iceland), religious architecture, and his ardent beliefs in Socialism and that art and quality craftsmanship should be accessible to all. Morris said: "I do not want art for a few any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few."

1. Early Immersion in Nature: Morris's childhood homes in Essex and Walthamstow were surrounded by countryside and nature. He loved exploring the nearby forests and riding his pony and was a keen gardener who tended his own plot. One of his favourite books was Gerard's Herball (1597), an extensively illustrated reference book of herbs. According to The National Trust, Morris referenced this book throughout his career. From a young age, Morris detested the industrialisation of Victorian England, and during a family trip to London as a 16-year-old he refused to set foot inside The Great Exhibition, a grand showcase of the mechanised future.  


Panel of floral embroidery, silk on silk (c. 1875) (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

2. Reinterpreting the Beauty of Botanicals: Morris's love for nature is evident in the botanical motifs that abound in his designs. He said, "I must have unmistakable suggestions of gardens and fields, and strange trees, boughs and tendrils." William Morris didn't think it was possible or desirable for him to replicate botanical subjects literally, so he recreated them in his style. 


William Morris design for Trellis wallpaper, 1862

3. Colours from Nature: Morris's designs' colour palettes are inspired by natural colours. As a successful furnishings and decorative arts manufacturer, William Morris became interested in the process of textile dying. He experimented with dyes derived from natural sources, such as blue from woad or indigo, crushed walnuts and roots to make brown, and reds made from madder, kermes, and cochineal. 


Snakeshead printed cotton designed by William Morris.

4. A Literary Celebration of Nature: William Morris was a poet, novelist, and translator who also authored many political papers advocating for Socialism. His fascination with medievalism inspired him to write about romantic utopian scenes. His publishing company, Kelmscott Press, was known for creating beautiful books full of detailed border designs and ornate illustrations. 


Kelmscott Press. Poems by the Way, written by William Morris, 1891

William Morris's enduring legacy as a champion of nature and beauty in art and design continues to inspire artists, designers, craftspeople and writers worldwide. Through his designs and activism, he sought to celebrate the beauty of the natural world and advocate for its preservation. To find out more about William Morris, we suggest the following material: The V&A MuseumThe National TrustProfessor Florence S. Boos at Iowa University, and the Library of the University of Maryland

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