7½ things you didn’t know about William Morris


1. His nickname was Topsy

To his close friends, William Morris was known as Topsy because his curly hair reminded them of the character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

2. He was originally destined for the church

William Morris is known as a designer and manufacturer of wallpaper, furniture and tapestries; a poet and a social reformer. However, he studied theology at Oxford University and was destined for the church. In his fresher’s year, Morris met fellow undergraduate Edward Burne-Jones, who was to become a lifelong friend. The two of them planned to become clergymen and establish a monastery.

3. He turned to art after touring northern France

In the summer of 1855 Morris, along with Burne-Jones and fellow-student William Fulford, travelled across northern France, visiting medieval churches and cathedrals. Inspired by the sites, Morris and Burne-Jones decided to give up the church and dedicate their lives to art.

4. Dante Gabriel Rossetti nudged Morris to paint

After being awarded his BA, Morris started work as an apprentice at an Oxford-based architectural firm in January 1856. In the meantime, Burne-Jones became an apprentice to one of the leading Pre-Raphaelite painters, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In the summer of 1856, Morris was introduced to the painter and he fell under Rossetti’s spell. Morris had a deep respect for Rossetti and when the artist suggested that he should take up painting instead of architecture, Morris did just that.

5. He married Jane Burden

After attending a play, Rossetti spotted Jane Burden in the street. He was stunned by her beauty and persuaded her to sit for his paintings. Rossetti soon introduced her to Morris. Unlike him, she was poor and uneducated, but he was completely smitten with her, and the two were engaged in spring 1858. In later years, Burden admitted that she never loved Morris.

6. His wife had an affair with Rossetti

In the 1860s, rumours were spreading across London about Burden’s affair with Rossetti. The two were often seen together in public and she sat for many of Rossetti’s works. Morris probably knew about it, but he didn’t do anything to stop it. Instead, he commissioned Rossetti to paint a portrait of Burden.

7. He was a socialist

In 1884, Morris founded the Socialist League and became the editor of its journal. His radicalism reached its height in 1885, and he was arrested for disorderly conduct during a socialist demonstration. He was later discharged. Morris’s political activity should not be seen as a separate thread from his artistic and literary pursuits. He saw them as part of a bigger piece; each contributing in their own way to the improvement of Victorian society and culture.

7½. He was messy

While Morris worked at the architectural firm, he moved to 17 Red Lion Square, London, and shared his lodgings with Burne-Jones. Their rooms were disorganised and packed with things such as books, pictures, armour and easels.

You can support William Morris Gallery's project, Time Present and Time Past, through the crowdfunding platform Art Happens.

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