Rediscovering William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain (and Beyond)

As the result of the collaboration between the Museu Nacional D’Art de Catalunya (Barcelona) and the Fundación Juan March (Madrid), the show William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement in Great Britain is a meaningful celebration of a revolutionary man, who was a designer, as well as an artisan, a manufacturer, a writer, a conservationist, a social agitator and more.
The show gathers more than 300 hundred objects that come from British institutions and private collections. It is a great occasion to better understand his philosophy through these objects. Morris was a versatile, outstanding thinker, whose numerous talents and enormous energy fueled him throughout his life. He believed that the decorative arts were as important as other visual media, such as painting and sculpture. He worked to return to handcrafting methods in opposition to the systems of mass production that were established during his lifetime (1834-1896).

Portrait of William Morris, Walker & Boutall, Photographic Society of London, 1909 (originally captured in 1887), Museo Nacional de Artes Decorativas, Madrid

He defended a simple, ideal life that lauded Nature as the main source from which to seek enlightenment, adopting domestic objects characterised by their quality and functional character, together with the authenticity of the techniques and materials used. He pretty much stood against the industrial revolution and the huge social problems it brought with it. Instead, he would agree with Ruskin, who addressed the role of pleasure within work, through enjoying labour that was not mechanical and repetitive; men’s and women’s lives would be more meaningful, thanks to the creative jobs through which they could be satisfied with the making of their goods.
Morris was reclaiming the restoration of the unity of Arts and Craftmanship (a concept stretching back to the Middle Ages). He was followed in this by notable friends and fellow artists such as Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who supported his beliefs and collaborated on numerous projects. In 1861,  he started a decorative arts business called the William Morris and Co., setting up a factory making wallpaper, furniture, and other beautifully made objects. Together with his wife, Jane Burden, he had moved in 1860 to the Red House, in South East London (Bexleyheath), where everything was designed and realised either by Morris or his close friends (Philip Web was the architect-collaborator).

William Morris, News from Nowhere (ed. Hammersmith: Kelmscott Press). 1892 © The William Morris Society, London. Photo by Ilya Krylov

One of his famous mottoes was ‘You should have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be beautiful or believe to be useful’, suggesting that others should be selective and have fewer things with both a function and an appeal, according to a vision, and a lesson, that could still be very useful in our contemporary world, where we are continually struggling with inequality in society produced by the economic system we live in today. He was ahead of his time on many levels, seeing the importance of issues that were not only aesthetic, but moral.
The theories and the work of Morris inspired designers and other visionaries who shared his same hopes to increase the quality of human life itself. In Spain, Barcelona was the place where the spirit of Morris probably flourished the most (you can see an example by checking out places like the interior of Casa Amatller, the stunning masterpiece by Josep Puig i Cadafalch, right next to Casa Batlló on Passeig de Gràcia), and the selection of the MNAC as a place to show these artworks, turns out to be just the perfect location (the MNAC has a great Moderniste collection too).
Hopefully, his views on existence can be rediscovered upon the occasion of this show, where the viewer will have the chance to see what sorts of gorgeously patterned marks this man has left as his legacy.
Diana Di Nuzzo
www.dianadinuzzo.com & @dianadinuzzo

William Morris, via Morris & Co. Drapery design ‘Cray’, 1884 © The Whitworth, The University of Manchester
William Morris, ‘Willow Bough’ wallpaper design, 1887 © The Whitworth, The University of Manchester

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