Bringing the garden indoors: how nature inspired William Morris
More than any other British designer of the decorative arts, William Morris brought the natural world indoors through the many wallpapers and textiles he produced during his lifetime. He drew on countryside and hedgerow plants to populate his patterns and he looked to old-fashioned flowers from the garden to inform his designs. Discover how Morris helped transform interior decoration in late Victorian Britain and made a lasting impact on garden design into the 20th century.
Some of William Morris's designs
This large-scale pattern was produced in 1876 and was one of Morris’s most complex designs. It was made into wall hangings at Wightwick Manor.
The first of Morris’s large-scale patterns, 'Acanthus' required 30 woodblocks to print the full pattern and 15 colours to create the design.
Designed in 1874, this pattern's name derives from the small sprigs of meadow flowers that are set against a background of willow leaves.
'Tulip and Rose' fabric
This, Morris’s first woven furnishing fabric, was chosen for the curtains in the Great Parlour at Wightwick Manor.
A childhood love of nature
A love of the natural world can be traced back to William Morris’s childhood. The son of a wealthy broker, he grew up exploring the large gardens at his family home, Woodford Hall in Essex and the nearby woods on the edge of Epping Forest. Along with his siblings, he was given his own garden plot. From a young age he enjoyed reading and the Morris family library was another source of inspiration. Among his favourite books was a copy of John Gerard's 'The Herball' or 'Generall Historie of Plantes', which was first published in 1597. It remained a much-loved reference book throughout his life.
Morris's experimental house and garden
In 1860, Morris moved into Red House in Bexleyheath with his new wife Jane Burden. The house was designed for him by his friend, the architect Philip Webb and became a creative centre for Morris’s circle of artist friends. Sited within an acre of orchard, the garden at Red House was as significant to Morris as the house and interior. Morris was drawn to native species and those that had been in cultivation for centuries, such as lilies, larkspur, tulips, irises and hollyhocks and chose fragrant climbers including roses, honeysuckle and jasmine.
Inspired by intimate medieval gardens or ‘herbers’, enclosed and filled with sweet-scented flowers and herbs, Morris created an astonishingly original garden at Red House. It included a large square garden, subdivided into four smaller squares, hedged with wild roses and wattle fence.
" The house and its garden were designed as complementary parts of a world all of its own."
Going against the fashion
In the mid-19th century, the fashion in British gardens was for tropical and tender plants, grown in new state-of-the-art glasshouses for the first time. Showy annuals such as begonias, lobelias, ageratum, coleus and petunias were sometimes tightly packed to make intricate patterns known as carpet bedding.
Morris's ideas were in stark contrast to these prevailing fashions. He believed in the unity of house and garden, using native and long established garden plants and natural materials, such as stone and wood. These became hallmarks of the Arts and Crafts gardens which followed at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
" It is impossible to imitate nature literally; the utmost realism of the most realistic painter falls a long way short of it. "
Designing with nature
Morris took a new approach in the way he used natural forms in his designs. He understood plants intimately but never copied them literally. He didn’t think it was possible or desirable to imitate nature. He believed that patterns should have ‘beauty, imagination and order,’ using these principles across all his work. His first wallpapers were inspired by his own garden as well as depictions of plants in Renaissance paintings and wall hangings.
The origins of Morris & Co.
William Morris’s frustration at being unable to find furnishings to his taste led him to design his own. An exasperation with the state of British manufactured goods was another impetus for the establishment of an interior decoration business in 1861. His circle of friends, many already involved with Red House, contributed to the firm which eventually became Morris & Co.
By the 1870s, Morris's designs were being recommended in domestic advice manuals, the interior decoration magazines of their day. His wallpapers and textiles used hand-cut and printed woodblocks, and other fabrics were hand-embroidered or woven on traditional looms. This made them expensive to make and buy. Typical Morris & Co. clients were families like the Manders at Wightwick Manor and the Beales at Standen. Both were drawn from the prosperous middle classes, with an interest in the arts, who used Morris & Co. designs to furnish their often newly built, fashionable homes.
Woven with flowers
Morris had a life-long love of textiles. He began modestly, designing simple embroideries, but by the end of his life he was making complex tapestries. Pattern names, whether for wallpaper or fabrics, often reflect his love of plants.
Embroideries were his first foray into commercial production and proved popular with clients once Morris & Co. became established. Clients could buy embroidery kits, with the pattern printed on the fabric, for embroidering at home. These would then be made up into cushion covers, portières and fire screens.
Colours to dye for
Morris not only drew plants, he also used them in dyes for his wallpapers and textiles. He rejected the recently introduced artificial colours made from coal tar, considering it ‘one of the most useless inventions of modern chemistry.’
Instead he chose to return to natural dyes derived from plants, such as madder (red) and weld (yellow), obtaining a 15th-century French dye book from his friend Dante Gabriel Rossetti. One of his biggest challenges was dyeing with indigo which he proclaimed to be ‘the only real blue dye.’ He wrote about his arms and hands being stained blue from his experiments with large vats of the colour.
Still inspired by nature
By the early decades of the 20th century, William Morris’s designs seemed overly ornate and unfashionable to many consumers. Fortunately, his decorative schemes survived at places such as Standen, Speke Hall and Wightwick Manor, where they can still be appreciated in their original setting.
Despite the fickleness of fashion, Morris’s celebration of nature and his skill at rendering it in pattern continue to resonate. Morris & Co. now produce his designs for 21st-century home owners, almost 160 years after he founded the original company.