Decorative Initial Morris & Co. became Morris & Co. in 1875: it had been founded, in 1861, as Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., as a direct result of the design, decoration, and furnishing of the Morris's new home, Red House (situated in what is now a South London suburb) by a group including Morris himself and a number of his friends and associates. The founder-members of the new company, who included Ford Madox Brown, Burne-Jones, Charles Faulkner, Rossetti, P. P. Marshall, Morris, and Philip Webb, advertised themselves as "Fine Art Workmen in Painting, Carving, Furniture and the Metals." The company was to produce such items as murals, wood-carvings, stained-glass windows, metalwork, furniture, and embroideries; and all this was to be accomplished according to the long-since abandoned principles of craftsmanship which had governed mediaeval art: the workman-artist would conceive of, design, and actually bring his own work into being, presiding over it from first to last. They intended, from the start, (and to a certain extent presided over) the instigation of a Ruskinian revival of the useful and decorative arts: they would present the world (not merely the various social elites, but the working classes as well) not with dead, soulless objects which were the products of machinery and of the mass-production techniques of theIndustrial Revolution, but with beautiful, simple, and yet eminently functional works of art.

The affairs of the firm were managed, as one might have expected, in chaotic fashion. Morris, as manager, drew an annual salary of �150, but as the company, over the years, consistently lost money, he was forced to sustain it with his own income (which diminished as time went on) from the mining shares he had inherited from his father. The cult of Mediaevalism and the High-Church Anglican and Anglo-Catholic movements which were in full flower in mid-Victorian Britain, however, provided the company with a ready market for its products. Stained-glass windows became by far their most important product: Morris himself designed over one hundred and fifty windows, and Rossetti and Burne-Jones produced many more.

They also produced a great deal of furniture, as well as candlesticks, wall-paintings, sculpture, jewellery, ceramic tiles, embroideries, lampstands, table glass, and wallpapers, which last were Morris's special province, and in the production of which he demonstrated a remarkable aptitude. As the years went by, the firm became more and more heavily involved in interior decoration: they were commisioned, for example, to decorate the Green Dining Room at the South Kensington Museum and the Armoury and Tapestry Rooms at St. James's Palace. The firm remained, nevertheless, in deep financial difficulties, and Morris himself, for a period of several years, spent much of his time concentrating instead on his poetry.

By 1875 it was neccessary to reorganize the firm. Inactive members — including Rossetti, who was ill by this time, and suffering from a persecution complex — were retired, and given �1000 as compensation for the loss of their interest. Rossetti thought this was too little and he and Morris had a bitter quarrell over the matter, though there were a great many other factors underlying the whole affair. Textiles gradually replaced stained-glass as the firm's most important product: by 1880 Morris & Co. was producing chintzes, cotton-prints, wall-hangings, carpets, rugs, tapestries, brocades, and damasks on a large scale and Morris engaged in long and painstaking experimentation in order to recover as many of the old weaving and dyeing techniques which had been lost with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Their products became increasingly popular with the wealthy upper classes: in 1881 the firm redecorated the throne room and reception rooms at St. James's Palace, and in 1887 Morris designed a special wallpaper for Queen Victoria's new house at Balmoral in Scotland.

This was the culmination of a trend which had long worried Morris: the firm's emphasis on craftsmanship and design, their painstaking methods and techniques — the very qualities which made their work so beautiful — had also made it expensive. Morris's ideal of employing mediaeval techniques to produce beautiful and simple work for the common people had never become reality: the firm, instead, catered almost exclusively to a fashionable and wealthy elite. When, in 1876, a wealthy industrialist whose house Morris's company was redecorating asked him why he was pacing up and down and room and muttrering to himself, Morris replied "It's only that I spend my life in ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich." All through the 1880s and'90s, after his conversion to a militant Socialism, Morris was denouncing capitalism and the swinish upper classes while his company decorated their houses at considerable expense. Eventually, he would come to the conclusion that Victorian society would have to be utterly transformed before the sort of relationship between art and the people which he had sought for so long could really emerge, but in his lifetime he was never able to resolve, in practical terms, the gap between his aesthetic vision and the reality of things.

Follow for illustrations of Morris designs still in production [Outside the Victorian Web].

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Created 1988. Links added 3 January 2013