March 24

William Morris

“I was born at Walthamstow in Essex in March 1834, a suburban village on the edge of Epping Forest, and once a pleasant place enough, but now terribly cocknified and choked up by the jerry-builder.”

So wrote William Morris in 1834 referring to his birth upon this day. Born to enjoy a reasonable affluence, Morris never for a moment buried himself in middle-class morality. As a young man he dedicated himself to a “Crusade and Holy Warfare against the age.” It is fortunate for those who love the craft of the printer that this 19th century “angry young man” added to his long list of causes the improvement of the poor state of that craft a hundred years ago. It is doubly fortunate that Morris brought to his causes energy and enthusiasm without the accompanying blight of cynicism.

Morris was articled to an architect. However, under the influence of the poet and painter, Rossetti, he decided to become a painter. Shortly afterward he published his first book of verse, became interested in the design of wallpaper and the weaving of tapestries, and began the translation of Icelandic sagas. Involvement with the beginnings of the Arts and Crafts movement and a strong commitment to Socialism followed.

In a lecture delivered in 1881, Morris stated: “Every real work of art, even the humblest, is inimitable. I am most sure that all the heaped-up knowledge of modern science, all the energy of modern commerce, all the depth and spirituality of modern thought, cannot reproduce so much as the handicraft of an ignorant, superstitious Berkshire peasant of the fourteenth century; nay, of a wandering Kurdish shepherd, or of a skin-and-bone oppressed Indian ryot. This, I say, I am sure of; and to me the certainty is not depressing, but inspiriting, for it bids us remember that the world has been noteworthy for more than one century and one place, a fact which we are pretty apt to forget. . . .

That Morris finally turned his energies and talents to printing was no doubt due to his work with illuminated manuscripts and to interest in the printing of his own works. In addition, about 1888, conversations with his friend and neighbor Emery Walker, the engraver and printer, excited in him the interest which eventually resulted in the creation of a typeface and the founding of the Kelmscott Press with which Morris could indulge his ideas about typography and the making of books.

The rest is history. Prior to his death in 1896 the Kelmscott Press produced a body of work which captured the imagination of printers and public alike. From this relatively short period has sprung the private press movement which has so influenced typography in our own time. Present-day writers and lecturers tend to discount this influence. Discussing the revival of the 19th century commercial types, such as the sans serifs and the Egyptians, one modern writer was annoyed that Morris had interfered with the logical typographical development of the industrial revolution by agitating for a revival of types of the 15th century.

The fact remains that during Morris’s lifetime, there was little effort to promote printing as a craft, much less as an art. Certainly the many beautifully proportioned roman types presently available to printers might never have been created had not their designers received inspiration and guidance from this man who attempted to set the taste for his age.

Leave a Reply