William Morris, Walter Crane, and Socialist Art


Walter Crane

Walter Crane (1845-1915) was a well-known painter, book illustrator, and socialist. He was heavily influenced by the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, as well as his study of Japanese wood-block color printing.  His decorative work and illustrations often featured garden themes, bold lines, and detailed imagery.   Along with  Kate Greenaway and Randolph Caldecott, Crane was one of the premiere illustrators for children’s books in the nineteenth century. His trandemark style was also influential in the burgeoning Arts & Crafts movement in England.

Crane was introduced to fellow artist William Morris (1834-1896) in 1870, and the two later became close friends and collaborators. Crane’s illustrations most notably appear in the 1894 edition of The Story of the Glittering Plain printed by Morris’s Kelmscott Press.

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‘Story of the Glittering Plain’ by William Morris. Illustrated by Walter Crane. Kelmscott Press, 1894.

Both Morris and Crane were ardent socialists.  They joined the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), the first organized Marxist groups in England, in 1884. Frustrated by SDF leadership, Crane left the SDF to join Morris’s new organization, the Socialist League.

Like Morris, Crane believe that art should become a part of everyday life.  For both men, art provided a meaningful and creative force in society, and it should be shared by all classes.  Crane scowled at what he viewed as the commercialization and mass production of “false art” for profit.  He used his own artistic talent to create illustrations that brought beauty to the Socialist cause.  According to Henry Hyndman, leader of the SDF, the impact of Crane’s art was undeniable:

“Nobody, not even William Morris, did more to make Art a direct helpmate to the Socialist propaganda. Nobody has had a greater influence on the minds of doubters who feared that Socialism must be remote from and even destructive of the sense of beauty.”

Crane designed many of the header images that appeared on pamphlets for the Socialist League and Hammersmith Socialist Societ, each Socialist organizations started by William Morris.  Crane also designed a membership card for the Socialist League. The card features Crane’s illustration of a blacksmith, which was purportedly modeled after William Morris.  Do you think  the bearded worker bears a resemblance to Morris?

Socialist League Membership Card

Socialist League membership card designed by Walter Crane


Socialist League header designed by Walter Crane, taken from ‘Chants for Socialists’ by William Morris


Hammersmith Socialist Society header designed by Walter Crane, taken from ‘Useful Work Versus Useless Toil’ by William Morris

Look for additional Crane illustrations in How We Might Live: The Vision of William Morris exhibit and on Flickr.

William Morris Built the Foundation for Historic Preservation

Kelmscott Manor

Morris preserved his beloved summer home, Kelmscott Manor, using non-invasive techniques.

Did you know that May is National Preservation Month? We can’t think of a better way to celebrate than to recognize the work of William Morris (1834-1896), one of the pivotal figures in the early preservation movement in the West. Many people know Morris for his role as a designer, printer and socialist, but this opinionated Englishman was also a preservation activist, founding the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) in the UK in 1877.

Morris began his crusade to protect old buildings after observing the invasive restoration techniques in use by architects and restorers of the 19th century. He held restorers responsible for what he called the “reckless stripping” of buildings resulting in the destruction of their original characteristics. The SPAB came to be called “Anti-Scrape” for its insistence that historic structures be preserved without altering their original structures. Of course, restorers themselves thought they were improving structures by replacing decaying elements with new materials.

For Morris, beautiful, authentic architecture provided a benefit to society. He felt that individuals had a responsibility to preserve these structures without changing them. Do you believe we have a social responsibility to save historic buildings? If so, do you approve of Morris’s no-change approach, or are you in favor of the restoration approach?

Kelmscott Press Inspires Imitators

Kelmscott Press 'Poems of John Keats'

Kelmscott Press ‘Poems of John Keats’

“…that we of this age should generally produce ugly books, shows, I fear, something like malice… a determination to put our eyes in our pockets wherever we can.”

William Morris (1834-1896) believed that books should be both useful and beautiful, and he didn’t mince words in his critique of the bookmakers of his time. Most books produced in the 19th century were printed through mass industrial processes, and assembled by wage laborers. Morris accused industrialists of removing beauty from the experience of reading. In the ideal world that Morris envisioned, workers should be able to offer their artistic contributions to the quality products they helped produce. He founded his Kelmscott Press in 1891 to reintroduce beauty and originality to book production.



A lot has changed since William Morris established his Kelmscott Press in the late 19th century, but the mass industrial approach to book production—whether in physical or digital format— has not. Today the conversation about books inevitably turns to technology: digitization, eBooks, tablets, iPhones. Do you think William Morris’s ideas about books are irrelevant in today’s tech-focused world, or is there still room for discussion about the aesthetic of books, whether printed or digital?

‘How We Might Live’ features Art Nouveau Edition of ‘The Defense of Guenevere’

Jessie M. King's illustration for 'Guenevere'

Jessie M. King’s illustration for ‘Guenevere’

How We Might Live: The Vision of William Morris, an exhibit highlighting the life and work of English designer and author William Morris (1834-1896), will showcase a new Morris-related item every month.

Visit the Maryland Room Gallery in March to view a stunning edition of William Morris’s first published volume of poetry, The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems. This 1904 edition features beautiful, nighly detailed illustrations by Scottish artist Jessie M. King.  King was known for her Art Nouveau designs and contributions to the Arts & Crafts Movement that flourished in Britain and American in the late 19th and early 20th century.

William Morris was an influential figure in the Arts & Crafts movement.  His emphasis on nature and simplicity in his designs, as well as the importance of  craftsmanship and natural materials became characteristic of the movement.  Read more about Morris and the Arts & Crafts Movement in our online exhibit, or visit Hornbake Library in person to view  How We Might Live, This Vision of William Morris.

Love is in the Air: ‘How We Might Live’ features ‘The Boke of Cupide’!

Every month, How We Might Live: The Vision of William Morris, an exhibit highlighting the life and work of English designer and author William Morris (1834-1896), will showcase a new Morris-related item.

'Boke of Cupide' Colophon

In February, we share the love with The Boke of Cupide, God of Love, or, The Cuckow and the Nightingale, printed by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press in 1896. Morris was fond of medieval literature, and was naturally drawn to this poem about the nature of love written by Sir Thomas Clanvowe in the 15th century. Clanvowe was heavily influenced by the works of Geoffrey Chaucer. So much so, that The Boke of Cupid was attributed to Chaucer for nearly three centuries. Morris’s colleague and friend F.S. Ellis first made this distinction in the when he edited the Kelmscott Press edition of The Floure and the Leafe, & The Boke of Cupide, God of Love, or, The Cuckow and the Nightingale.  Take a look at the special note in the colophon pictured on the right.

Read the full text of the Kelmscott Press The Boke of Cupide online, or visit the Maryland Room Gallery and marvel at the large illuminated letter designed by Morris. Does it excite your passion for typography?


‘How We Might Live’ features Faux Cross Stitched Binding

Child Christopher Binding

Child Christopher Binding

Every month, How We Might Live: The Vision of William Morris, an exhibit highlighting the life and work of English designer and author William Morris (1834-1896), will showcase a new Morris-related item.

Visit the exhibit in January to view a unique copy of William Morris’s fantasy novel, Child Christopher and Goldilind the Fair. This 1900 edition was published by published by the American fine press pioneer Thomas Mosher. Do you think the design on the binding is reminiscent of a Morris embroidery pattern? Or perhaps 8-bit video game graphics?