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Devoted to the sacred spaces

07 October 2022

Although William and Jane Morris rejected Christian faith, they respected art and architecture created in God’s honour, writes Suzanne Fagence Cooper


William Morris in a caricature of 1872 by Frederic Waddy

William Morris in a caricature of 1872 by Frederic Waddy

ALTHOUGH William Morris had once trained for the priesthood, all those years ago in Oxford, he had gradually set his formal Christian faith aside. He was increasingly concerned about the present — what he could change with his own hands and heart — not the hereafter.

William and Jane had brought their daughters up without religious teaching. Unlike most girls of their generation, Jenny and May did not see the world through the lens of Christianity. Rosalind Howard found this startling.

On their first visit to Naworth, she had talked to May about the afterlife: “She says the soul is ‘nothing but the imaginary part of her body’ — that there is nothing left but bones after death — that it is the brain that lives. She has not been taught these things, simply brought up without Theology.”

For Jane’s daughters, there was no heaven, no hell, only the here and now. This is one of the most radical decisions that Jane and William made together — to free their girls from the conventional Christianity that shaped so much of British life at the time.

Even though many of their friends paid only lip service to the Church and its traditions, still it overshadowed their lives. From politics to literature, from sexuality to monarchy, the teachings of the Church were woven through Victorian society.

Morris, Burne-Jones, and their colleagues made a living from beautifying church buildings, creating stained glass, altar frontals, and furniture. In their student days, they had talked of taking vows, founding a brotherhood. But William had shaken all this off.

Jenny and May read the Bible, just as they heard tales from Chaucer, or sagas from Iceland. They were old stories, filled with marvels, but nothing more. As Morris told his friends, “In religion, I’m a pagan.”

The Morris family could have been vilified for their atheism. Jane’s reputation was especially vulnerable, given her intimacy with Gabriel Rossetti, and might have been muddied by her refusal to bring up her girls within the Church. Instead, she and William held their nerve.

Maybe there were family arguments; perhaps William’s sisters objected. Their own faith was very visible: Henrietta became a Roman Catholic, and Isabella was a deaconess who campaigned for women’s ministry in the Church of England. But, as far as we can tell, they did not ostracise Jane or William for their lack of belief, or for the way that Jenny and May were educated.


DESPITE their refusal to remain within the Church, William and Jane celebrated Christmas as a family festival. Jane’s own books of quotations included extracts from contemplative Christian verse. They respected and protected the ancient buildings of the Church. They valued the art created in God’s honour.

AlamyJane Morris (1839-1914) with her daughter May, c.1865

In fact, in 1877, shortly before Jane travelled to Italy, William was hard at work with a new campaign to save medieval sacred architecture that was being threatened by over-zealous restoration. In June, he had written to The Times repeatedly about proposals to reconfigure Canterbury Cathedral.

He took issue with the plans drawn up by the Dean and the architect Gilbert Scott for an “imitation, restoration or forgery” of 13th-century tracery. He feared that the work would result in “the usual mass of ecclesiastical trumpery and coarse daubing”.

Three days later, he wrote again, emphasising its purpose as a sacred space. “A great building which is obviously venerable and weighty with history”, he insisted, “is fitter for worship than one turned into a scientific demonstration of what the original architects intended to do.”

He urged the Dean to embrace the many layers of history within the cathedral rather than try to tidy them up or obliterate them. William was writing as Secretary of the newly formed Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. (He usually referred to it as “Anti-Scrape”.)


THIS was his first foray into public activism. But it began as a very personal project, as he cajoled friends to join him in campaigning against the aggressive remodelling of old buildings in the name of “restoration”. Philip Webb was there on the committee with William, at the first meeting, held at Queen Square in March 1877. He persuaded Ned to sign up, too, and George Howard, and Thomas Wardle.

Morris looked to John Ruskin for support, asking him in July if he could reprint a passage from Ruskin’s The Seven Lamps of Architecture, which had advocated day-to-day repair rather than over-zealous remodelling, stripping, and cleaning: “Take proper care of your monuments, and you will not need to restore them . . . do this tenderly, reverently, continually.”

William reassured Ruskin that “I feel ashamed at having to say anything else about it, as if the idea was an original one of mine, or anybody else’s but yours: but I suppose it is of service, or may be, for different people to say the same thing.”

Both Ruskin and Morris were coming to the same conclusion: that a tenderness towards the art of the past, a care for authentic handwork, were not simply aesthetic concerns. Their study of art led them to agitate for political and social change. They saw the need for freedom of expression, access to nature, pleasing domestic design and architecture: they also knew these things would be beyond the reach of most people under the current systems of production and consumption.

Ruskin attempted to reimagine the relationship between craft and the land in his Guild of St George, founded in 1871. Ruskin also became closely involved in the campaign, with the SPAB, to save the basilica of St Mark’s, in Venice, from destructive restoration. It appeared that “each stone or mosaic” of the façade “was to be removed, repaired, or scraped and then put back up again”.

A monumental painting commissioned by Ruskin from the artist John Wharlton Bunney in January 1877 showed that some of the weathered mother-of-pearl marble on the western façade had already been replaced by dead grey stone. St Mark’s and Canterbury were two of the most high-profile battles that were fought by the SPAB.

But the majority of the work was local and less obvious. By the end of 1877, the London committee was dealing with more than 30 cases, including churches in Duxford and Cherry Hinton in Cambridgeshire. By the early 1880s, they were considering 150 projects every year, hoping to save the “living spirit” of these places from being turned into “a feeble and lifeless forgery”.

Restoration, in Morris’s eyes, was “wasted labour”, and architects who took on this work were “worthy of better employment”. He was so convinced of the wrongness of this work that, in April 1877, Morris announced that the Firm would turn down commissions for stained glass, if the windows were to be installed in medieval buildings that were being restored or “improved”.

This new policy certainly damaged trade. But it showed William’s resolve to stick to his principles. His company would lead by example, even if it meant sacrificing his own income.


This is an edited extract from How We Might Live: At home with Jane and William Morris by Suzanne Fagence Cooper, published by Quercus Books at £30 (Church Times Bookshop £27); 978-1-52940-948-2.

Review a review of the book here

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