Lawrence's Admiration for William Morris

WILLIAM MORRIS (1834-1896). English artist and poet. Photographed in 1880.

William Morris (1834-1896), English artist and writer, photographed in 1880. 

Photograph of a portrait of T.E. Lawrence in 1935 from The Letters of T.E. Lawrence

T.E. Lawrence photographed in 1935.

John Buchan's copy of T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom

John Buchan's copy of T.E. Lawrence (1926). Seven Pillars of Wisdom, a triumph. London, privately printed.

Letter from Stanley Baldwin to John Buchan re: Seven Pillars of Wisdom, 22 December, 1926.

Letter from British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to John Buchan regarding Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom, 1926.

Close up of text on page 408, T.E. Lawrence's Kelmscott Chaucer

Detail of text and illustration, page 408 of the Kelmscott Chaucer.

T.E.L. first encountered and became enamored with William Morris and the Kelmscott Press during his studies at Oxford University, around 1907-08. He was likely introduced to Morris through Oxford professor, E.H. New, who completed illustrations for a Morris biography, from whom Lawrence took lessons in architectural illustration.

Lawrence was so taken by Morris and the printing arts that as early as 1909 he aimed to establish a private press with friend, Vyvyan Richards, at which they would print only "precious books" (qtd. in Graalfs). Richards recalled a pilgrimage that the two friends took by bicycle to a disused fourteenth-century chapel near Chipping Campden which a Morris enthusiast had converted into a private house: "There was a copy of the great Morris and Burne-Jones Chaucer there, prince of all modern printings, and also most of the other Kelmscott books." Richards characterized that bicycle trip to see the Morris treasures as a foundational moment: "Its appeal was not sentimental: it was a notable stimulus to the practical enthusiasm which was then taking root in our minds" (A.W. Lawrence 387-88). 

T.E.L.'s lifelong ambition to establish a private press in the spirit of Morris would unfortunately never materialize.  The much celebrated typographer and book designer, Bruce Rogers, who was one of Lawrence's close associates, noted that in the months leading up to his unexpected death, T.E.L.'s "interest in printing was still lively and he was planning to set up a small hand-press at Clouds Hill..." (2).

Although he never fulfilled this ambition, in his Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926) Lawrence designed and produced a book that carried the spirit of the Kelmscott Press. Lawrence commissioned 100 special edition copies of Seven Pillars, no two of which were the same. He gifted these to friends and close associates, including one to novelist and statesman, John Buchan. Of T.E.L.'s intense interest in fine press books, Buchan remarked that he "acquired more information about printing than I ever possessed...and an extraordinary passion for detail" (qtd. in Orlans, 1993 123).

In his voluminous correspondence, Lawrence often mentioned the Kelmscott Press, and William Morris was said to be his favourite writer. Even still, T.E.L. believed Morris did not get the respect he was due: "Morris is half-praised. Morris was a giant" (qtd. in Garnett 612).

An Admiration for William Morris