Business History Review

Research Article

William Morris, Cultural Leadership, and the Dynamics of Taste

Charles Harvey, Jon Press and Mairi Maclean


This examination of the social processes that inform cultural production asks how tastes are formed, transmitted, embedded, and reproduced across generations. These questions are explored through a study of William Morris, his working methods and products, and their impact on the decorative arts in Victorian Britain and beyond. Through the exercise of cultural leadership, Morris gave physical expression to the ideals and sentiments of Romanticism, and this in turn gave rise to a community of taste reaching across class boundaries and generations. Morrisian products and designs, through the agency of his disciples, became institutionally embedded, emblematic of refinement and good taste. A process model of taste formation is deployed to explore the economic and social dynamics at work in the Morris case and more generally.

(Online publication June 28 2011)

CHARLES HARVEY is professor of business history and management at Newcastle University, U.K. His publications include Breakout Strategy (New York, 2007), coauthored with Sydney Finkelstein and Thomas Lawton, and articles in Business History (2011), Organization Studies (2010), and the Sociological Review (2008).

JON PRESS visiting professor of business history at Bath Spa University, U.K. He has published widely with Charles Harvey, including William Morris: Design and Enterprise in Victorian Britain (Manchester, 1991) and Art, Enterprise and Ethics: The Life and Works of William Morris (London, 1996).

MAIRI MACLEAN is professor of international management and organisation studies at University of Exeter Business School, U.K. Her publications include Business Elites and Corporate Governance in France and the UK (Basingstoke, 2006) coauthored with Charles Harvey and Jon Press, and articles in Business History (2008, 2011), Organization Studies (2010), and Human Relations (2007).


The authors wish to thank Anthony Elliot, Ian Greener, Morris Holbrook, Charles Lemert, Frank Trentmann, Philip Scranton, and anonymous reviewers of this journal for insightful comments and recommendations that have helped refine and sharpen the arguments presented in this article.