During this project on weaving and looking into the work of other artists and designers, I wanted to do some research on an artist whose designs have always captured my imagination, William Morris. I have read two books on the man and his work, namely “The Beauty of Life: William Morris and the Art of Design” edited by Diane Waggoner (Thames and Hudson, 2003), and “William Morris: Décor and Design” by Elizabeth Wilhide (Pavillion Books, 1991).
William Morris (1834-96) was known for his work in many fields including wallpaper and textile design and manufacture, poetry, calligraphy, publishing, architectural preservation and socialist politics. As well as being credited as the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, he was also offered but declined the poet laureateship. With fellow artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ford Maddox Brown, Edward Burne-Jones and other artists, architects and furniture makers he founded Morris and Co. (“The Firm”) in 1861. The Firm produced stained glass windows and later other interior designs incorporating geometry and flowing depictions of the natural world, with Morris’s consistent philosophy of design to bring beauty to the lives of ordinary people.
Morris was one of the first designers to make the connection between form and function, beauty and usefulness. He worked in a holistic way, and when designing patterns would always keep in mind how the pattern would be printed or woven. In the early days of mechanisation he talked about “avoiding the trap of trying to make your paper look as if it were painted by hand”, instead recognising the limitations of machine and artfully reducing shading and limiting colour palettes.
He was a scholar and spent many hours researching historical world textiles and techniques in the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A), and illuminated scripts in the Bodlean Library in Oxford. His work was particularly influenced by 16th and 17th century Italian woven silks and medieval tapestries. Some of the Firm’s most well known commissions are the Green Dining Room at the V&A and the Armoury and Tapestry Room at St James’ Palace. Morris also worked in collaboration with De Morgan who worked with similar motifs and went on to be a prominent ceramicist. Morris designs capture the essence of traditional designs without copying them, and he was known for his dislike of reproductions.
He was experimental in his work, and with his deep knowledge of Persian, Turkish and Chinese carpet making built a loom and experimented with hand-knotting techniques. At Merton Abbey, these techniques were adapted to produce tapestries for the Firm, and most of his employees were former Spitalfields weavers. His textiles and wallpapers were hand printed, and dissatisfied with modern chemical coal tar dyes he worked with George Wardle of Staffordshire to revive natural dyeing techniques. His preferred technique of textile printing was to discharge print indigo dyed fabric, and block print with natural dyes using different blocks for each colour. His most complicated pattern to print was “Cray” which used 34 separate blocks!
I was surprised to find that a number of designs I had always associated with William Morris were actually from the firm Morris and Co., and designed by Morris’s friend, colleague and chosen successor as artistic director J.H.Dearle.