16 November 2017

William Morris: Designing an Earthly Paradise



            The Cleveland Museum of Art’s new exhibition “William Morris: Designing an Earthly Paradise” opened last month and is scheduled to run through November 11, 2018. The exhibition includes textiles, wallpaper, and carpets; a selection of Kelmscott Press publications; and a May Morris embroidery on loan from the Cranbrook Art Museum.
            Morris was a famously prolific designer. In the spring of 1876 he wrote to his friend Aglaia Coronio, “I am drawing patterns so fast that last night I dreamed I had to draw a sausage; somehow I had to eat it first, which made me anxious about my digestion: however I have just done quite a pretty pattern for printed work.” Morris was in the midst of one of his most productive periods of textile design, and while we do not know which work this anecdote refers to, it was the year he designed Honeysuckle, an archetypal pattern that shows his love of large mirror motifs.

Honeysuckle

            Textiles—including embroidery, printed cotton, woven fabrics, tapestries, and carpets—were among the most profitable of Morris & Co.’s merchandise. Morris was a born pattern maker and looked to both nature and history as a model. Unlike German and Japanese textile designers, or his English competitors, he was inspired not by exotic greenhouse flowers but by the simple blooms of an English garden. The humble marigold, honeysuckle, tulip, and sunflower often joined tangled ivy or sprigs of willow in patterns of great clarity and charm.
            During an age when rooms were stuffed with mass-produced objects and teeming with ornament, Morris challenged people to “have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” Throughout his career, however, there was a tension between Morris’s desire to make high-quality goods widely available and the expense of producing handcrafted items from fine materials, which meant primarily the wealthy could afford them. One of his costly innovations was to return to the natural dyes that had been replaced during his lifetime by garish and fugitive chemical dyes. Evidence of the rich and subtle hues of natural dye is apparent in textiles such as Violet and Columbine, woven from wool and mohair.

Violet and Columbine

            The installation of the exhibition William Morris: Designing an Earthly Paradise reflects the character of many Victorian rooms that incorporated products designed by Morris & Co. Richly varied patterns on fabric, wallpaper, and carpets produced a vividly
Fruit
lush effect. The gallery walls are papered with a modern reproduction of Fruit, one of Morris’s earliest wallpaper designs, dating from 1862 and in production for over 150 years. Created with generous assistance from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the rug is a full-scale reproduction on vinyl of Bullerswood, the largest hand-knotted Hammersmith (so called for the district where they were originally produced) carpet ever produced by Morris & Co.
Bullerswood
             From Morris’s university days at Oxford through the end of his life, he relied on the camaraderie of friends and family to foster the creative environment in which he delighted and thrived. This was especially true of his final labor of love: Kelmscott Press. Founded in 1890, the press produced beautiful books with ornaments and typefaces designed by Morris. The volumes had much in common with books printed in the earliest years of the printing press. Bound in either vellum or quarter-cloth and paper and printed on high-quality linen paper, they allowed one to enjoy the tactile experience of reading. Several books were illustrated by Morris’s friend Edward Burne-Jones, a successful painter who also designed stained glass and tapestry for Morris & Co. Burne-Jones’s illustration for the frontispiece of The Order of Chivalry shows how seamlessly his gothic style complemented the page’s Morris-designed borders and typeface. The Ingalls Library at the Cleveland Museum of Art is fortunate to have each of the 53 titles printed by the Kelmscott Press. 


            Morris’s literary masterpiece, The Earthly Paradise, was printed by the press in 1896, the year he died. The epic poem invites the reader to leave behind the grime and noise of modern-day England and become immersed in the author’s dream world, inspired by medieval and classical tales. Morris’s designs and working philosophy combined a vast knowledge of the past with a vision for the future, always inspired by the world around him.

--Cory Korkow, Associate Curator of European Art

A version of this essay appeared in the Cleveland Museum of Art Members Magazine.

29 October 2017

Local Socialism in the Country: Morris and the Recuperation of the Folk Mote



Having grown up in rural Vermont, I have been enthralled with William Morris’s News from Nowhere since first reading it. Yet “rural” Vermont isn’t quite right. Like Morris’s Nowhere in the years immediately after the revolution, my hometown was marked by both recently collapsed industry and continued agriculture. Unlike, say, Middlemarch – the novel that first drew me to Victorian studies – with its picture of provincial life as a  mingling of manufacturing and farming, News from Nowhere spoke to my own past, one where agrarian and craft labor had begun to supersede industrial production. Above all, however, Nowhere’s folk mote – a utopian form of community self-government -- resonated with my experience of progressive politics within a small community where town halls still determine public policy.
            More than an accessory of some pastoral idyll of New England, the town halls of Vermont share ideological roots with Morris’s folk motes. Both stem from a desire for what the fin de siècle socialist John Morrison Davidson called “Politics without Politicians” – local direct democracy, or, in the Socialist League’s terms, “management.”
            To model such local management, Morris recuperated the folk mote. Believed to be the primary mode of British governance prior to the Norman invasion, the mote represented to ictorian advocates of local self-governance a model rich with associations of Anglo-Saxon self-determination and anti-centralism. Until the 11th century, the “moot” served as an assembly wherein a locality’s citizens would collectively deliberate upon courses of action affecting the entire community. For localists like Joshua Toulmin Smith and Morris’s contemporary, George Laurence Gomme, the moot was both the common-law origin of local government and, accordingly, a model for local self-governance in the present. Gomme’s Primitive Folk-Moots, for instance, recuperated the mote for present-day government reforms, largely because, as constitutional historian Williams Stubbs put it, “in the shire-moot, we have a monument of the original independence of the population.”
            In his romances, Morris likewise resurrected the moot. The House of the Wolfings makes the “folk-mote” into the vehicle whereby “the whole Folk . . . must determine what to do and what to forbear doing.” Accordingly, two pivotal chapters -- “They Gather to the Folk-Mote” and “The Folk-Mote of the Markmen” – detail the collective deliberation by the men of the Mark over who will lead them into war. Similarly, The Well at the World’s End’s culminating battle commences only after a shepherds’ folk-mote collectively decides to band together and join Ralph in overthrowing tyrants who have taken over Upmeads in Ralph’s absence.

From the Kelmscott edition of The House of the Wolfings
 
            Morris also grounds News from Nowhere’s future, utopian “pure Communism” in the village-mote. As Hammond explains, “Matters Are Managed” in Nowhere through motes localized in “units of management, a commune, or a ward, or a parish.” They work thusly: “some neighbors” want “a new town-hall built; a clearance of inconvenient houses; or say a stone bridge substituted for some ugly old iron one.” The whole community debates if the parish will pursue such a project at an “ordinary meeting of the neighbors, or Mote, as we call it, according to the ancient tongue of the times before bureaucracy.” In utopian Nowhere, that is, Britain’s archaic governing institution, once flourishing before the rise of representative government, offer “pure Communism” what Guest calls something “very like democracy,” the means whereby the community decides which collective projects to pursue. It is through the mote, in other words, that “the whole people is our parliament.”
            While in 1891 such localized direct democracy remained either in Britain’s ancient past or utopian future, the 1894 Local Government Act offered agricultural laborers an institution capable of revitalizing the mote: the Parish Meeting, a mode of rule whereby smaller communities could govern themselves without elected representatives. The English Land Restoration League’s Red Vans served as a crucial means for promoting agrarian radicalism. Launched as a get-out-the-vote campaign for agricultural laborers, the Red Van’s tour centered on the village meeting. According to the 1891 Red Van report, each tour proceeded by “select[ing] a comparatively small area, and work[ing] a county . . . thoroughly by means of village meetings.” The following year’s report further specifies that “It has been the aim of the Executive to promote, in each county, the establishment of a strong, solid, self-governing union of labourers . . . No opportunity has been lost upon urging the labourers . . . that their first duty is . . . to take into their own hands the management of their own affairs.”



             The nearly 500 village meetings in 1892 alone offered occasions for agricultural laborers’ deliberation on their collective needs and desires. The ELRL saw the village meeting as modeling the localized public sphere it hoped would remain in effect after the Van left town. Participants in these meetings would thereby practice the type of self-organization and management needed “to produce,” in the 1894 report’s words, “anything more than a mere ripple on the surface of village life.” Meetings modelled the practices of “County Unions,” which were to be “democratically constituted, managed by the labourers themselves.” Understandably, after the 1894 LGA the Red Vans promoted the Parish Meeting as the ideal institution for local self-governance – the Villagers’ Magna Charta’s detailed outline of the 1894 Act largely reprints an ELRL leaflet and, in turn, the Vans distributed Davidson’s tract beginning in 1894.
            From sanctuary cities to minimum wage reform, the local has once again assumed prominence in politics. And while Bernie Sanders’ call for progressive local politics and the Democratic Socialists of America’s recent successes in municipal elections are heartening, I worry that these efforts might reiterate the metropolitan-rural divide characterizing national elections in both America and Britain (as evidenced by the 2016 presidential and Brexit votes, both of which followed a marked left/right, city/country divide). Morris’s mote and the ELRL’s village meeting offer two models for grassroots rural radicalism, models with existing frameworks in places like Vermont. Rural town halls, after all, offer one venue for realizing a “politics without politicians.”

--Michael Martel, UC Davis

17 September 2017

Call for Applications - Joseph R. Dunlap Memorial Fellowship



The William Morris Society in the United States is calling for applications for the 2018 Joseph R. Dunlap Memorial Fellowship. The deadline is December 15, 2017.

The Dunlap Fellowship supports scholarly and creative work about William Morris.  The
fellowship offers funding of $1000 or more for research and other expenses, including travel to conferences and libraries. Projects may deal with any subject—biographical, literary, historical, social, artistic, political, typographical—relating to Morris. The Society also encourages translations of Morris's works and the production of teaching materials (lesson plans and course materials) suitable for use at the elementary, secondary, college or adult-education level. Applications are sought particularly from younger members of the Society and from those at the beginning of their careers. Recipients may be from any country and need not have an academic or institutional appointment, nor must recipients hold the Ph.D.

In some years the Society offers a second, smaller fellowship, the William Morris Society Award (the amount to be determined by the committee of judges).  The purpose and aims of this second award are the same as for the Dunlap Fellowship.

Applicants should send a two-page description of their projects, along with a c.v. and at least one letter of recommendation. For a translation project, please submit an additional letter from a recognized authority able to certify the applicant's competence in both languages. For teaching materials, we ask also for a cover letter describing the ways in which the materials might be used in learning situations. The Society would be pleased to publish any completed translation or teaching materials on its website, but this is not a requirement.

Send applications to:
Professor Linda Hughes
Department of English
Texas Christian University

For more information, see the Morris Society website.

05 September 2017

"Free and Happy Work": David Parr's Domestic Monument to Working-Class Artistry


In his essay “The Worker’s Share of Art,” published in his socialist newspaper Commonweal in April 1885, William Morris defined beauty as “the sign of free and happy work.” Following John Ruskin, he believed that the aesthetic surface of a creative work could reveal a deeper social totality, and the conditions of labor under which it was produced. The worker’s pleasure was, Morris said, the true font of art and beauty:

The chief source of art is man’s pleasure in his daily necessary work, which expresses itself and is embodied in that work itself; nothing else can make the common surroundings of life beautiful, and whenever they are beautiful it is a sign that men’s work has pleasure in it, however they may suffer otherwise.

For over a century now, Morris’s critics have wondered whether he was able to create such conditions of beauty and pleasure for the workers in his own decorative arts firm. In moving the firm to Merton Abbey in 1881, he hoped to create a guild-like setting for pleasurable collective labor, and yet, as biographer Fiona MacCarthy has discussed, Morris still maintained a tight control over the firm’s designs and “there was no serious attempt to bring out the latent creative talent of each workman.” While Morris’s workers were paid well, and the Abbey was unquestionably an agreeable place to work by nineteenth-century standards, the firm still fell short of Morris’s ideal of the craftsman-artist creating beauty through work-pleasure.

A new cultural site in Cambridge, U.K., however, raises the question of whether we ought to look not
to Merton Abbey for evidence of working-class craftsmen’s pleasure in their labor, but rather to the private lives of the workers apart from their tasks for the firm. While we have precious little material evidence today to document how nineteenth-century working-class artisans felt about their labor, the David Parr House promises to shed light on this topic from the perspective of one of the artist-workers who made their living in Morris’s craft circles. The Parr House, at 186 Gwydir Street, Cambridge, is a pocket-sized monument to pleasurable craft labor, a workman’s cottage transformed into one man’s earthly paradise. It has recently been purchased by a group of trustees with the aim of opening it up as a museum in April 2019 after a period of necessary restoration and structural repair. A modest home even by nineteenth-century standards, it was transformed by Parr, who lived there from 1886-1927, into a splendid gallery of decorative painting and patterning – all done in Parr’s off-work hours, for his own pleasure, often by candlelight or lamplight.

David Parr was an employee of the Cambridge firm F. R. Leach & Sons, which specialized in ecclesiastical interiors and took on occasional jobs for Morris & Co. Because Morris had a tendency to take on more projects than he had time to do, or perhaps to take too long with the jobs he had underway, he would often farm out work to other decorative arts firms, including F. R. Leach & Sons. Leach himself, to whom Morris reportedly appealed for business advice on how to run a firm, was the son of a Cambridge artist known for painting many of the city’s pub signs. His firm worked nationally but is especially remembered for several important projects in Cambridge, including the mural on St Clements Church and the chapel ceiling at Jesus College, a job that they took on for Morris’s firm. Prior to this important commission at Jesus, the Leach firm had successfully performed decorative work under Morris’s supervision at All Saints Church, across the road from Jesus College, and Morris was so pleased with their work that he engaged Leach with relative frequency thereafter.

David Parr was, as the census records put it, a “decorative painter” for Leach’s firm, and the influence of the grand interiors he painted during his workdays is visible in his own domestic artistry. Nearly every room of Parr’s house is meticulously painted in ornate, vibrant, and seemingly original patterns, many of which bear a close resemblance to Morris patterns or are modeled on Morris patterns but don’t mimic them exactly. In his notebooks, Parr detailed with precision all of the work that he did on his house, not so much to describe his inspiration or his feelings about the work, but rather to record the dates and details as to what was accomplished and when. We know, thanks to the notebook, that it took him 30 years to complete his marvelous, show-stopping parlor, and the trustees now suspect, reading between the lines, that Parr’s wife, Mary Jane, may have become fed up with the parlor being disturbed all the time during this long period. Clearly, stories within stories are waiting to be uncovered within this house.

The trustees of the house are working now to learn more about David Parr’s life, his family, and what may have motivated him to produce this stately pleasure dome within the private confines of his modest Cambridge cottage. They have learned that Parr was born to a laborer, and that he was orphaned young, with his mother dying when he was 5 and his father when he was 8. At age 16, Parr commenced working for Leach’s firm, and he was successful enough within that position to be able to buy his home at 186 Gwydir Street – a home that has a front garden as well as a back garden and was thus rather posh for a working-class cottage of this day. In addition to painting it in best Morrisian fashion, Parr also installed what must have been one of the first indoor W.C.s in the neighborhood (though the sanitary authorities made him re-do some of the drainpipe work to their specifications, all duly recorded in Parr’s notebook); he also built custom cabinetry for the house, and seems to have used materials leftover from some of the Leach jobs, such as stained window glass, to help him achieve his vision for the house.

After Parr’s death, his granddaughter, Elsie, came to live in the home with her grandmother; she was 12 at the time, and stayed there for the next 85 years, leaving the house just as her grandfather had created it. During this time, Elsie married and had two children. They lived always in the house, but respected Parr’s artistic legacy and left the house mostly intact, with his painted walls ever in view. Elsie’s husband, an avid gardener, made a paradise of his own in the back garden. In 2013, after Elsie’s death, a group of trustees led by Tamsin Wimhurst purchased the house, and they have since successfully applied for and received two Heritage Lottery Fund grants – one to conserve the house and protect it for future generations, and one to help generate an endowment. Because it is a very small space, and fragile, the Parr House can never accommodate a large enough public to support the museum on admission fees alone, but the endowment will allow the trustees to keep it open for years to come and to engage in public outreach through their website -- http://davidparrhouse.org/ -- and through collaboration with the Victoria and Albert Museum and other local and national sites for Arts and Crafts heritage and working-class history.

It would be wrong to conclude from this house, of course, that the typical nineteenth-century, working-class craftsman in the circles of Morris’s firm was so enamored of his labors that he wanted to continue performing them at home, without pay, for his own pleasure. Surely David Parr is an exceptional figure, an outsider artist possessed of rare aesthetic ambition and an unusual drive to create. Despite the fact that he was working in the privacy of his own domestic space, with his home as his canvas, a decorative banner painted along the upper border of his parlor walls suggests that Parr’s motivations were similar to those of many better-known artists: he wanted to create something beautiful and permanent that would live on after his death. The banner reads:

Swiftly see each moment flies, 
See and learn be timely wise,
Every moment shortens day,
Every pulse beats life away,
Thus our every heaving breath,
Wafts us on to certain death,
Seize the moments as they fly,
Know to live and learn to die.


In the context of Parr’s astonishing home, this verse, a popular bit of Victorian rhyme, is transported and elevated from cliché to grandeur. We have precious few records of how working-class artisans felt about their work, or what they gained personally or spiritually from its creation, but the poignant pleasure that Parr took in his own work is quite literally written on the walls of this remarkable house.

--Elizabeth Carolyn Miller, Professor of English, UC Davis

11 August 2017

The Enduring Legacy of Willliam Morris



One of the reasons so many of us love William Morris is the ability of his ideas and styles to transcend time and place.  Last year I wrote about the wonderful Arts & Crafts Press located in Tacoma, Washington. This local Tacoma Press embodies the principles of the Arts & Crafts movement, a movement that is well documented in the book by Lawrence Kreisman and Glenn Mason, The Arts and Crafts Movement in the Pacific Northwest (Timber Press, 2007).

The book provides a comprehensive review of the movement in Washington and Oregon. In the introductory chapter, the authors provide a clue to the origins of the movement in this region: the visit of one leader of the second generation of Arts & Crafts advocates from England, Charles Robert (C.R.) Ashbee, who was inspired and influenced by Morris.   Ashbee visited the Northwest and gave several lectures in 1909 and greatly influenced the evolution of design in this area.

Charles Robert Ashbee was born in 1863 in London, the son of a comfortable London merchant.  He attended King’s College Cambridge from 1883-1886, where he was first exposed to socialism, art, and the writing of John Ruskin.  He worked as an architect (as did Morris) and lived in Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel, a residence set up to encourage students from Oxford and Cambridge Universities to undertake social work in the deprived areas of the East End. It was during this time that Ashbee ran a Ruskin reading class and begin to develop an idea to create a craft school. There is no doubt that Ashbee’s view of craft was a result of his connection with the work of Morris and the Arts & Crafts movement. In March of 1898 Ashbee’s prospering workshops took over the staff and presses of the Kelmscott Press to form the Essex House Press. Ashbee bought the Kelmscott Press’s Albion printing presses after William Morris's death, and employed one of the Kelmscott compositors, Thomas Binning. In 1902 Ashbee moved his workshop to the picturesque Cotswold village of Chipping Camden.  After the move to the country, the workshop did not prosper despite Ashbee’s dedication to the principles of fair labor and fine craft, and in the autumn of 1907 his workshop closed. Ashbee turned to lectures and spend a great deal of time in the United States.

In January 1909 Ashbee visited Seattle and write in his journal that Seattle was "the only American city I have so far seen in which I would care to live. All the gold of Ophir would not tempt me to live in one of those smug Eastern cities. . . . Here is a city with a new light in her eyes." It is interesting to ponder how much influence Ashbee might have had on architects, designers and craftsman of the Pacific Northwest.  He joined a host of other prominent members of the Arts & Crafts community in bringing the aesthetics and design of the movement to all parts of the Northwest.  For example, Jud Yoho, a local architect, published The Bungalow Magazine from 1912 – 1918, which no doubt inspired a generation of architects.  The Book Club of Washington reprinted a special edition of one of Yoho’s pattern books in 2007. The pattern book contains photographs, floorplans and brief descriptions of these "dream houses," as well as estimated construction costs.

Bungalows are prevalent throughout the Northwest and here in Tacoma, there are an abundance of bungalows in the North End of the city where the University of Puget Sound is located. The City of Tacoma Historic Preservation Department provides an excellent overview of architecture in Tacoma with reference to the “bungalow” or Arts & Crafts style, in a style guide available on the city’s Historic Preservation website.

Not only was Yoho’s magazine a local influence, but so was the work of Greene & Greene from California and Gustav Stickley.  Both of these prominent architects of the period were once again influenced by the enduring legacy of William Morris.

I taught a class a few years ago titled William Morris and His World.  One section in the class dealt with Morris and architecture and students were given the assignment to find their “favorite” North End bungalow.  As one said, once they started looking, they saw Morris’s influence everywhere! Here are two favorites of mine:


A final point to make about the enduring legacy of William Morris is a story related to the University of Puget Sound.  The University’s President from 1942 to 1973 was R. Franklin Thompson.  Thompson wrote about his experience as President and many of his papers are available on the Collins Library’s Institutional Repository, SoundIdeas.

During his Presidency at Puget Sound, he spearheaded the construction of 37 buildings.  In his history Thompson makes several references to his time as a student at Oxford University.  Almost every building constructed during Thompson’s presidency had some characteristics of Oxford architecture as a part of its design.  In fact, reading through his accounts of his Presidency I was struck by the following statement he made when referring to the design principles of the buildings: “Make them beautiful. Let's get them so they are not only utilitarian but add beauty to the campus.”

I couldn’t help but think of the famous quote from Morris:  “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”  I don’t think it is too far of a stretch to say that Thompson, as a young man studying in Oxford in the 1920’s, might have been influenced by Morris.  Indeed, there are additional accounts of his riding his bicycle around the town, where he no doubt passed by St Michael's Church, Ship Street ,where Morris married Jane Burden. He also writes fondly of his walks along the Isis River.  It is highly likely that he would have visited the Oxford Union and seen the wonderful murals painted by Morris and Rossetti.  And in another passage from his memoirs, he writes specifically about the design of the Collins Library:

“One night I was thinking about it and I went to sleep and in the middle of the night I suddenly wakened and remembered that as a student at Oxford University I had ridden my bicycle through Magdalen College on many occasions. The interior tower had a very beautiful design and I thought that this would be the kind of design we could use on the tower. I got up and got my book of Oxford, took it to the architect, and he said it would fit perfectly. So the Tower of the Collins Library is a modified copy of the interior tower at Magdalen College.”

When I read this I thought immediately of William Guest, the narrator from News from Nowhere who also wakens from a dream with meaningful revelations about his life.  And so to bring this full circle, I went in search of the Collins Library’s copy of News from Nowhere and to my delight found it was the personal copy of William Perry, Collins Librarian from 1940-1964 and a friend and colleague of Thompson during his years as Puget Sound.  Our copy is a bit worn – but being worn must mean it had been read!  And the medieval inspired bookplate is perfect for this classic text of William Morris.


Now I realize it is a stretch of the imagination to say that Thompson and Perry might have engaged in discussions about Morris and the Arts & Crafts movement, but when I walk around campus I can’t help but think this could have happened.  And so to conclude this blog on the enduring legacy of William Morris, I share a final image of the façade of Collins Library.  I see a resemblance to the unique fonts Golden and Troy designed by Morris in the inscription above the door – another example of the Arts & Crafts Movement and the enduring legacy of William Morris.  Indeed, once you start looking, the influence of Morris is everywhere!

--Jane Carlin, Librarian, Collins Memorial Library, University of Puget Sound

14 July 2017

Giving May Morris the Recognition She Deserves




‘I’m a remarkable woman – always was, though none of you seemed to think so,'
 May Morris in a letter to George Bernard Shaw, 1936



This October The William Morris Gallery in London will stage a landmark exhibition  exploring the life and work of May Morris, the younger daughter of William Morris and one of the most significant artists of the British Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th century. ‘May Morris: Art & Life’ will be the most comprehensive survey of May’s work to date and will bring together over 80 works from collections around the UK, many of which have never been on public display.

For more than 100 years May’s contribution to the decorative arts, in particular to art embroidery, has languished behind her father’s more illustrious career. The exhibition will reveal the breadth of May’s creative pursuits, featuring wallpaper and embroidery alongside jewellery, dresses and book designs, as well as sketches and watercolours, which May painted throughout her lifetime. The exhibition will tell the story of May, who at age 23 took charge of the Morris & Co. embroidery department and was responsible for creating some of the company’s most iconic textiles and wallpaper designs. It will focus on May’s role in the development of art embroidery – elevating needlework from a domestic craft to a serious art form – and highlight the extent of her influence in the U.K. and abroad, particularly the U.S.
 
'Maids of Honour' firescreen
Journal entries and letters will offer unprecedented insight into May’s extraordinary life. Thanks to the social circles in which the Morrises moved, May and her sister were exposed to a range of artistic and political influence from an early age. As a child, May would often model for her parents’ artist friends, who included Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, and George Howard, later Earl of Carlisle. The exhibition will reveal Rossetti’s fondness of May, and include a pastel drawing of May by Rossetti, on loan from Kelmscott Manor.

Through her father May was drawn into political activity in the emergent Socialist movement and was close to Eleanor Marx, George Bernard Shaw, and future Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald. In 1907 she founded the Women’s Guild of Art as an alternative to the existing Art Workers Guild, which did not accept female members until 1964. Painter Evelyn De Morgan, jeweller Georgie Gaskin, bookbinder Katherine Adams and sculptor Mabel White were some of the earliest members of the Women’s Guild whose mission was to provide a forum for social and professional networking within the arts and in May’s words ‘to meet women who are not playing at art’.

'Honeysuckle' wallpaper
The exhibition will position May as an integral figure in the British Arts & Crafts movement and explore her impressive career as a designer, embroiderer, writer and teacher. May exhibited widely in the U.K. and abroad and developed an international reputation for her historical knowledge of embroidered textiles and techniques, delivering a lecture tour of North America in her late forties.

The exhibition will coincide with the publication of May Morris: Arts & Crafts Designer,  which was co-authored by curators at the William Morris Gallery and the V&A, and will be published by Thames & Hudson in October 2017.

The breadth and scale of ‘May Morris: Art & Life’ will be made possible in part thanks to a crowdfunding campaign supported by the Art Fund, run on Art Happens- where the public have pledged £15,000 so far towards the exhibition. Although the crowdfunding campaign ended on 15 July we are still in need of further financial support to help make this show bigger and better. For every £100 more we raise, we can conserve and prepare another of May’s works for display. We can accept online donations via Paypal on our website.

--Rowan Bain, Curator, William Morris Gallery

12 June 2017

Topsy-Turvy: Of Houses, Hair, and Hammersmith



I have often felt myself to be living in two different times. As a scholar of William Morris and of nineteenth-century literature, I spend my working life struggling to piece together a sense of the past, immersing myself in history's works and doings, hoping to interpret it in service of our present-day life. The past has given birth to the present, but in ways that are not always easy to grasp. As a scholar based in North America, I am distanced spatially as well as temporally from the world Morris inhabited: in the post-1950s landscape of Davis, California, there is almost nothing in my daily life to connect me, materially, to the nineteenth-century past of Morris and his circle. This past in which I spend so much time, then, exists mainly in the form of words on a page. I see Morris’s voice in black letters and the white spaces between them… always remembering that Morris himself had very firm opinions as to what the dimensions of those white spaces should be.

Kelmscott House, Hammersmith
Imagine how it felt, then, on May 20th, 2017, to encounter the embodied trace of Morris not just in his home, and not just in a lock of his famously unruly hair, but through an entire neighborhood ecosystem. Thanks to the joint project of Arts and Crafts Hammersmith, denizens of the present can now experience the nineteenth-century microclimate of artistic innovation that took root in this London neighborhood on the Thames over a hundred years ago.

I came to Hammersmith to speak on “William Morris and Radical Print” in the Coach House at Kelmscott House, the space in Morris’s London home where the William Morris Society UK meets today and the very site where the Hammersmith Branch of the Socialist League used to meet back in the 1880s. I had visited Kelmscott House once before, as part of the William Morris Conference at the University of London in 2007, but returning ten years later I saw improved facilities and a loving, intimate display of Morris’s textiles drawn from the Society’s rich collections. Kelmscott House is situated on the Thames, and I was struck for the first time by the way that the bends in the river that Morris loved reproduce themselves in the undulating, curving forms of his botanical designs. One of the samples in the Society’s possession, an 1883 printed cotton called Evenlode, was “the first of Morris’s designs to be named after a Thames tributary,” as I learned from the 2015 volume Highlights from the William Morris Society’s Collection.

William Morris, "Evenlode" fabric
Before my engagement at the Kelmscott House, the Society Manager, Cathy De’Freitas, was kind enough to arrange a place for me on a tour of the newly reopened Emery Walker House. At 7 Hammersmith Terrace, Walker’s home -- spruced up and restored through funds from the Arts and Crafts Hammersmith project -- is just a short walk down the Thames, and one of the great pleasures of the day was to think about the Arts and Crafts community that lived with and amongst each other in late-nineteenth-century Hammersmith. May Morris, in fact, lived right next door at 8 Hammersmith Terrace during the period of her ill-fated marriage to Henry Halliday Sparling, and other key figures associated with the Socialist League and the Kelmscott Press, including foreman printer Thomas Binning, also lived in the neighborhood.

While Arts and Crafts Hammersmith has gone to great expense to repair the roof at 7 Hammersmith Terrace and make other necessary structural improvements, they have left the house largely as it was during its years as a private home. Here one walks into a space that seems to be frozen in time, full of Morris’s wallpapers and textiles and littered with intimate personal traces of the friendship between Walker and the Morris family. At one point our tour guide displayed a small box with a lock of Morris’s hair from the day that he died and two pairs of his spectacles, so small and so familiar to those of us who have studied his image from the perspective of the distant present. Other treasures include a stunning pencil drawing of May Morris done by Edward Burne-Jones, where the ghost of her mother’s famous face haunts the lower lip like an unspoken word, and a hand-embroidered bed spread made by May Morris for Walker’s wife. 

Dining Room, Emery Walker House
My day finished with a trip to The Dove pub with Martin Stott of the William Morris Society, where we sat outside, watched the Thames, and spoke of the past and the present. It was a few weeks before the UK general election, and at a moment when the U.S. commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement still hung in the balance. There was much to discuss, and Morris’s place in the present seemed more necessary than ever.

--Elizabeth Carolyn Miller, Professor of English at UC Davis
 
Liz Miller with Martin Stott and one of Morris's Albion presses

For a fascinating, full-length review of the new Emery Walker museum written by Marcus Waithe, author of  William Morris's Utopia of Strangers, visit Apollo Magazine here.