Mr and Miss Morris

I did something the other week which I’d never achieved before: I went to the end of a London Underground line! I have to say that I was a bit disappointed that the Victoria Line remained resolutely Underground until Walthamstow Central – I had assumed that, like the District and the Central lines, it would pop up into the fresh air (like the Mole after spring-cleaning) once it was clear of the chartered streets close to the chartered Thames, but no such luck.

The centre of Walthamstow. I don’t like to think what Morris would have said about this clock tower and the wavy shelters above the shops alongside …

… but this fresco on a side wall is a bit more cheering.

A short walk from Walthamstow High Street, down Hoe Street (past a staggeringly tempting array of cafés with amazing displays of cakes), and you come to Forest Road, on which lies the former home of the comfortable, middle-class Morris family, now the William Morris Gallery, fitting location for a museum dedicated to their renegade son.

The William Morris Gallery.

To my shame, I had never been there before, but my reason for going last week was to catch the enthralling exhibition (over several rooms) dedicated to Morris’s daughter May (1862–1938), skillful designer and embroiderer, and Keeper of the Flame. It was the last week (though at least not the last day) of the exhibition, which was very well worth the trip. (NB the Gallery is now closed until 20 February for restoration of the floorboards, though the tea room remains open!!!)

William Morris (1834–96) was not born here (I heard one of the friendly and helpful front-of-house team tell somebody that his birthplace is down the road, opposite the fire station). As the family increased in wealth, they moved in 1840 to Woodford Hall, on the edge of Epping Forest, where William roamed on his pony and generally seems to have led an idyllic existence.

An older Morris, on a later pony, in Iceland (as envisaged by Edward Burne-Jones). Morris arranged for one of his Icelandic ponies, called Mouse, to be shipped home for his children to ride and play with.

His father’s sudden death in 1847 and the need for retrenchment caused his mother to move back to Walthamstow in 1848, to Water House on Forest Road (today the Gallery): by this time William was at Malborough School (and hating it).

Water House remained the family home until 1856, by which time Morris had graduated from Oxford and become articled to the architect G.E. Street (his mother had destined him for the church – difficult to imagine how this would have worked …). The Lloyd family, who later owned the house, gave the grounds to the local council in perpetuity as a park, which has kept the house surrounded by greenery, and the Gallery was first opened in 1950, largely due to the efforts of the artist and designer Sir Frank Brangwyn (1867–1956), who was briefly a pupil in Morris’s workshop, and to whom one of the rooms in the Gallery is dedicated.

These unlikely elephants sit atop the wall of the car park next to the Gallery.

The permanent display takes you through Morris’s life, from his early days in Walthamstow and Epping Forest, to his refusal (aged 17) to step inside the ‘wonderfully ugly’ Crystal Palace, to his time at Oxford (including his formative meeting with Edward Burne-Jones) and his realisation that he was not going to become a clergyman – his letter to his mother, trying to explain his decision, is on show. A gratifying (to me!) amount of space is devoted to the Kelmscott Press, including a beautifully printed flysheet giving the binding options and prices for the Kelmscott Chaucer.

List of the bindings which the customer could select for his/her copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer.

King Picus transformed into a woodpecker (detail), from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, woven by Morris in 1885.

Morris among the Living English Poets:  sketch by Walter Crane for the frontispiece of an anthology of that name (1883). From left to right are Swinburne, Browning, Morris (on the ground), Arnold and Tennyson. Morris, holding ‘The Earthly Paradise’, is looking at a daisy plant, a reference to his work as a designer.

As the caption points out, Ruskin (and in particular, ‘The Nature of Gothic’, Ch. 6 of Vol. 2 of The Stones of Venice, changed Morris’s life. He believed that it was ‘one of the very few necessary and inevitable utterances of the century’, and published it in 1892 at the Kelmscott Press in his own ‘Golden’ type.

Morris owned, and annotated, a copy of John Gerard’s Herball, drawing information from it for the creation of plant dyes (he was not in sympathy with William Henry Perkin’s mauve and the other aniline dyes then being developed).

Morris’s copy of John Gerard’s Herball of 1597, open at the page describing madder (Rubia tinctorum), from which red dye could be obtained.

(I saw another copy of the Herball a few days later at the Garden Museum, but that’s another blog …) May Morris too was in sympathy with the importance of natural dyestuffs, believing that they achieved an unrivalled clarity and sheen of colour.

One room is devoted to the Firm – ‘Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co.: Fine Art Workmen in Painting, Carving, Furniture and the Metals’ from 1861 to 1875, and then just ‘Morris and Co.’ until 1940. The original founders included (as well as Morris himself), Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown, Philip Webb (the architect whom Morris met while working for G.E. Street, and who later designed the Red House), Charles Faulkner (Oxford mathematician, civil engineer and financial director of the Firm, whose sisters Lucy and Kate worked for it as designers) and Peter Paul Marshall, the most obscure of the group, a civil engineer, amateur painter and friend of Brown.

Tiles designed by William Morris and sold by the Firm.

There are examples of the goods sold by the Firm, including a batch of tiles designed by William de Morgan (son of the mathematician Augustus and the spiritualist Sophia) whose 1907 novel Alice-for-Short: A Dichronism was dedicated to ‘E.B.J. and W.M.’. Sharp-eyed and sound-memoried readers (assuming they exist?!) will recognise the dodo!

William de Morgan tiles, hugely popular then and now.

May Morris  must have learned embroidery from her mother and aunt, both of them skilled in the craft. She later attended the Government School of Design in South Kensington (now the Royal College of Art), where she studied textile crafts. (She had been taken out of Notting Hill High School when her elder sister Jenny, also a pupil there, and intellectually gifted, tragically developed epilepsy (possibly inherited from William’s mother – it has been suggested that some of William’s own legendary rages were in fact seizures), then untreatable – the sufferer was slowly poisoned with potassium bromide – and socially unacceptable.) By 1885, May was managing the embroidery section of the Firm, designing, supervising the embroiderers and herself making up commissions; she also designed wallpaper and lettering.

Birds and plants from May Morris’s embroidery, ‘The Heavens Declare’.

She wrote books, and taught and lectured on embroidery, as well as exhibiting her works. Ten years after her father’s death, she took on the task of editing and writing introductions to his prose and verse works, which came out in 24 volumes between 1910 and 1924; she also produced a pendant two-volume work: William Morris: Artist, Writer, Socialist, in 1936.

Imagine my excitement when I saw these in one of the rooms!

I knew that G.B. Shaw, who had contributed an essay, ‘Morris as I Knew Him’, to the second volume, had been – to put it very crudely – stringing May Morris along in the 1880s, but I had no idea until I visited this exhibition that in 1890 she married one Henry Halliday Sparling, a member of the Socialist League of which her father was one of the mainstays. It did not last (nor did the Socialist League, incidentally): there were no children, and they were divorced some time in 1898 or 1899 (when the average annual number of divorces in the U.K. was about 500). She reverted to (if she had ever given up) her maiden name.

Detail from May Morris’s ‘Maids of Honour’, taking its theme from Herrick’s poem ‘To Violets’. The backing is a very fine silk mesh which is almost invisible.

Standing in the shadow of her father, and finding a creative outlet in a craft traditionally regarded as appropriate to women, and therefore lowly in the aesthetic scale of values, May Morris has been rather unfairly overlooked. What I most admired about this exhibition – even more than her design skills – is precisely the workmanship of her own embroideries: unbelievably fine and delicate, with never a stitch out of place. I like my art to be crafted by the artist, not by a furnace-man or an abattoir worker carrying out a ‘concept’, and you will not see art – in any medium – crafted better than this.


This entry was posted in Biography, History, Literature, London, Museums and Galleries, Natural history, Printing and Publishing, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Mr and Miss Morris

  1. Chris Murray says:

    Famously the Victoria and the Waterloo and city lines are the only two that are completely underground…


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