William Morris tapestries

William Morris tapestries: timeless and fresh. A look at Morris & Co tapestry designs.

William Morris (1834-1896) was a man of many talents; an artist, writer, social activist and textile designer being among them. In 1856 he established the ‘Oxford and Cambridge Magazine’ in which he published his ideas with regards to craftsmanship and the decorative arts. Later, he would become a valued associate of the English Arts and Crafts Movement and of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Five years later, in 1861, William Morris established a design firm, later called Morris & Co, along with artists Dante Gabriel Rossini and Edward Burne-Jones. Working at the firm, he created many remarkable textile and wallpaper designs, most of which were based upon his observations of the natural world. Morris & Co was to have an enormous influence upon decoration in the early twentieth century. However, it was William Morris who had the greatest influence upon the revival of traditional methods within textile production.

William Morris produced some of his first repeat design wallpapers during 1862 and in 1868 he created his first specific print design for fabric. Morris always preferred to use more traditional hand-crafting methods. Therefore, he virtually dismissed modern roller printing, in favor of wood block printing with hand-cut blocks he often designed himself. William Morris spent a year perfecting traditional vegetable dye methods with wool, silk and cotton at the Staffordshire Dye Works. From 1877 to 1878, Morris engrossed himself in textile production and, in particular, with the intricacies of double-woven furnishing fabrics. His aim was always to produce textiles of the highest calibre in a traditional manner. Today, the textile designs of William Morris continue to be highly respected, including his wall tapestries.

Morris & Co tapestry designs

William Morris always aspired to produce tapestries, believing it to be “the noblest of the weaving arts”. On behalf of Morris & Co, he completed his first tapestry in 1879 – the Acanthus and Vine tapestry which Morris later nicknamed ‘The Cabbage and Vine’. It was inspired by the Flemish verdure tapestries produced during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This tapestry took him more than five hundred hours to complete on a vertical loom using a cotton warp with wool and silk yarns which was set up in his bedroom. He taught himself this medieval method of weaving from a 14th century French crafts manual. The first attempt was slightly distorted due to some uneven tension and other variations within the weave. Unperturbed, he employed John Henry Dearle and established a small tapestry workshop at Queens Square in the Bloomsbury district of London. Later, in 1881, he would move to the larger workshop of Morris & Co at Merton Abbey in Surrey where nine tapestry weavers worked on three looms. William Morris would spend three or four days each week at his Merton workshop supervising Morris & Co tapestry designs.

William Morris tapestries

Six years later he designed and wove the The Woodpecker Tapestry, measuring 10 feet The Woodpecker Tapestry - Morris & Co tapestry designshigh and 5 feet wide. This, together with The Tree of Life Tapestry, was to become the most popular of William Morris tapestries available today. Interestingly, it incorporated his own verse and the image the poem presented.

Again and again, Morris & Co tapestry designs benefitted from the close friendship and working relationship between Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. Their skills complemented each other, as we see in Flora and Pomona: with Morris excelling at the detailed naturalistic backgrounds and his verses and Burne-Jones at the figures. These two original 1885 tapestries are now displayed at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester.

The Forest Tapestry was a Morris & Co commission for a west London house. The original long, slim tapestry was woven in wool and silk on a cotton warp in 1887. Its swirling acanthus leaves in the background had a lion in the centre with peacock, hare, fox and raven figures designed by Phillip Webb. It is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Edward Burne-Jones, John Henry Dearle and William Morris designed a series of six tapestries known collectively as the ‘Quest for the Holy Grail’. They are based on a fifteenth century text by Sir Thomas Malory, ‘Le Morte D’Arthur’, presenting the legendary tale of the quest to find the ‘Holy Grail’ by King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table. The tapestries were originally commissioned by William Knox D’Arcy for his home, Stanmore Hall in Middlesex and were designed and woven at the Merton Abbey workshop. The first six tapestries are exhibited at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Several of the series are available today from French weavers, including The Arming and Departure of the Knights.

Thankfully, we can purchase reproductions of many of fresh timeless William Morris tapestries for our homes today.

 

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Portiere wall-hangings

You may wonder “What is a portière?”. Portiere wall-hangings are defined by Wikipedia as: “A portière is a hanging curtain placed over a door or over the doorless entrance to a room.”

We need to expand on this regarding their use in centuries past and today. Walking through a French chateau or elegant Paris mansion you would see portières hanging on either side of doorways, adding to their grandeur. Several of these portières are available today, all being tall slim French tapestries.

Since the visual characteristic of these is that they are both tall and slim they can be woven tapestries in other styles, not necessarily suitable for an elegant chateau. They may be suitable for a humble home (yours?).

Elegant French portiere wall-hanging Unicorn tapestry - medieval portiere wall hanging Gustav Klimt tall slim tapestry - Silhouette wallhanging William Morris portiere tapestry - portiere wall-hanging

Today portiere wall-hangings are much more adaptable for our homes simply because of the variety of styles. Yes, there are elegant designs but consider these too: medieval tapestries, verdures (ie forested scenes), numerous botanical hangings, even Art Nouveau portières. Several are available as pairs of hanging tapestries; visually a pair is far more than doubly effective than a single tapestry. These pairs might flank a door in the traditional manner but are excellent ways to decorate a large wall (see top image).

My own favourites are the William Morris portieres in their Arts & Crafts splendour. Furthermore, they are unusually varied in sizes and colour tones. Seen on the right above, this one is the medium of three sizes. It is the green and yellow version; you can also order a maroon and brown alternative, also in three sizes.

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Tree of Life tapestries – but which one?

A variety of Tree of Life tapestries are on our website, mostly from William Morris or Gustav Klimt. Given this selection it is interesting to consider the background to this subject and why they continue to be popular today.

The Tree of Life

For most, the Tree of Life is traced way back to the earliest Biblical narratives. In Genesis God planted a “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” in the paradise setting of the Garden of Eden whose fruit gave everlasting life.

Not surprisingly, God forbad Adam and Eve to eat it – in Genesis 3 v 22, God said that man “must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever”. However the serpent intervened and the rest is history. Since then the Tree of Life has found it way into a wide variety of beliefs with varying interpretations. So it is not surprising that artists have felt compelled to depict it.

William Morris Tree of Life tapestries

William Morris is the most significant of these from the perspective of tapestries. He chose to set it within the context of the medieval “mille fleurs” (thousand flowers) background which he much admired. Thoroughly typical of his style, combining nature and history, it remains timeless. This timelessness is key to its popularity.

William Morris Tree of Life tapestryToday the William Morris Tree of Life tapestry is woven in France and available in several sizes (above). Additionally, there’s a recent addition of one with brown earthy tones (below) or with a black background. Please click on the images for further details.

Tree of LIfe tapestries - William Morris wall tapestryGustav Klimt Tree of Life tapestries

Anyone with any knowledge of the mind of Gustav Klimt will not be surprised to discover that he was sufficiently intrigued with the Tree of Life to paint his own interpretations. Here are three, illustrating Klimt’s different approaches to the same theme.

A Klimt Tree of Life tapestry wallhangingGustav Klimt Tree of Life tapestryLebensbaum tapestry - Gustav Klimt designYour favourite? Our choices are indicated by my wife and I having one William Morris and one Gustav Klimt hanging at home: we like them all!

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William Morris Tapestry Art

William Morris was an English designer, poet, artist and craftsman whose designs for textiles, stained glass, furniture, wallpaper and many other decorative arts helped create the Arts and Crafts Movement during the Victorian era. The talents of Morris knew no bounds. He had an innate curiosity and an appreciation of all things beautiful and he tried his hands at almost everything in the applied arts.

Morris was born in March 1834 in Walthamstow, Essex and had a comfortable childhood before attending Marlborough and Exeter College, Oxford. Whilst studying for Holy Orders at Oxford in 1853 he met Edward Burne-Jones who would later become his business partner and lifelong friend. He abandoned his studies after reading the social criticisms of Carlyle, Kingsley and Ruskin and decided instead to become an architect. The young novice became an apprentice to G.E. Street, an architect involved in the Gothic revival. But impulsively creative he soon tired of this and began, like his friend Burne-Jones, to paint. Finding art his forte he embraced it fully, writing poetry, printing, learning how to weave and dye and work a loom. It was the latter pursuit that would come to demonstrate William Morris tapestry art at its most impressive. His beautiful tapestries became among his most famous creations.

In 1879, Morris set up a loom in his house (in his bedroom!) and taught himself to weave with only an old French crafts manual for guidance. William Morris tapestry art was born! Within a matter of months he had completed his first tapestry design, Acanthus and Vine. He founded Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company along with friends Peter Paul Marshall and Charles Faulkner. Together with Edward Burne-Jones and fellow artists Ford Maddox Brown and Dante Gabriel Rosetti the group produced some of the most creative paintings and tapestries Britain had seen.

One of William Morris’s most enduring legacies was his revitalization of tapestry weaving. By the mid-19th century tapestries had become just another mass-produced item, generally from Les Gobelins factory in Paris of which Morris was scathing. Driven by the need to demonstrate the importance of the individual over the means of production Morris used tapestry and textile design to revitalize the central importance of creativity in art. It was his ambition to breathe new life into the art and he achieved it: his tapestries still remain an important influence on design today. His most famous works generally featured figures drawn by Burne-Jones. Morris would design the background and the tapestry would be woven by Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co, which became simply Morris & Co in 1874 when Morris took sole control.

The Quest for the Holy Grail, currently exhibited at the Birmingham Museum, is one of the best known works of Morris & Co. Like many of the others, the tapestry, which depicts the fascinating story of the search for the Holy Grail, was designed by Edward Burne-Jones. Six wall hangings illustrate the story, woven in 1895-96.

A further example, one of the most intricate and beautiful creations from the company is the Tree of Life tapestry. Designed by Morris it demonstrates his talent with patterns and his awareness and appreciation of the use of colour. Symbolising growth and continuous life, the Tree of Life wall tapestry is still one Morris’s most recognisable works; one of the most popular French tapestries available today.

William Morris Tree of Life tapestryThe works of Morris are proof that real beauty can be timeless. As popular today as they were over a century ago, William Morris tapestry art, has continued to inspire new generations of artists and craftsmen to reach beyond convention and to genuinely create.

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