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 high 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.