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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Religious tapestries

Religious tapestries make an intriguing and inspirational addition to any home. They are not only of great interest to Christians but have an aesthetic appeal to art collectors. There is an extensive range to choose from, many being reproductions of some of the finest religious works of art ever produced. They have been woven since the thirteenth century, initially used to inspire church congregations, who were often illiterate, with illustrated Biblical tales.

Religious tapestries possess a beauty that is capable of enlightening those who might not consider themselves to be spiritual. They can project a positive ambience into even the dullest of rooms. Beautiful and thought provoking, they make for conversation pieces and are, of course, perfect for prayer and meditations rooms.

Religious art has long been at the very centre of the art world. After the fall of Rome artists poured their energies into the emerging strength of Christianity which swept through Europe to become the dominant force in society, culture and philosophy. From this came some of the most sublime art ever produced. The Italian Renaissance alone produced arguably some of the most distinct and well-known art in history.

Religious-related myths and legends are also depicted through tapestries. For example, Morris & Co’s ‘Quest for the Holy Grail’ series produced around 1898 had six tapestries based upon Sir Thomas Malory’s ‘Le Mort D’Arthur’, (The Death of Arthur). This fifteenth century text describes the search by King Arthur’s ‘Knights of the Round Table’ to find the ‘Holy Grail’, the legendary cup from which Jesus and his disciples drank from at The Last Supper.

The Last Supper tapestry

Several versions are woven today in Italy of The Last Supper tapestry (one is above). They are based upon a fifteenth century fresco, among Leonardo da Vinci’s most inspired works, and now among our most popular religious tapestries, indeed of any in our collection. ‘The Last Supper’ was originally commissioned by Duke Ludovico Sforza and Duchess Beatrice D’Este. It is believed that work began on this masterpiece around 1495, although the start date is hazy. As Kenneth Clark points out in his book, ‘Leonardo da Vinci’, the archives taken from the Italian Dominican convent of St Maria delle Grazie (where it was later discovered) were destroyed. Clark states, “our meagre documents date from 1497”, and by this time the painting was almost finished. However, typical of Leonardo, he did not work continuously upon it during that time.

The Last Supper is a representation of a meal during the last days of Jesus, when he foretold that one of the Apostles would betray him, as written in the Gospel of John 13:21. Tapestries which reproduce this wonderful fresco do remain true to the original. Even so, the tapestry wallhangings available today are much smaller, since the original measured twenty nine feet long and fifteen feet high. ‘The Last Supper’ completes the rear wall of the convent’s dining hall in Milan, so a dining room would be a fabulous setting for this particular tapestry within the home. The tapestries, like the original, depict the reaction of all twelve Apostles; Bartholomew, James, Andrew, Judas Iscariot, Peter, John, (Jesus central), Thomas, James the Greater, Philip, Matthew, Jude Thaddeus and Simon the Zealot (from left to right).

Madonna of the Chair tapestries - religious tapestry artFurther religious tapestry art often reproduces works from some of the greatest painters in history, from Giotto to Peruzzi. Michelangelo’s The Creation from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Robert Peruzzi’s Madonna of the Streets, El Greco’s Trinity in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, and Raphael’s Madonna of the Chair (above) being among them. Although most are of an Italian classical nature they do possess a timelessness, having a certain serene quality. Religious tapestries can provide a dramatic focal point for any room.

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Edward Burne-Jones tapestries

Edward Burne-Jones tapestries are often viewed in the context of the collaborations he enjoyed with William Morris. They have so many connections in tapestries and in art generally. Their friendship, co-operative work and shared understandings about art resulted in some marvellous tapestries.

Edward Burne Jones (no hyphen until 1894) was born in 1833, and attended Oxford University where he became known as Ned Jones by his friends after Dante Gabriel Rossetti altered his name. He married Georgiana Macdonald in 1860. Both this marriage and that of William and Janey Morris were troubled, and Georgie and Morris became close confidantes. Sir Edward Burne-Jones became a baronet in 1894, to his embarrassment and the disgust of socialists Georgiana and Morris. He died in 1898, two years after Morris.

Rossetti was a strong initial influence until Ned found his own artistic style. This remained true to the Pre-Raphaelite movement, later veering towards the Aesthetic Movement. He was also clearly identified with the Arts and Crafts Movement too.

His “Last Judgement” stained glass window in Birmingham Cathedral, produced by Morris & Co, is considered his greatest masterpiece by some, with its dramatic flowing lines full of life. It’s dreaminess was to become a hallmark of Burne-Jones art which extended beyond his oil and watercolour paintings, stained glass, illustrations and even stage sets to tapestries, to our good fortune.

Edward Burne-Jones tapestries

Edward Burne-Jones was particularly interested in exploring imagery of the Holy Grail Quest for the Holy Grail tapestry - Edward Burne-Jones tapestriesin his paintings and tapestries. Today, several of this series woven by Morris & Co in the 1890’s are available, finely woven in France. He described tapestries as “half way between painting and ornament. I know nothing that’s so deliciously half way”. His skill creating romanticised flowing figures balanced well with William Morris’s ability to create fine backgrounds.

Their collaboration produced tapestry art such as Pomona and Flora, An Angel Playing a Flageolet tapestry - Edward Burne-Jones tapestrieswith Burne-Jones designing the figures and Morris the detailed backgrounds. We also have a version of an 1878 watercolour, “An Angel Playing a Flageolet”, now woven in France as one of the most popular Edward Burne-Jones tapestries, especially in the Christmas holiday season.

A selection of his tapestries are available today, woven in France. Most are in more than one size and all are lined, with a rod pocket for easy wall-hanging.


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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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