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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Verdure tapestries

A history of tapestry art with descriptions of verdure tapestries available today.

Tapestries were produced in Europe from around the twelfth century when, it is believed, the art of weaving was introduced from the East. Some small scale tapestries may have been produced during early medieval times. However, it was towards the end of this period, and throughout the Renaissance, when tapestry art production prospered. From the fourteenth to the seventeenth century, France and the Low Countries would create some of the finest tapestry art ever produced. After The Hundred Year War from 1337 to 1453, many weavers left France and moved northwards. Many tapestries were destroyed during this protracted war but afterwards a new period of learning and artistic development would begin.

The Renaissance marked an important revival of the arts, and major design changes came about for tapestries. By the second half of the fifteenth century many workshops, especially in Northern France and the Southern Netherlands, were exporting tapestry wall-hangings throughout Europe. By the end of the fifteenth century, the Brussels tapestry workshops began to dominate production. Once again, war would disrupt production, as weavers were forced to relocate. Later, toward the end of the sixteenth century, Paris, became the recognized European centre for tapestry weaving.

Verdure Tapestries

It is not entirely certain where verdure tapestries were first produced. However, it is known that by the sixteenth century, they had become a recognized tapestry art form. The word ‘verdure’ derives from the French word ‘vert’, meaning green. Initially, verdure tapestries were characterized by their green tones, complex foliage and flower motifs – such as the Aristoloches wall tapestry (left). Forests and woodlands were typical scenes. As their popularity rose more expansive, and expensive, designs incorporating wildlife were woven. It is these more elaborate designs that we most often associate with the verdure style today. For centuries verdure tapestries remained highly popular and were made on a large scale for export. That was, until the arrival of wallpaper, which served as a more economical way to decorate a room.

In recent years verdure tapestries have seen a revival. These can change a room by creating a striking and impressive focal point, something which cannot be matched by wallpaper alone. The subtle earthy tones of this form of wall art can deliver that, whilst also being compatible with almost any style of décor (see above). Today, these tapestries are produced by respected weavers in France, Belgium and Italy, in a range of sizes so we can enjoy their aesthetic beauty virtually anywhere..

There is a good selection of themes to choose from: forests and lakes, flora and fauna, plus wonderful images of French châteaux, hunting tapestries, classic gardens and scenic landscapes. Quite a number are available in matching pairs. The lush greenery depicted in verdure tapestries, along with the idyllic scenery cannot help but create a beautifully harmonious room; peaceful, yet unobtrusive imagery which will complement and add to the ambience of your home. Further, a wall tapestry is an investment that will be there for generations to come.

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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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