16 July 2016

Report on the May Morris Conference, William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow May 13 and 14, 2016

May Morris, embroidered binding for Ernest Levebure
Embroidery and Lace, translated by Alan S Cole 
(London, 1888). Courtesy of the Grolier Club of New York
The William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, UK recently hosted a two-day conference devoted to the life and work of May Morris (1862-1938), youngest daughter of William and Jane. May’s biography has often been overlooked and her work interpreted only as an aspect of the life of her famous father. But as the conference papers revealed, she was a remarkable designer, artist, and writer whose work contributed significantly to the spread of the Arts and Crafts aesthetic.

From her youth, May developed an interest in embroidery. She trained at the South Kensington School of Design and was appointed manager of the embroidery department at Morris and Company in 1885. She studied the history of embroidery and published a series of articles promoting the craft, culminating in the book Decorative Needlework (1893). In 1909-10 she embarked on a lecture tour of the United States, preaching on a variety of topics including the importance of the rich British tradition of embroidery.

Upon her father’s death, she edited a 24-volume compilation of his written work. Each volume of the Collected Works of William Morris includes an introduction in which May contextualizes the passages which follow through recollections of her father’s life. These reminiscences reveal her warmth and respect for him, as well as the manner in which her life was shaped by their association. A particularly revealing aspect of these lyrical descriptions is the love of the English landscape which they both shared.

May Morris’ creative debt to her father is without question. However, as revealed by the 13 speakers who presented over the course of this conference, she was a creative force unto herself. The two-day study event presented new research of May’s life and work in advance of an exhibition which will be presented at the William Morris Gallery in the fall of 2017. On Friday, conference attendees visited the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Clothworkers’ Center at Blythe House where Jenny Lister, Curator of Nineteenth Century Textiles and Dress, reviewed a stunning selection of May’s embroidery, including both her hand- and design work. These objects included a vine-and-leaf design table cloth made for the Hodson family of Compton Hall, Wolverhampton; the famous “Orchard” portiere designed by May and worked by Theodosia Middlemore for Melsetter House in Orkney; and the superfrontal designed by Philip Webb and worked by May. There were also examples of ‘starter’ embroidery kits, in which a small portion of the design was embroidered as a model for those clients who wished to carry out their own handwork. Of particular interest was a Morris and Company day book dating from May 1892-November 1896, listing orders placed with the company, often including the names of those who were responsible for the stitch work. For the second half of the day a riverside walk in Hammersmith was offered, including a stop at the William Morris Society.

On Friday evening the keynote lecture was given by Jan Marsh, who’s Jane and May Morris – A Biographical Story -- the first significant investigation of May’s work -- was published thirty years ago. Marsh gave an overview of May’s life and work weaving her various roles, interests and accomplishment into a compelling narrative. On Saturday lectures were presented on topics including May’s needlework; her role in the founding of the Women’s Guild of Arts; her critical writing; her relationship with Kelmscott Manor; socialism; her teaching at the Birmingham School of Art; the lecture tour of America; and the architectural project for Kelmscott village in collaboration with Ernest Gimson. A full conference program can be found here. These papers will be published through the generous sponsorship of the Friends of the William Morris Gallery in time for the exhibition in the fall of 2017.

A great deal of new information was presented, including the recent re-discovery of an embroidered book cover by May Morris in the collection of the Grolier Club in New York. The binding is of green silk embroidered with colored silks, gold braid and beads. It covers Ernest Levebure’s Embroidery and Lace (published London, 1888) as translated by Alan S. Cole. The book is a history of embroidery from antiquity to the present, a subject which would have been of particular interest to May. The initials E.L. and A.C. (assumedly those of author and translator) appear on the front cover. A tiny initial “M” is stitched at the bottom of the spine. The book is known to have been in the collection of Samuel Putnam Avery of New York City as early as 1891. Avery was an art dealer, collector, and one of the founders of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The book’s presence in Avery’s collection suggests knowledge of May’s craftsmanship in the U.S. preceded her arrival by some 20 years!

Margaretta S Frederick Chief Curator and Annette Woolard-Provine Curator of the Bancroft Pre-Raphaelite Collection, Delaware Art Museum mfrederick@delart.org

22 September 2015

A Visit to "J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free"

Yesterday I visited the Turner show currently featured at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. Titled “J. M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free,” it focuses on Turner’s work in the last 15 years of his life, including watercolors as well as oils, night scenes as well as blinding sunlight, and seascapes as well as fire and smoke (sometimes at the same time, as in Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth [1842]).

The exhibition’s labels cited John Ruskin frequently as Turner’s first and best interpreter, and as the contemporary critic most presciently alert to Turner’s power and significance. This continual reference to Ruskin made me think of William Morris, and made me wonder whether and how Ruskin’s highly favorable view of Turner may have rubbed off on Morris, given Ruskin’s vital influence on Morris’s aesthetic vision.

In so many ways, Morris and Turner would appear to be opposed in their approaches to art. Morris revived the crafts – the “low” arts – as art forms in their own right; Turner painted for the Academy. Turner’s protoimpressionistic compositions offer nothing like photographic verisimilitude; Morris is associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, whose creed of “truth to nature” can be seen in Morris’s botanical designs. Perhaps most strikingly, there is a quality of abstraction and elementalism in Turner’s work that seems at odds with the ornamentation and lushness of Morris’s designs.

And yet, there are similarities too. Many of Turner’s paintings were originally exhibited with bits of poetry – often Turner’s own poetry, though Byron shows up frequently too – which reminded me of the Pre-Raphaelite tendency to weave together painting and poetry, and of Morris’s lifelong interest in visual-textual interplay. One room of the exhibition focused on Turner’s innovative approach to the shape of the frame and his experiments with square, round, and octagonal compositions, which brought to mind the crucial role of the border and the frame in Morris’s artistic work. There is, too, a hint of social criticism in Turner’s dazzling representations of smoke, fire, and disaster; these recall the ugliness of modern civilization that Morris so hated, as well as the impermanence and mutability of civilization that gave him hope.

After the exhibition, I looked for references to Turner in Morris’s writings and found surprisingly little. But Mackail’s biography of Morris includes a wonderful description of Morris reading Ruskin on Turner, reading aloud as though he himself were on fire:
Morris would often read Ruskin aloud. He had a might singing voice, and chanted rather than read those weltering oceans of eloquence as they have never been given before or since, it is most certain. The description of [Turner’s] Slave Ship, or of Turner’s skies, … were declaimed by him in a manner that made them seem as if they had been written for no end but that he should hurl them in thunder on the head of the base criminal who had never seen what Turner saw in the sky.” (46-7)
This anecdote reveals, perhaps, the most important quality that Turner and Morris shared as artists: a resolute appetite to challenge orthodoxy. Certainly this was a quality shared by Ruskin, too, and it is a quality that unites and triangulates the intersecting careers of the painter, the critic, and the craftsman.

-Elizabeth Carolyn Miller, Professor of English and Department Chair at UC Davis.

14 September 2015

The Pre-Raphaelite Fellowship: A Joint Fellowship from the University of Delaware Library and the Delaware Art Museum

The Delaware Art Museum and the University of Delaware Library invite applications from scholars focused on the Pre-Raphaelites and their general circle, for a one month fellowship.

This is an excellent opportunity to work with primary sources such as Rossetti's Lady Lilith (left), and the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection at the U Delaware Library.

The Pre-Raphaelite fellowship can come with up to 3,000 dollars and housing. Although the fellowship is intended for “significant research in the lives and works of the Pre-Raphaelites and their friends, associates, and followers,” applications focused on “the Pre-Raphaelite movement and related topics in relation to Victorian art and literature, and cultural or social history” will also be considered.

They especially encourage “Projects which provide new information or interpretation—dealing with unrecognized figures, women writers and artists, print culture, iconography, illustration, catalogues of artists’ works, or studies of specific objects” and those “which take into account transatlantic relations between Britain and the United States.”

Past projects have included a monograph on Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and research for a biography of William Allingham.

See the website below for more details:

Click here for information on how to apply, and for the application form.

(Image, top: Lady Lilith, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Copyright of the Delaware Art Museum. Via Wikimedia Commons.)

09 August 2015

Peacock Room REMIX: Dan Waterston’s Filthy Lucre at the Freer | Sackler Gallery

Aestheticism has often been defined as the religion of beauty, characterised by the celebration of art for art’s sake. Decadence, on the other hand, takes this to an extreme, finding beauty even in ugliness, decay and destruction. Filthy Lucre inspired by James McNeill Whistler’s masterpiece of interior design, the Peacock Room, is perhaps the clearest manifestation of the difference between these two approaches. Aesthetes may run from this room in floods of tears; decadents will love it

For in FilthyLucre,contemporary artist Darren Waterston has recreated Whistler’s original room, but with a difference. In contrast to the Whistler’s blue-green jewel of a dining room, structured by an intricate framework of golden shelves that line the walls (each of which houses an exquisite porcelain vase), in Waterson’s reimagining, utter destruction has taken place. The room looks like a bomb has detonated, or a particularly wild party has taken place. The shelves are crooked and crumbling, the vases are smashed or warped, golden paint dribbles down the wall and puddles onto the floor. The painting that hangs in the original, Whistler’s Rose and Silver: The Princess from the Land of Porcelain,has suffered a monstrous change: the female subject’s face has become a dark mass, bubbling up from the neck of her kimono. The surface of the canvas is spattered with filth and decay. This is the Picture of Dorian Gray,by way of Francis Bacon.

Waterston’s installation is essentially a nightmarish vision of contemporary decadence – an act of deliberate destruction wrought on an icon of nineteenth-century aestheticism in order to expose the hostility of capitalistic relations between the artist and the wealthy patron bubbling beneath the surface of Whistler’s shimmering glaze and gold paint. Filthy Lucre is in this sense the dark double of the Peacock Room, manifesting Whistler’s hatred and bitterness towards his patron, the Liverpool shipping magnate Frederick Richards Leyland.

Throughout the 1860s, Leyland supported Whistler’s work and the two men became friends. Whistler painted flattering and affectionate portraits of Leyland and his family (these images are currently on display at the Freer alongside Filthy Lucre. In 1876, Leyland was having his London home redesigned and Whistler became responsible for the redecoration of the dining room (a task that originally fell to Thomas Jeckyll, who was indisposed by illness). Whistler became increasingly obsessed with his ‘Harmony in Blue and Gold’, departing from Jeckyll’s plans and creating the startling peacock-hued masterpiece we see today. But Leyland was not happy with the result, nor with the £2,000 price tag that Whistler demanded. Their friendship destroyed, Leyland coughed up half the money and Whistler left behind his own parting ‘gift’. On the wall at the far end of the room, he painted two golden peacocks; the one on the left, the poor peacock, mangy and beset, symbolic of the artist; on the right, the rich peacock, plumage on show and money at his feet. No prizes for guessing who that represents…

The animosity between the two men continued when, in 1879, Whistler was forced to file for bankruptcy. Leyland was his main creditor. Once again manifesting his rage in paint, Whistler gleefully portrayed Leyland as a peacock-human hybrid, in a work entitled The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frilthy Lucre This bizarre caricature depicts Leyland as a scaly monster, all claws and whiplash tail, playing a piano and sitting on a house (apparently Whistler’s), bags of golden coins piled up around him.

This painting, of course, inspired Waterston’s own title for his installation,Filthy Lucre or ‘Dirty Money’. It is also referenced in the disorientating sounds you hear on entering this enclosed space, as a discordant piano strikes up. The original fighting peacocks in Waterston’s version are now no longer squaring up to one another, they are ripping each other’s guts out. Beyond being a horribly literalised manifestation of Whistler and Leyland’s fight, the proximity of the two birds as they tear at one another’s flesh renders them symbiotic – mutually destructive but also intimately connected, as through a reciprocal umbilical cord. Thus, Filthy Lucre functions not only as a commentary on the creation of Whistler’s room, but also as a damning commentary on relations between art and money in the contemporary era. As Waterston himself has stated, his portrayal is affected by his own position as a twenty-first century artist – underfunded, fighting for patronage and support, and in this sense facing conditions not dissimilar to Whistler’s original crisis.

-Sarah Parker (University of Stirling)

Peacock Room REMIX: Dan Waterston’s Filthy Lucre is on display at the Freer|Sackler Gallery in Washington, D. C. until January 2017. More information can be found here: http://www.asia.si.edu/filthylucre/

09 June 2015

The Joseph R. Dunlap Memorial Fellowship: Call for Applications

The Joseph R. Dunlap Memorial Fellowship awarded by the William Morris Society in the United States supports scholarly and creative work about William Morris.  The fellowship offers  funding up to $1000 for research and other expenses, including travel to conferences and  libraries.

Projects may deal with any subject—biographical, literary, historical, social, artistic, political, typographical—relating to Morris. The Society also encourages translations of Morris's works and the production of teaching materials (lesson plans and course materials) suitable for use at the elementary, secondary, college or adult-education level.

Applications are sought particularly from younger members of the Society and from those at the beginning of their careers. Recipients may be from any country and need not have an academic or institutional appointment, nor must recipients hold the Ph.D.

In some years the Society offers a second, smaller fellowship, the William Morris Society Award (the amount to be determined by the committee of judges).  The purpose and aims of this second award are the same as for the Joseph R. Dunlap Fellowship.

Applicants should send a two-page description of their projects, along with a c.v. and at least one letter of recommendation. For a translation project, please submit an additional letter from a recognized authority able to certify the applicant's competence in both languages. For teaching materials, we ask also for a cover letter describing the ways in which the materials might be used in learning situations.

The Society would be pleased to publish any completed translation or teaching materials on its website, but this is not a requirement.

The deadline for applications is 15 December 2015. Applications are judged by committee, and the decision announced by 15 January 2016.

Send applications to:

Linda K. Hughes
Department of English
TCU Box 297270
Texas Christian University
Fort Worth, TX 76129


Submissions, including supporting documents, should be sent via email (letters of recommendation should be emailed separately by the recommender). Although recipients are not required to be members of the William Morris Society, we encourage those applying to join and to share in the benefits of membership.

(Caricature of William Morris by Edward Burne-Jones via the U of Cincinnati Archives & Rare Books Library )

23 May 2015

Victorian Connections

The Grolier Club, at 47 East 60th Street, is a bibliophile's dream. The book-lined walls and the  dark-wood rooms may seem like an exclusive retreat for literary elites, but in fact, exhibitons here are open to the public 9-5 Monday through Saturday.

The lucky New York public had the chance this month to catch the radiant "Victorian Connections" exhibition co-curated by Natasha Moore and Mark Samuels Lasner, located discreetly on the second floor of the Grolier Club. Here one found an exuberant collection of rare artefacts from a broad swath of Victorian cultural life. From a presentation copy of William Morris's Volsunga Saga, to letters, inscribed books, and portraits of other giants such as Alfred Lord Tennyson, Thomas Carlyle, Thomas Hardy, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, there was much to marvel over. 

The sheer breadth of an exhibition devoted to a minor poet, William Allingham (1824–1889),  and his artist wife Helen (née Paterson, 1848–1926),  seemed out of place only until the nature of this extrovert couple became more  clear. A famous diarist, William Allingham recorded some of the most personal and human anecdotes that survive about Tennyson, Carslyle, Morris, and other Victorian greats. As Mark Samuels Lasner put it in his talk about the exhibition on May 6th, the Allinghams were friends with simply everybody. This exhibition is a testament to the many, many deep connections they made among the literary and artistic circles of London and elsewhere during their lifetimes.

At the exhibition, Pre-Raphaelite fans were delighted with a caricature of love-lorn Dante Gabriel Rossetti following close behind Jane Morris with an armful of cushions for her comfort and his watercolor for the cover of Allingham's book Day and Night Songs, along with an early self-portrait by Edward Burne-Jones and a sketch of Elizabeth Siddal by Anna Mary Howitt.  Victorianists and book lovers of all stripes found something to moon over at this pretty little exhibition; watch the Grolier Club's website for delights to come.

Sadly, the show ended today. For those who missed it, there is a detailed, illustrated catalogue, $35, available from Oak Knoll Books in New Castle, Del.

(Image: Helen Peterson Allingham. 1840-1926. Study of a Cottage Window, watercolor on paper. From the Baskin Collection.)

10 May 2015

Part III, Printing on the Press: Steven Lee-Davis

This is part three of a three part conversation series on the Kelmscott/Goudy Press and the original William Morris broadside we commissioned to be printed on that press. Today, the artist Steven Lee-Davis joins us to talk about his inspirations and creative process.

Do you feel that Morris has influenced your art at all?

I attended art school in the 80's and at that time painting was largely within the realm of expressiveness. DeKooning and Kandinsky were still the exemplars. So, I was a bit of an oddball as I sought out the Pre-Raphaelites, Nazarenes, and Neo-Classical painters. Even as far back as high-school I would study paintings executed by the Pre-Raphaelites reproduced in fairytale books -- of course, I had no idea what I was looking at, but it fit well with my passion for fantasy illustration. It wasn't until much later that I really began to pull out the different artistic personalities of the Victorian age and dive into the writing of Ruskin, Rossetti, and Morris. Fast forward two decades and I find myself a Roycroft Renaissance Artist working among artists and craftsmen that very much uphold the ideals espoused by William Morris. I guess Morris has been part of my artistic growth since I was a kid.

Can you tell us a little about the printing process?

Printing on an iron hand press is deceptively difficult. I regularly use an Albion "foolscap", which is a tabletop model issued by Hopkinson & Cope and so I knew a thing or two about the process when I approached the Kelmscott housed at the Cary Collection at RIT. Since the press is so large and has such an historic presence, I was glad to be assisted by Amelia Hugill-Fontanel, the Associate Curator of the Cary Collection and the woman who restored the press over the past year. Together, we spent hours wrapping the tympan, adjusting the micro-settings on the bed of the press, measuring the exact height of the carved block, setting the position on the bed, setting the stop point, and cutting the frisket to make a perfect mask for the image. We spent more time practicing the hand-rolling of the ink and making sure it was the right viscosity. Actually, that ink is not straight black, but has reflex blue cut into it to contrast the yellow tint of the paper. Oh, it was a huge process, but we just had to glance the book display case to our left to see the Kelmscott Chaucer and we knew that we had to make Morris proud. I think we did.

How did it feel to use the Kelmscott Press?

Printing on the Kelmscott Press was the highlight of my printing career. Really, when I am hanging out with other printers and we are exchanging print stories over a beer, my story wins every time!

How did you approach the design of this broadside?

The design of this broadside was created in collaboration with the Board of the William Morris Society, U.S. Jack Walsdorf, the President, was a tireless communicator who made sure that this project came to fruition. I really think it is an amazing thing to have a limited edition portrait of William Morris printed on the Kelmscott Press. I hope that the proceeds benefit the Society and that members enjoy the print. It was a pleasure to work with everyone involved.

To purchase the broadside, visit our online store here. All proceeds benefit the William Morris Society in the United States.