07 March 2018

Wallpaper and Death

An impoverished Oscar Wilde, his health ruined by his time in Reading Gaol, wandered Europe during the last years of his life.  From a dingy room in Paris, he complained to friends about his circumstances with wit and pathos, keeping one eye on aesthetics.  Ailing in a first-floor room in what is now the L’Hotel on the Left Bank, he complained about the wall covering: “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death.  One or other of us has got to go.”  One wonders what Wilde made of the wallpaper backdrop at Napoleon Sarony’s photography studio in New York, when he posed in January 1882 while on his lecture tour of the United States.  He advised against the indiscriminate use of wallpaper within the home, but generally recommended it as a safe and sanitary decoration: “You will want a joyous paper on the wall, full of flowers and pleasing designs.”  Yet with Wilde’s death on November 30, 1900, it seemed like the wallpaper won.  The hotel now has a suite named after Wilde, complete with a partial re-creation of Whistler’s Peacock Room wall decorations, upon which Wilde lavished praise: “the finest thing in color and art decoration that the world has known since Correggio.”

While Wilde’s complaint was artistic in nature–one imagines a horrible floral wallpaper like the kind Henry Cole included in his “Chamber of Horrors” cracking and peeling before his very eyes–his desire to connect wallpaper and mortality was not without merit.

Lucinda Hawksley’s recent book Bitten by Witch Fever: Wallpaper and Arsenic in the Victorian Home (Thames and Hudson, 2016) details the fatal role played by arsenic in producing the bright colors of Victorian wallpaper.  Unlike some of the wallpapers it chronicles, the book itself is a beautifully designed object with an innovative structure: it features color facsimiles of 275 wallpapers from the National Archives.  These samples tested positive for arsenic in recent studies.  (The process is documented in a fascinating blog post by heritage scientist Dr. Helen Wilson.) How did this fatal substance wind up in wallpaper? In 1771, the Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele discovered that he could produce a green pigment from copper arsenite.  Later experiments by the German industrialist Wilhelm Sattler combined arsenic and verdigris (also obtained from copper) to create a deep and opaque shade of green known as “emerald green,” “Paris green,” or “Schweinfurt green” (Sattler’s dye company was based in Schweinfurt, Germany). This new green could be used alone or to enhance yellows and blues, and it soon appeared in paintings, clothing, candy, and wallpaper.

Frederick Augustus Sandys, Mary Magdalene, Delaware Art Museum

British Wallpapers, 1846-1860. Crown Copyright

As Hawksley discusses, the vibrancy and color fast-ness of this new green made it a boom for the burgeoning wallpaper manufacturing industry.  As she details, “by the 1850s, it was possible to print complex patterns using up to eight different colours at the same time.  In Britain, production rose by more than 2,615 percent, from 1,222,753 rolls in 1834 to 32,000,000 rolls by 1874.”  She notes that the new green fit perfectly with the taste in the 1840s for vibrant patterned wallpaper like the kind seen in the background of Frederick Sandys’s Mary Magdalene (c. 1859).  Although reports suggested that the wallpaper could be a health hazard as early as 1839, and reports of wallpaper poisoning appeared throughout the 1850s, arsenic was not banned until 1883, with the Factory Workshop Act, later revised in 1895.  At least one wallpaper designer thought that danger was exaggerated, when doctors advised their patients to tear down their wallpaper: “As to the arsenic scare a greater folly it is hardly possible to imagine: the doctors were bitten as people were bitten by the witch fever.”  His name was William Morris.

Morris’s appearance in Hawksley’s book is not surprising given the prominent role he played in design and wallpaper manufacture from the 1860s onward.  Yet Morris is not the hero of this tale, campaigning against the considerable suffering of those exposed to arsenic. Instead, he benefited financially from his father’s investment in the Devon Great Consols, a mining venture and producer of arsenic in Devon.  Morris would serve as one of the Directors from 1871-5 before selling his shares in 1877 as he began to explore a socialist analysis of society and economics.  Retrospectively, many consider his response is surprising given his socialist politics, his concern for working conditions, as well as his interest in reviving natural dyes.  Bitten by Witch Fever has generated sensational headlines for the revelation that “poison was everywhere in the Victorian home.”  But knowledge of Morris’s use of and attitude toward arsenic has been a topic for discussion since at least 2003 when a study by Professor Andy Meharg analyzed a sample of Morris’s “Trellis” wallpaper for arsenic.  As Meharg concludes, “[Morris] seems to have had a blasé attitude to health concerns. However, we cannot be too harsh on him. ­ He was a product of his time.”

Whatever one may think about Morris’s attitude towards the medical condemnation of arsenic, Hawksley claims that his indifference to the welfare of the miners, including children, is a “great unanswered question.” Yet some scholars have argued that the question can be answered. Patrick O'Sullivan and Florence Boos have examined Morris's involvement with the Devon Great Consols to argue that his experience there led him to socialism. Elizabeth Miller has provided another perspective on this issue in her article “William Morris, Extraction Capitalism, and the Aesthetics of Surface.”  For her, it was Morris’s encounter with the extraction capitalism of mining that led him to think about surface (sunshine, air) rather than depth, and this emphasis on “exteriority” also plays a role in his attitude toward the design of wallpaper patterns.

Frances Glessner Lee striped bedroom. Collection of Harvard Medical School
Although firms were later able to market “arsenic free” wallpaper, the association of brightly printed wallpaper and domestic danger lingered.  As Hawksley suggests, maybe arsenic is to blame for the maddening effecting of a vivid yellow wallpaper on the narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novella The Yellow Wallpaper (1895).  More recently, the conjunction of wallpaper and death had us at Home Subjects looking again at the exhibition Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery. Lee produced “dollhouse-sized dioramas of true crime” to train police investigators to observe a crime scene to uncover and understand evidence.  Lee, who was both an artist and an investigator, pays careful attention to the domestic interior in the imagined crime scenes.  The Smithsonian has organized the exhibition to appeal to the detective within: “As the Nutshells are still active training tools, the solutions to each remain secret. However, the crime scene ‘reports’ (written by Lee to accompany each case) given to forensic trainees are presented alongside each diorama to encourage visitors to approach the Nutshells the way an investigator would.”  Yet more than one visitor was overheard remarking upon the interior decoration of these dioramas, and Home Subjects couldn’t help but notice a very sinister looking wallpaper in the “Striped Bedroom” with a pattern of pink roses and green foliage.

Maybe the wallpaper did it?

--Morna O’Neill, Wake Forest University

This blog post is reproduced from HomeSubjects.

19 February 2018

William Morris Society at the Morgan Library

Each year during the annual Modern Language Association Convention, the William Morris Society sponsors one or two sessions of papers and also takes a field trip to a local arts and crafts site. This year I organized a special session on Pre-Raphaelites in the Pierpont Morgan Library, so we visited the Morgan for a private exhibition on January 5, 2018. It was held in the decidedly swanky North Parlor and featured objects mentioned in the papers given by Meghan Freeman, Heather Bozant-Witcher, and myself.

This photograph shows three long-time members of the Morris Society in attendance: Mark Samuels Lasner, Florence Boos, and Frank Sharp. Behind Mr. Samuels Lasner is an early sketch (1860) made by Dante Gabriel Rossetti of William Morris’s wife Jane. The sketch had been owned by musical theater composer Jerome Kern and was acquired by the Morgan in 1961. It is virtually unknown, since it was not mentioned in the 1971 complete catalogue of Rossetti’s works compiled by Virginia Surtees (who died just this past year at the age of 100). 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, "Mrs. William Morris." Morgan Library. E.19.6
The exhibition was put on display for us by Sheelagh Bevan of the Department of Printed Books. It also featured caricatures by Ford Madox Brown and Edward Burne-Jones; autograph manuscripts of Morris’s News from Nowhere and House of the Wolfings; a pencil sketch and reworked platinotypes of Burne-Jones’ illustrations for the Kelmscott Chaucer; and two copies of the Kelmscott Chaucer itself, one on paper and one on vellum. 

In a posting to this blog from July 14, 2017, curator Rowan Bain announced an exhibition of the artworks of William Morris’s daughter May, which was held at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, East London from October 2017 through January 2018. Our own exhibition at the Morgan featured two items by May, one a sketchbook with two virtually unknown watercolors of Kelmscott Manor, and the other a book cover which she embroidered. The catalogue of the Walthamstow exhibition mentioned a transfer design for this cover at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford but was unaware of the embroidered cover itself owned by the Morgan. 

Selwyn Image, design for embroidered book cover, Ashmolean Museum. WA1941.108.29
The cover was made in 1891 for the 1890 edition of Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies and was designed not by May but by the decorative artist Selwyn Image (1849-1930). May’s embroidery features gold, blue and dark pink threads rendering an array of Japanese-looking coiled fish and stylized water symbols. May probably added the dark pink and green tulips on the spine of the book, which were not part of the transfer design. The cover was bequeathed to the Morgan in 1994 by Julia P. Wightman, herself a bookbinder and collector.  

May Morris, embroidered book cover. Morgan Library, PML 150309
The exhibition provided a close look at these fine objects and also served as a cordial reception before most of the attendants went on to our annual dinner downtown.

Paul Acker, Saint Louis University
President, William Morris Society

03 February 2018

The Novel in Marbled Covers

The Minute Book of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, & Co., held at the Huntington Library in California,
is a palm-sized volume with handsome marbled covers. Ford Madox Brown, the Pre-Raphaelite painter who served as the
Firm’s unofficial secretary and chair, presumably picked it up at a stationer’s shop sometime near the end of 1862, shortly before writing on its flyleaf, “Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. Minute book commencing Dec 10 1862.” On the page opposite he wrote the Firm’s address in Bloomsbury: “8 Red Lion Sq.” Brown bought a book with blank pages; if he had been thinking ahead, he might have purchased something larger, more suitable for accounting. Within weeks, when he wrote up a lengthy balance sheet, he had to spread the figures over several of the small, unlined pages. Yet the volume’s impractical elegance seems appropriate. Looking through the entire Minute Book, as I did on a recent research trip to the Huntington, is less like examining an account book than like reading a particularly engrossing novel—one that follows a set of engaging characters over a twelve-year relationship that begins in playful high spirits and ends in acrimony.

The Firm was founded in April 1861 by the three named partners, along with Brown, Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Philip Webb. Rossetti claimed that it was founded as a lark, that they “had no idea whatever of commercial success,” but his account has been undermined by Charles Harvey and Jon Press in their thoroughly researched revisionist account of Morris’s business career. Still, the Minute Book suggests that the partners approached their work with a combination of commercial ambition and high bonhomie. During the early years, they were committed to regular weekly meetings, no matter the season, so that when the meeting day fell on Christmas Eve, as it did soon after Brown began the Minute Book in December 1862, the event was not cancelled. Only Faulkner and Burne-Jones showed up, however, and Burne-Jones filled the role of secretary and chair. His notes are brief:

It was proposed to admit strangers which proposition divided the meeting and it was found that there was one vote for and one against it. The chairman settled the matter by giving his casting vote in favour of strangers being admitted. The little stranger Val [evidently a boy from the neighborhood] was accordingly brought in. (N.B. he was grinning as usual)

Burne-Jones’s playfulness is evident in this entry, which confirms Faulkner’s account of meetings in a letter written earlier the same year. The meetings, he wrote:

have rather the character of a meeting of the ‘Jolly Masons’ or the jolly something elses than of a meeting to discuss business. Beginning at 8 or 9 p.m. they open with the relation of anecdotes . . . this store being exhausted, Topsy and Brown will perhaps discuss the relative merits of the art of the thirteenth and fifteenth century, and then perhaps after a few more anecdotes business matters will come up about 10 or 11 o’clock and be furiously discussed till 12, 1, or 2.

Meetings may have been jolly, but the Minute Book reveals that most of the partners took them seriously and expected regular attendance. In February, 1863 they adopted a motion: “Each member to receive the sum of 10/- [shillings] for his attendance at every ordinary or special meeting of the firm.” The motion must have been intended as a carrot to entice the frequently absent Rossetti to attend. If so, it backfired; the next week Rossetti showed up, but the partners voted to amend the motion: “Agreed that the payment of 10/- to each member for attendance at a meeting be allowed only to those members who arrive before 10 P.M.” Rossetti stopped attending.

During the remainder of 1863, meetings continued irregularly, but badinage evidently trumped business at most of them, since the pages are blank aside from the record of those in attendance. In December, however, Brown recorded that they had agreed to sound out an artisan “as to whether he will be willing to work for the firm if the workshop be removed from London to Morris’ house at Upton.” Morris’s Upton residence was the famous Red House, which Morris and Burne-Jones were dreaming of turning into what they called a “Palace of Art.” They would expand the house so that the Burne-Jones and Morris families could live and work side-by-side, integrating their affectional and professional lives. A contemporary reader, however, is aware of the poignancy of this entry. Within a year, both families would be struck with serious illnesses, the Burne-Jones’s newborn son would die, and Morris would, with great pain, abandon both his longed-for Palace of Art and Red House itself.

Once Faulkner, who had been serving as business manager, left the Firm to return to Oxford as a fellow in mathematics in early 1864, regular partners’ meetings ceased. The few meetings held during the remainder of the 1860s reveal that Morris was increasingly consolidating his power. He had reason to do so. A balance sheet from February, 1863 shows that a substantial portion of the firm’s assets consisted of loans from Morris (£400) and his mother (£200). Moreover, Morris had completed far more work for the Firm than any other member; his account for work completed totaled over £150, while the nearest partner, Webb, had earned under £100, and Rossetti’s commissions totaled under £7.

At the few partners’ meetings held after 1864, the group increasingly ceded power and profits to Morris, agreeing to pay off his £400 loan, increasing his salary, and giving him 10 per cent of net annual profits.

Finally, in late 1874, with his income from investments declining and his energy increasingly devoted to the Firm’s success, Morris determined to dissolve the partnership. After a silence of nearly four years, the Minute Book records a somber meeting attended by all the partners except Brown and Rossetti: “Resolved unanimously: that it is desirable that the firm be dissolved.” The minutes go on to record that “Mr. Morris laid before the meeting two papers,” which revealed that Marshall, who by this point had become a desperate alcoholic, had gone behind the others’ backs to try to reconstitute the firm as “Morris, Marshall, & Co” and to move it to his own premises. The minutes note, with considerable restraint, that “this meeting disapproves of Mr. P. P. Marshall’s proceedings in this matter.” 

Less than two weeks later, on November 4, Morris and three of the six other partners gathered for their final meeting. They were joined by two solicitors, one representing Brown and the other Morris. Brown insisted, via his lawyer, on a substantial payout in return for the “goodwill” he had invested. Morris responded, with mordant humor, that “in the event of the dissolution of the firm there would be no good will.”

So ends the Minute Book of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. What had begun in fellowship and boisterous good spirits concluded with solicitors and irony.

--Michael Robertson, The College of New Jersey

24 January 2018

Dunlap Award Winner Shyam Patel

The William Morris Society in the U.S. is pleased to award the 2018 Dunlap Fellowship to Shyam Patel, a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of California, Irvine. His dissertation concerns the relationships among moral perfectionism, political utopianism, and aesthetic organicism in the work of British authors and artists (including William Morris) in the second half of the nineteenth century. Here is Shyam’s summary of his project:

In the Morris portion of my dissertation – “Romanticism, Socialism, and Organicism: The Aesthetic of William Morris’ Late-Career Politics” – I locate the ideological unity of Morris’ dedication to artistic production and political activism in the Romantic tradition of organicism, whose simultaneous critique of political economy and advocacy of aesthetic autonomy Morris sought to embody over the course of his multifaceted career.  Focusing on the last decade of Morris’s life, I argue that the complementarity of the Romantics’ organic models for artistic activity and social life helps to demonstrate both the aesthetic dimensions of Morris’ work organizing for the Socialist League (from 1884 to 1890) and the political dimensions of his work managing the Kelmscott Press (from 1891 to 1896).  I claim that Morris’ turn from the former to the latter represents not an apolitical “retreat” into pure aesthetics, but rather an attempt to practically realize on a smaller, private scale the Romantic union of aesthetic and political organicism that his previous cultural criticism and socialist activism sought to secure on the grander scales of public opinion and policy, respectively.
Kelmscott Press logo
Kelmscott Press edition of Coleridge

The Joseph R. Dunlap Memorial Fellowship will allow me to visit special collections at The University of Maryland and The University of Texas at Austin that contain manuscripts, letters, and ephemera from Morris’ work with the Kelmscott Press and the Socialist League.  The research at these collections will help me to develop this project in two directions.  On the one hand, it will allow me to complete a standalone article that reads Morris alongside the Romantic tradition of organicism, in order to challenge the ambiguities, equivocations, and binary oppositions that have become calcified in the scholarship concerning Morris’s relationships to Romanticism and socialism.  On the other hand, this research will be integrated into a dissertation that considers the function of organicist metaphors in Victorian aesthetics, sociology, and political economy more broadly, placing Morris in meaningful relation to Romantic and Victorian figures with whom he is not ordinarily associated, including Coleridge, De Quincey, Spencer, Mill, Dickens, and Hardy.

Hammersmith branch, Socialist League. Morris stands fifth from right on second row.

29 December 2017

The William Morris Society at MLA, New York City, January 5, 2018

Our late colleague and former William Morris Society president Jack Walsdorf, whom we lost this past summer, wrote of a past Modern Language Association convention, “This will be a great time for Morris lovers from across the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. to bond in friendship.”

Jack’s comment speaks to the WMS’s history of forging relationships and welcoming new members. In addition to coordinating activities with Morris societies worldwide, our annual meeting, which we hold in conjunction with the MLA Convention each year, offers our members many opportunities to meet up with fellow Morrisians. 

This year’s convention in New York City promises to be a busy one for WMS members, with all our formal events taking place on Friday, January 5. Our sponsored session this year is on “Objectifying Morris” (3:30-4:45 pm) with the following participants and papers:

Rachel Ernst (Boston College), "Materially Relational: William Morris and the Hybrid Literary Object"

Florence S. Boos (University of Iowa), "Where Have All the Manuscripts Gone? Morris's Autographs in Diaspora"

Corinna Illingworth (Independent Scholar), "William Morris's Interior Design Creations and His Love of Mythology"

Respondent: Andrew Wood (University of California-Santa Cruz)

Moderator: Jason D. Martinek (New Jersey City University)

Board member Paul Acker has also organized a session on “Pre-Raphaelites and the Pierpont Morgan Library” (1:45-3:00 pm) with the following participants and papers:

Meghan Freeman (Manhattanville College), "Utopia Under Construction: News from Nowhere in the Pierpont Morgan Library"

Heather Bozant Witcher (St. Louis University), "'Fingers, eyes, and sympathy': The Kelmscott Chaucer Platinotypes"

Paul Acker (St. Louis University), "In the Pre-Raphaelite Archive"

Moderator: Florence S. Boos (University of Iowa)

Taking advantage of the Convention’s location in New York, Paul has also arranged for a special viewing of an exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite materials at the Morgan Library.
The East Room of the Morgan Library
Our annual meeting and dinner, held this year at Johns of 12th Street, will offer further opportunities for forging new relationships. The event allows us to celebrate the dedication of two outgoing board members: President Jason Martinek, and Vice President Linda Hughes, who have both set very high bars for future officers. Dinner also allows us to welcome new board members, remember those who can no longer be with us, and appreciate those who can be. 

Additional details on our MLA schedule and information for those who would like to attend any of these events can be found on our website. All are welcome.

--KellyAnn Fitzpatrick, Georgia Institute of Technology

20 December 2017

Lawrence Alma-Tadema and William Morris

A recent conference at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art in London, "Alma-Tadema: Antiquity at Home and On Screen," coincided with the appearance of an exhibition of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema's work at Leighton House Museum entitled "Lawrence Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity."  Organized by Peter Trippi, Elizabeth Prettejohn, and Ivo Blom, the exhibition appeared at the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden, The Netherlands (the artist's hometown), followed by the Belvedere in Vienna, and then finally Leighton House Museum.  

William Morris (1834-1896) and Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) were contemporaries, but very little seems to connect them in terms of artistic ideals and interests other than an overlapping circle of friends, including Edward Burne-Jones.  Alma-Tadema was also a founding member of Morris’s Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings, founded in 1877.  Morris wrote to his daughter Jenny on October 17, 1888 about the elaborate decorations undertaken by Alma-Tadema at Townshend House, near Regent’s Park, where the artist lived from 1871-5: “I don’t admire them: they appear to me too much made up of goose giblets and umbrellas.”  The artist’s daughter Anna Alma-Tadema created a series of watercolors of the house, including a view of the study, that suggests the wide range of artistic interests and inspiration, including what Charlotte Gere has identified in the exhibition catalogue as a dado of resist-dyed cotton from the Dutch East Indies. Perhaps these were the goose giblets? Nonetheless, critics considered the kind of artistic living fashioned by Alma-Tadema at Townshend House to be commensurate with the approach to interior decoration advocated by William Morris.  Moncure Conway considered the house to be “the most complete rendering of the effects at which William Morris and Burne Jones have aimed in their efforts at beautifying London households.”

Anna Alma-Tadema, "Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema's Study in Townshend House, London. Cooper-Hewitt

But the visual records suggest that Alma-Tadema was interested in the work of William Morris. The exhibition featured the stunning Epps Family Screen, painted in cooperation with the artist’s student Laura Theresa Epps, who would later become his wife.  The six-fold screen, now in the collection of the V&A, shows Laura’s family at dinner, gathering below an inscription from Aesop’s fables celebrating family unity.

Portrait of the Epps Family ("Epps Family Screen"), c. 1871, V&A
They gather in a dining room hung with Morris’s Pomegranate wallpaper, designed c. 1865. The design may have been a favorite of Laura’s, as it appears in a watercolor by the artist Ellen Epps from 1873, Laura Alma-Tadema Entering the Dutch Room at Townshend House (now in the collection of Peter and Dorothy Wright).

Ellen Epps (later Gosse), "Portrait of Laura, Lady Alma-Tadema," 1873. Private collection.

The décor paid homage to the artist’s Dutch identity, albeit with an eclecticism characteristic of the Aesthetic movement: Laura strides through a doorway mostly hidden by an Old Dutch cabinet filled with linen, but the dado below Pomegranate appears to be comprised of Japanese tatami mats.

In addition to these connections, the symposium suggests the range of exciting new work on the artist’s studio.  Each day of the two-day event addressed different themes in Alma-Tadema's art. Day one considered the studio houses, including those of Alma-Tadema and other artists (especially Leighton House), studio-houses abroad, and the cultural life of the extended Tadema family.  The second day addressed films set in classical antiquity, including the influence of Tadema's paintings on depictions of life in the ancient world in other media, such as tableaux vivants, theater, and film.  The Paul Mellon Centre has provided recordings of the talks on the first day, including plenary lectures by Christopher Reed and Mary Roberts.

Leighton House Museum was a fitting venue for an exhibition that explored the range of meanings that attached to domestic life in the art of Alma-Tadema (1836-1912).  Many of the subjects of this "Victorian classicist" addressed domestic life in antiquity.  Perhaps less well-known to audiences is the extent to which Alma-Tadema also orchestrated his own domestic and working life in two studio-houses he created in St. John's Wood, with his wife Laura (also an artist) and his daughters Laurence and Anna, who was also an artist.  In 1883, the artist acquired a new house, one that had originally been enlarged by the artist James Tissot.  He set about extensively remodeling the house and gardens, adding such practical features as a changing room and washing facilities for models.  And it was at Grove End House that Alma-Tadema set about creating "Casa Tadema," an architecturally sophisticated space adorned with the artist's collection of antiques and curios.

Environments such as this one create a dialogue between the inhabitants’ work and life.  It is this kind of associative property of the artist’s studio that Theodor Adorno highlights in his essay “Valery, Proust, Museum.”  The studio is the place of art’s immediacy, where it is protected for the “barbarity” of the museum.   This approach brings to mind the range of domestic spaces in which one can explore the art and life of William Morris.  The William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow was the Morris family home from 1848 to 1856, and today it is a gallery that considers the artist’s life and work as well as the art produced by Morris’s circle of friends and colleagues.  Red House in Bexleyheath was commissioned by Morris from the architect Philip Webb in 1859.  The family lived there until 1865, and it is currently a National Trust property that is open to the public.  It was at Red House that Morris founded “the Firm” of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co.  Morris’s political convictions came to the fore during his time at Kelmscott House in Hammersmith, overlooking the Thames, Morris’s residence from 1878 until his death in 1896.  It is still a private house and is not open to visitors.  Those in search of a Kelmscott experience will have to explore Kelmscott Manor in the Cotwolds, opened to the public during certain times thanks to the Society of Antiquaries in London.  These residences and the range of Morris’s artistic production make it difficult to name a single “artist’s studio home” for Morris.  Yet the diversity of the Morris “studio-home” environments provides it own sort of richness, from the idea of the artist decorating the interior at Red House to the meetings of the Hammersmith Socialist Society at Kelmscott House.

--Morna O'Neill, Associate Professor of Art, Wake Forest University

16 November 2017

William Morris: Designing an Earthly Paradise

            The Cleveland Museum of Art’s new exhibition “William Morris: Designing an Earthly Paradise” opened last month and is scheduled to run through November 11, 2018. The exhibition includes textiles, wallpaper, and carpets; a selection of Kelmscott Press publications; and a May Morris embroidery on loan from the Cranbrook Art Museum.
            Morris was a famously prolific designer. In the spring of 1876 he wrote to his friend Aglaia Coronio, “I am drawing patterns so fast that last night I dreamed I had to draw a sausage; somehow I had to eat it first, which made me anxious about my digestion: however I have just done quite a pretty pattern for printed work.” Morris was in the midst of one of his most productive periods of textile design, and while we do not know which work this anecdote refers to, it was the year he designed Honeysuckle, an archetypal pattern that shows his love of large mirror motifs.


            Textiles—including embroidery, printed cotton, woven fabrics, tapestries, and carpets—were among the most profitable of Morris & Co.’s merchandise. Morris was a born pattern maker and looked to both nature and history as a model. Unlike German and Japanese textile designers, or his English competitors, he was inspired not by exotic greenhouse flowers but by the simple blooms of an English garden. The humble marigold, honeysuckle, tulip, and sunflower often joined tangled ivy or sprigs of willow in patterns of great clarity and charm.
            During an age when rooms were stuffed with mass-produced objects and teeming with ornament, Morris challenged people to “have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” Throughout his career, however, there was a tension between Morris’s desire to make high-quality goods widely available and the expense of producing handcrafted items from fine materials, which meant primarily the wealthy could afford them. One of his costly innovations was to return to the natural dyes that had been replaced during his lifetime by garish and fugitive chemical dyes. Evidence of the rich and subtle hues of natural dye is apparent in textiles such as Violet and Columbine, woven from wool and mohair.

Violet and Columbine

            The installation of the exhibition William Morris: Designing an Earthly Paradise reflects the character of many Victorian rooms that incorporated products designed by Morris & Co. Richly varied patterns on fabric, wallpaper, and carpets produced a vividly
lush effect. The gallery walls are papered with a modern reproduction of Fruit, one of Morris’s earliest wallpaper designs, dating from 1862 and in production for over 150 years. Created with generous assistance from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the rug is a full-scale reproduction on vinyl of Bullerswood, the largest hand-knotted Hammersmith (so called for the district where they were originally produced) carpet ever produced by Morris & Co.
             From Morris’s university days at Oxford through the end of his life, he relied on the camaraderie of friends and family to foster the creative environment in which he delighted and thrived. This was especially true of his final labor of love: Kelmscott Press. Founded in 1890, the press produced beautiful books with ornaments and typefaces designed by Morris. The volumes had much in common with books printed in the earliest years of the printing press. Bound in either vellum or quarter-cloth and paper and printed on high-quality linen paper, they allowed one to enjoy the tactile experience of reading. Several books were illustrated by Morris’s friend Edward Burne-Jones, a successful painter who also designed stained glass and tapestry for Morris & Co. Burne-Jones’s illustration for the frontispiece of The Order of Chivalry shows how seamlessly his gothic style complemented the page’s Morris-designed borders and typeface. The Ingalls Library at the Cleveland Museum of Art is fortunate to have each of the 53 titles printed by the Kelmscott Press. 

            Morris’s literary masterpiece, The Earthly Paradise, was printed by the press in 1896, the year he died. The epic poem invites the reader to leave behind the grime and noise of modern-day England and become immersed in the author’s dream world, inspired by medieval and classical tales. Morris’s designs and working philosophy combined a vast knowledge of the past with a vision for the future, always inspired by the world around him.

--Cory Korkow, Associate Curator of European Art

A version of this essay appeared in the Cleveland Museum of Art Members Magazine.