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

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