May Morris? Wasn’t she related to William Morris, the famous English textile designer, writer and socialist? Wife – or daughter? – who edited his poems and copied his designs?
If that is all you know about May Morris, you are not alone. Her life and work have been so eclipsed by her famous father that her own achievements have been invisible for over a century.
Now the William Morris Gallery in the London is staging a retrospective exhibition to showcase her work. Those, like me, who have championed May Morris over the years are thrilled to present her to the public at long last. Born in 1862, just when her father launched the business that would become Morris & Co, with its trademarked fabrics, wallpapers and stained glass, May followed her mother Jane, the renowned Pre-Raphaelite model, into the fine craft of embroidery.
This period saw a reaction against the machine age, with a revalorisation of traditionally hand-crafted pieces made by designer-makers. The new aesthetic, soon named the Arts & Crafts movement, favoured stylistic simplicity combined with high quality, in designs inspired by pre-industrial examples. May was part of the first generation to study fine crafts in art schools like the National Art Training School in South Kensington, which later evolved into the Royal College of Art. Here, her specialisms were textiles and embroidery – notably Opus Anglicanum, a form of fine, rich needlework that developed in medieval England, used primarily for church vestments. At the age of 23, she took over management of the Morris & Co embroidery department, supervising the production of altar cloths, portières, fire screens and bed covers commissioned by clients, all in the Morris house style. Some of her own designs, such as Honeysuckle (c.1883) and Horn Poppy (1885), joined the firm’s stock of printed textiles and papers, and were sometimes misattributed as her father’s work. Having often taken inspiration from him, for example from the lines in his poems describing the horn poppy as “thin and bright”, May would possibly have been pleased with this error, although she later made a point of correcting it.