If the rise of textiles can be traced alongside the history of capitalism, then William Morris (1834–96) lived a grand contradiction. The nineteenth-century British poet, printmaker, and fabric manufacturer produced high-quality handcrafted goods intended for the masses, but the massive costs and intense labor required for his projects limited his market to the people he so often denigrated—the wealthy.
But that inconsistency didn’t stop Morris from creating artwork that defined the Arts and Crafts movement. The Cleveland Museum of Art has assembled a collection of some of Morris’s most popular fabric designs, alongside selected books printed by his Kelmscott Press (of which Cleveland possesses a complete run of all fifty-three books), in “William Morris: Designing an Earthly Paradise,” on view through January 13, 2019.1
Morris came from a rich middle-class family supported by holdings in copper mines. But while studying at Oxford in the mid-1850s, he developed a taste for the Romantic. Morris fell in love with the poetry and architecture of medieval Europe—as seen through John Ruskin’s critical eye, especially in his seminal work The Stones of Venice (1853). Soon, Morris began writing and moved into the orbit of the painter Edward Burne-Jones and a number of other artists in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
Morris conceived of the idea for a design firm that would market Ruskin’s particular brand of aestheticism: a vision of man dignified by the work of his and his friends’ own hands.
After Oxford, Morris and Burne-Jones became close friends with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the preeminent Pre-Raphaelite, for whom Burne-Jones began to apprentice. Morris and Burne-Jones rented a flat together in 1857, following Rossetti’s suggestion that they become collaborators. While working for a London architectural firm, Morris met his future wife, Jane Burden. She soon became his muse and (in one of the most studied cuckoldries of the century) the sultry Beatrice to a lustful Rossetti.
Shortly after marrying Burden, Morris and his circle of friends conceived of the idea for a design firm that would market Ruskin’s particular brand of aestheticism: a vision of man dignified by the work of his and his friends’ own hands. Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, & Co., formed in 1861 (reorganized as Morris & Co. in 1875), allowed Morris to pursue his growing interest in producing textiles and other manufactured goods. The museum’s reproduction of one of the firm’s early textile designs, Fruit (1862), appears in Cleveland as the wallpaper for the exhibition.
The rest of the textile designs on display date from the mid-1870s to the early 1880s. The designs bring out each artist’s particular aesthetic concerns. Morris, for example, held that large patterns were more restful to the eyes. His Marigold (1875) textile pattern follows this conviction: the flower wends its way across the fabric, following his belief that the best designs move with the “rational growth” of the natural world. His associate Kate Faulkner, in contrast, preferred smaller, tighter patterns. Her Peony (1877) design forms neat square-like repetitions, which are not nearly as relaxed as Morris’s. Yet both designs reveal the common desire to present England’s natural beauty with indigenous flowers. Morris’s Marigold was so popular that the firm sold it as a fabric, a wallpaper, and a linoleum print.
Other designs reveal Morris’s fondness for including birds in his compositions. Strawberry Thief (1883) depicts thrushes pillaging from the garden at Morris’s Kelmscott Manor. This was one of the firm’s most expensive designs, as it required the entire fabric to be dyed blue and bleached before the design could be block-printed. William’s daughter May Morris (whose handmade bed hangings are also on display), once recalled how her father would sneak out early in the morning to study the thrushes, ordering his servants that “no bird in the garden must be touched.”
Morris’s Peacock and Dragon (1878) moves the avian motif to a mythical realm. Morris modeled the fanciful pattern on his impressions from a visit to the London art dealer Vincent Robinson’s Damascus room, which Morris described as “all vermillion & gold & ultramarine, very beautiful, and is just like going into the Arabian Nights.” He intended Peacock and Dragon to evoke the luxury of a medieval tapestry.
Morris curtly replied to his patron, “It’s only that I spend my life in ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich.”
When applying each of these designs to the fabric, workers at Morris’s firm hand-pressed each carved block to the textile to imprint the design with organic dye. Morris used these dyes not only for idealistic reasons, but also because their tonal effects are richer and subtler than synthetic alternatives. The deep discharge of natural color is less likely to fade in the sunlight or after washing.
Naturally, this attention to quality and longevity made the firm’s products that much more expensive. This bothered Morris. By the mid-1870s, he had become a disgruntled socialist, and by the mid-1880s, he was a card-carrying Marxist embarking on an award tour around England. In a famous 1876 incident, a wealthy industrialist found Morris pacing up and down the hallways of his home, muttering to himself while peering at the redecorated walls. When asked what the matter was, Morris curtly replied to his patron, “It’s only that I spend my life in ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich.”
Morris’s work also delighted the Victorian aesthetic movement, led by the Oxford don Walter Pater. Pater praised Morris’s art and poetry in the conclusion of Pater’s influential—and controversial—critical work The Renaissance (1873) to advance his own belief that “art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.” Morris’s designs soon became favorites of the decadent aesthetes, further compounding the tension between the artist’s political beliefs and his work. Cleveland gives a gentle nod to this association by including a photograph of Oscar Wilde’s son Cyril Holland splayed out on a couch upholstered with Morris’s Kennet (1883) design.
As Morris became more adamantly political, his interest in producing textiles waned. He turned to publishing instead, through his Kelmscott Press, which he founded in 1890. Cleveland’s selection includes printings of John Ruskin’s “The Nature of Gothic” (1892), a chapter excerpted from The Stones of Venice, and Morris’s 1895 translation of Beowulf, completed with the help of Alfred John Wyatt. The two works are representative of the artist’s tastes and ideology: Morris called the former “one of the few necessary and inevitable utterances of the century,” possibly because it justified his convoluted business practices. And Beowulf, Morris believed, was “the first and best poem of the English race with no author but the people,” perhaps more a reflection of his own political beliefs than a tribute to the dragon-slaying Geat.
The Cleveland Museum also displays Kelmscott’s paramount achievement: an 1896 edition of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Like most of the press’s books, it is bound in thick vellum, often with blemishes from the tanned animal hide still visible—a choice intended to situate the reader’s mind in the natural world, just like Morris intended to do with his textile designs. He designed the typeface—the still widely used Chaucer—and Burne-Jones furnished the eighty-seven illustrations. The exhibition features Burne-Jones’s illustration for the beginning of “The Knight’s Tale,” a drawing modeled on the Florentine painter Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (ca. 1484–86). Morris also designed the pages’ floral borders, which blossom around the text like the tracery of Gothic spires, making the book what Burne-Jones called a “pocket cathedral.”
Morris died the same year he published his edition of The Canterbury Tales, still embittered that his pricey work had only been available to the rich, his ideological opponents. But his loss was greater than he could have known. Although Cleveland puts on a faithful exhibition, it’s hard to imagine that Morris would have approved of the machine-printed Fruit wallpaper or the vinyl reproduction of his hand-knotted Hammersmith carpet on the floor. And the printed tracery surrounding the text on the exhibition plaques likely would have had him bristling with annoyance.
Morris’s designs are at last available to anyone with a photocopier or Internet connection—but they’ve lost their handcrafted quality.