May Morris

MAY MORRIS 1862-1938 William Morris Gallery 11 Jan-11 March

This exhibition will be the first to deal exclusively with the life and work of May Morris. Her connections as William Morris’s younger daughter have, until comparatively recently, counted against her in that her work was regarded as a pale imitation of her father’s, and her only personality traits that had been well documented were tireless efforts to maintain William Morris’s reputation. Research now shows her to be an innovatory artist in her own right.

She is best known for her embroidery design. As small children May and her sister Jenny helped with the embroidery at the firm Morris & Co. It seems to have been standard practice for William to prepare the design and for the family to work it up into the finished piece. Although William was noted for his involvement in all stages of production, he seems to have lost interest in embroidery at an early stage and been happy to delegate work in that area. This could be a reason for May becoming Head of the Embroidery Department in the firm in 1885. Embroidery was an acceptable craft for a woman, but to say that she took it up under social pressure is to decry her talent. May did study painting as well and was encouraged in other forms of design. She produced three wallpapers and one of them, Honeysuckle, is still made today.

Her embroidery designs for Morris & Co. are significantly different from the ones produced subsequent to leaving the firm in 1896 after her father’s death. The Morris & Co. designs have been shown most regularly and this is probably a contributory factor to her work being underestimated. By the 1880s, Morris & Co. were expected to produce a certain type of work and May was restricted by this ‘house style’. However, comparison of this early embroidery with the later work does show that there was direction and development in the design which distinguishes May’s from her father’s. William’s embroidery designs compose separate elements by linking them with a repeating pattern or dense foliage as a background, or the designs are similar in form to the wallpapers and chintzes and are simply repeating patterns. May, by contrast, relied on the single elements being placed geometrically on the fabric to balance and compose the embroidery. Her approach influenced later designers such as Grace Christie and Jessie Newbery. On a professional level, May pioneered the idea that women should play a part in the creative process by designing a,s well as performing the jobbing task of embroidering the piece of work.

In 1907, she founded the Women’s Guild of Arts, formed as a parallel organisation to the then exclusively male Art Workers’ Guild. This ensured that women were well represented in the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society shows. At this date she was teaching at the Central School of Art and worked as a consultant and lecturer at art schools nationwide. By 1910, her reputation had spread internationally and she was invited to give a lecture tour in America and to show in exhibitions across Europe. In spite of her heavy work schedule, she managed to edit and write introductions for the 24 volumes of the ‘Collected Works of William Morris’ which were published in 1915.

From 1900, much of her time was spent at Kelmscott Manor which had been the Morris family’s country home since 1871, and she campaigned continuously for the welfare of the villagers even when her career was at its height. Amongst her achievements for Kelmscott, she helped establish a Women’s Institute in 1916 to help with the war effort, she had cottages built for the workers, and she set up a fund to build the Morris Memorial Hall in 1934. She retired there permanently in about 1920, but never gave up embroidery. On her death in 1938, she left behind her a reputation as a prominent member of the Arts and Crafts Movement and she had elevated the status of embroidery from a casual pastime to an art form.