William Morris – life in colour

posted in: Inspiration | 7

I already wrote about the special Yinka Shonibare exhibition. This post covers William Morris. He lived in this home, from 1848 to 1856. There are also many other William Morris buildings in London – he lived at the Red House in Bexleyheath, now with the National Trust.  You can also see where he lived in Hammersmith, on the River. And the factory at Abbey Mills, in the LB Merton. He was a most interesting character – involved in politics, art, design, preservation, manufacturing, commerce, and campaigning. If you live in London, and have an interest in textiles, furniture design, art or left-wing politics, you really need to get to know Morris by visiting some of these places. The Walthamstow property was the one I had never seen.

William Morris Blue Plaque
William Morris Blue Plaque

I warn you that most of the colours in this post are natural, muted shades. Morris disapproved of bright shades, created with chemicals. His fabrics and other products were coloured with natural materials imported from all over the world. These gorgeous tiles are some of the brightest colours that you can see in the gallery. Lovely designs, based on nature, but so bold and vibrant.

There are some reels of silk used for embroidery, more ceramics and designs for wallpaper. In the museum you can also see how the tapestries were made with hand dyed wools. It is quite a process to make a shaded rose with a complex background. The apprentices worked on small samples first until their work was good enough to make rugs and wall hangings to sell. In fact some of the society ladies who purchased Morris furniture or fabrics preferred to do their own embroidery and there are examples on display at the museum. There is quite a predominance of this mustardy yellow. How beautiful it looks toned with turquoise and soft green. A beautiful warm-muted palette. And there is something about these romantic pre raphaelite with their printed, flowing dresses, long unruly hair and crowns of leaves.

What is so interesting for people, like me, who just love making things, is the sense of art being turned into products. Here is Morris’s own artists smock (actually its a reproduction), a photograph of some of the workers who created the designs in the workshop. And an advertisement that shows the fabrics being promoted through the shop in central London. These fabrics have been in continuous production since they were first designed. I have a little story of my own about these fabrics.

We bought a home in south London during the 1980s and when tidying out the loft we found several rolls of William Morris wallpaper. The wall paper featured margins that had to be removed before the wallpaper was hung. This means that the wallpaper had been manufactured between about 1940 and 1960. We searched for a while for a machine to trim the paper and found one in a window display of a trendy paint shop but they wouldn’t lend it to us. In the end we trimmed the paper with a straight edge and a sharp knife, and decorated the sitting room in the paper. It is known as Willow Bough and comes in green, and blue too, and in different scales. The paint work was painted in cream to go with the wall paper and then I wondered what to do about the curtains. In the end I went out and bought the same fabric for the curtains. Although it may have been overpowering for some people I loved the impact of all the green, leafy textiles and paper. It was like sitting in a lovely garden or conservatory when the curtains were closed.

Willow Bough by W Morris
William Morris Willow Bough

7 Responses

  1. Linde

    I really enjoyed this piece and I have to say a have a weakness for William Morris fabric. Because they can be a bit overpowering I have been making them into bias binding and using them on a plain coloured garment. By reversing the garment so some of the seams are outside it turns them into a focus area and the William Morris pattern is just enough to make it interesting.

  2. mrsmole

    Speaking of UK artists, we just saw the movie, Mr Turner and it was superb! It was over 2.5 hours long and we never felt that it dragged or we wanted to leave. Every scene made you feel like you were actually there with him in the studio or waterfront or countryside. I’m not a fan of those watercolors but you get a real sense of his life and his troubles in that time period. Lovely wallpaper!!!! Too bad it is not in fabric!

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