The Art of Wallpaper – Morris & Co explores the influences and legacy of designer and writer William Morris (1834-1896). A pioneer of modern design, Morris began designing wallpaper patterns in the 1860s, and within a decade was creating some of his most recognised designs. This impressive exhibition at Dovecot Studios features over 130 framed original wallpaper samples from the Morris & Co archives, giving a whole new meaning to the term ‘hanging wallpaper’. It also puts the designs into historical context and offers insight into the techniques and materials.
It’s the first time many of these historic samples have been exhibited in the UK. Also included are rarely-seen examples from acclaimed 19th and 20th Century designers, such as Owen Jones, Christopher Dresser, Augustus Welby Pugin, C F A Voysey and Walter Crane. The exhibition, curated by textile historian Mary Schoeser, is produced by Dovecot Studios with the Sanderson Design Group Archive. Sanderson acquired the pattern blocks from Morris & Co – the designs are still sold worldwide.
William Morris, and the Arts & Crafts Movement, changed the landscape of Victorian British domestic interiors. His lifelong nostalgia for medieval culture established an idealistic aesthetic approach. He placed importance on handmade textile art techniques, a communal society connected to nature, a rejection of machine production and elevating the status of handcrafted designs.
The exhibition begins by setting the scene for wallpaper design in Victorian Britain. English Chintz and elaborate French designs gave way to aesthetic reform and the Gothic Revival. A simpler design aesthetic emerged, inspired by the medieval past. Here you’ll find rare samples from this period including Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852), Owen Jones (1809-1874), and a sample from the ‘new’ Houses of Parliament.
Owen Jones argued that good design lies in non-Western pattern, with ideal colour proportions and patterns from nature. Here we find samples influenced by international cultures, including kinkarakami – the Japanese embossed paper technique which mimics leather.
Morris’ first interior design firm, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Company, produced household items by hand, including furniture, textile art and wallpaper, seeking to brought the wild beauty of nature into simple pattern forms for the home. At first, these were expensive, one-off items of painted furniture, embroideries and stained glass. But Morris sought to make domestic items that were accessible to all. Wallpaper design was key to reaching this mass appeal.
Morris began designing wallpaper patterns for his own home in Kent, drawing inspiration from surrounding nature and researching medieval dyeing and printing methods. His designs featured unfurling foliage, burgeoning fruit and flowers, birds and insects poised for action; these designs became internationally renowned. Also on display is an original handwritten letter with notes on the colouring and detail of a trial sample.
One highlight of this exhibition is display cabinets showing some original Victorian woodblocks used for printing Morris’ Chrysanthemum pattern. The design was engraved onto these massive blocks in relief form, inked and placed onto the wallpaper. Each colour was printed separately along the length of the roll, then hung up to dry before the next colour was applied. Pitch pins on the corners of each block kept the design elements in place.
The exhibition continues with historic samples of renowned wallpaper designs from Morris and the Arts & Crafts Movement. Colour patterns required many different blocks and could take several days to print the different layers. It is these elements that gave Morris-designed wallpaper a richness, depth and character not achievable by machine. Don’t miss the short video demonstration of block printing in action.
The next section of the exhibition focuses on William Morris and his legacy. In the early 1870s, Morris wallpapers, fabrics and carpets were already available to American consumers. From 1875 a new firm, created solely by Morris, traded as Morris & Co until 1940. We can see a sample of a special commission wallpaper from Queen Victoria for Balmoral which is still produced today. In viewing all the original samples, it’s satisfying to see them ‘in the flesh’ with all their cracks, wrinkles and handmade imperfections. Even so, they have stood the test of time remarkably.
By the 1880s, Morris accepted that machines were necessary to make patterned wallpaper accessible to all. From 1877 customers could buy readymade wallpapers from his new Oxford Street showroom in London. There they were displayed alongside other products, including textiles and furnishings, to suggest how Morris-designed items could be combined to decorate interior spaces. Morris once said in a lecture from 1882: ‘Whatever you do, think firstly of your walls’.
Mary ‘May’ Morris (1862-1938), the younger daughter of William, led the embroidery department of Morris and Co. She designed several wallpaper and textile designs, which feature in the exhibition. May Morris worked hard to ensure her father’s legacy long after his death. We can also view designs from Kate Faulkner, sister of one of the founding partners of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co.
The designs of Morris & Co continue to inspire designers and decorators today. It’s no surprise that there are events running alongside the exhibition to inspire decoration for your own home, just like in the early days of the Oxford Street showrooms. For those who can’t make it to this comprehensive exhibition in person, there is a virtual exhibition tour on 2nd March with Dovecot Studios’ curator Kate Grenyer.
With grateful thanks to Artmag contributor Julie Boyne for this review.