Archive for William Morris

Venetian Red Bookshelf: A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book

Posted in Book Review, Ceramics, Christine Cariati, Design, Fine & Decorative Arts, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 18, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

A. S. Byatt‘s The Children’s Book is a complex tapestry of a book. It begins in 1895 and ends during the Great War. It is woven through with sensuous descriptions of textiles, pottery glazes, art, clothing and sexual longing, as well as musings on what it is to be an artist or a writer.

As usual, Byatt’s writing is erudite, some would say to a fault. The Children’s Book is unrepentantly intellectual, filled with long, complex digressions on art and nature—and it basks, unashamedly, in the life of ideas. In The Children’s Book, Byatt mines all of her interests—history and natural history, the visual arts, literature, fairy tales, the decorative arts—and weaves them together in an epic tale of two generations of several artistic families (including nearly 20 children) who live in the Kentish countryside.

Victoria & Albert

How could I not love a book that begins in the South Kensington Museum, (later the Victoria & Albert), and immediately engages us with lush descriptions of the forms, ornamentation and glazes of gorgeous decorative objects? The main characters live in a house decorated in the aesthetic of the Arts & Crafts movement, with furniture and wallpaper by William Morris and his cohorts. Their lives are, at first glance, idyllic—Midsummer parties on vast lawns, with theater and puppet shows, open conversation about sexuality, talk about the suffragette movement, the Fabian Society and Socialist idealism. But there’s a dark undercurrent that quickly becomes apparent—a web of adultery, selfishness and secrecy.

William Morris

Byatt is particularly good at illuminating the irony in the disparity between her characters’ professed beliefs and the way they live their lives—whether in the social, sexual or artistic realm. Byatt also doesn’t shy away from showing us the destructive effect that parents’ misguided creativity can have on their children. Most ominously, the carnage of the coming war looms unseen, and many of the children we meet in the opening chapters will be casualties of that war. We feel tragically helpless, even as we worry about the ill effects of  their haphazard upbringing, we suspect these children will not live far into adulthood.

1895 was the end of the Victorian era and the beginning of the Edwardian age, when the cult of childhood began. It was the heyday of children’s literature—J.M. Barrie, Kenneth Grahame and E Nesbit were writing their masterpieces. In fact, Byatt’s heroine, Olive Wellwood, who lives with her husband Humphry and their seven children in a country cottage called Todefright—a beloved children’s writer of dark, somewhat Germanic versions of English fairy stories—is largely inspired by E Nesbit. Olive says:

Well, I sometimes feel, stories are the inner life of this house. A kind of spinning of energy. I am this spinning fairy in the attic, I am Mother Goose quacking away what sounds like comforting chatter but is really — is really what holds it all together.

Other characters suggest hybrids of H.G. Wells, D.H. Lawrence—and writers Virginia Woolf, Rupert Brooke, George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde have cameos. It is also a conflicted age. As Byatt writes, “people talked, and thought, earnestly and frivolously, about sex,” at the same time showing “a paradoxical propensity to retreat into childhood, to read and write adventure stories, tales about furry animals, dramas about pre-pubertal children.”

This novel has a multi-stranded narrative, touches on many complex issues and has an enormous cast of characters. Among the interesting characters are Prosper Cain, Special Keeper of Precious Metals at the South Kensington Museum, and Benedict Fludd, a tempestuous and visionary potter (based largely on Eric Gill), who is also a monstrous, sexual predator. (Byatt’s choice of names, such as Cain and Fludd, seem somewhat biblical.) The book is filled with artists and political idealists. Midway through the book, many of the characters, in various combinations, attend the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900, and there are riveting descriptions of the exposition and its exhibits—including the work of Klimt, Rodin and Lalique.

Exposition Universelle, Paris, 1900

The action often grinds to a halt while Byatt lectures us about pottery glazes, the history of puppet theater or discourses on social issues. Each character’s clothing is lovingly detailed, works of art are described, fairy stories told, historical facts abound. Many find this surfeit of digression an irritant in Byatt’s work, and think the book overstuffed with ideas and descriptions. I can’t really dispute Byatt’s verbosity and her tendency to lecture. Nevertheless, Byatt’s descriptive abilities border on the sublime, and I relish a novelist who thinks—no, knows— that art is important, and who invents characters, for all their serious flaws, who are engaged with the moral struggle to define (or evade) their responsibilities, assess their gifts and search for (or resist) some kind of enlightenment through creativity.

If you decide to read the book, I recommend you slow down and enjoy the ride, including the numerous side-trips and detours. It may, as some critics argue, be too much, but in my opinion, most contemporary novels offer way too little—so I’ll vote  for an excess of ideas, beautifully described, any day. If you’ve read The Children’s Book, please share your thoughts with Venetian Red.

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First Impressions: The Art of Design

Posted in Christine Cariati, Design, Fine & Decorative Arts, Rugs, Textiles, Wallpaper, XC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 9, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Tile or panel design, W.T. Copeland & Sons, Ltd. (formerly Spode), c. 1880

As much as I love textiles and decorative objects, I am often just as attracted to the designer’s drawings, sketches and samples as to the finished pieces. The objects, no matter how beautiful, are immutable, fixed in the here and now. On paper, it is all possibility—often the line work is graceful and sinuous, the colors are rich and vibrant, and the patterns, free of prosaic form, veer toward the abstract. The flatness of the design is part of what I find so appealing. In two dimensions, the objects are not subject to gravity, they represent that most fleeting thing—the creative impulse. They embody the alchemy of transformation, idea into image, captured in pencil, ink or watercolor.

Dagobert Peche Design for a coffeepot, c. 1920

Design for a Sèvres porcelain cup, Empire period, c. 1800

In some cases, as in the designs of James Leman, the delicious yellows and oranges that are so pleasing to the eye represent various shades of metallic thread— which however sumptuous and elegant in the finished textile, is a completely different visual experience. In Leman’s designs on paper, his lyrical line and masterful layering of abstracted botanical images are enhanced by the warm, saturated colors. As patterns, woven in metallic thread on a heavy silk fabric, they are breathtaking and grand, but no longer have the down to earth, fresh from the garden appeal that they have on paper.

James Leman, design for silk fabric, 1711

I love the annotations on many of these sketches—dates, yardages, cost calculations, style names and numbers—many are in the artist’s hand alongside the images. They are a decorative counterpoint to the design, often extremely graceful and engaging in themselves. You can also see marks and notations made by the printers, engravers, weavers and dyers—the artisans who actually executed the designs. The combination of the drawing and the notations provide a compelling history, tracing the evolution from design to finished product.

Design for candelabra, c. 1840-1873
Elkington & Co. Ltd.

Tin-plate molds, Shoolbred, Loveridge & Shoolbred of Wolverhampton

Tea pots, creamers and sugar bowls, Liberty archive, c. 1900-1912

These working sketches were executed on paper, and, at the time they were created, not considered precious pieces to be treated with great care. As a result, the paper is often yellowed and brittle, and you can see smudges, folds, creases and spills. On many of them you can still see the grids and guidelines—another interesting counterpoint to the pattern and design. I don’t see these designs as mere preliminaries, inferior to a perfect, finished object. To my eye, they are works of art in themselves.

William Morris, Watercolor design for Evenlode, 1883
(design for  cotton fabric, printed by indigo discharge)

William Morris, watercolor design for Redcar carpet, c. 1881-1885

William Morris & Co. wallpaper designs, c. 1860s

I’ve restricted myself to designs for decorative objects, tableware, textiles and wallpaper and resisted the temptation to include designs for furniture, architecture and fashion. I have also deliberately not juxtaposed the drawings with the finished objects made from the sketch, because for me these stand as complete works on their own.

Design for seven-piece coffee set, Sèvres, 1899

The designs below, drawn in pencil or pen and ink, are quite elegant and visually stunning. This page of designs for tea strainers is beautifully drawn, patterned and balanced—and could easily be taken for a contemporary abstract drawing.

Designs for tea strainers, c. 1900-1912
Pen and ink on ruled paper, Liberty, London

In a narrative vein, this delightful Rococo-style sketch of insect figures, for use as a decorative motif, is playful and lively.

Charles-Germain de Saint Aubin (1721-86), sketch for decorative motif

This Wiener Werkstätte floor lamp design has a figurative totem-like quality, and is drawn in a loose and graceful style. Dagobert Peche’s sketches always have a flowing, effortless hand-drawn quality—a wonderful contrast to the elegant formalism of the objects made from his designs.

Dagobert Peche, design for floor lamp, 1920

This sketch for a graceful carafe has a very different presence than the finished piece of heavily embossed silver. As an object, the carafe has weight, volume, shine and a beautifully textured surface. The drawing, flat and decorative, has a very different, wonderful combination of elements. There is a narrative feel to it—the intricate patterning, sensuous curves, twisted serpent handle and amusing squirrel seem to be telling a story.

Arabian shape Claret jug, c. 1880
Workshop drawings of Oomersee Mawjee & Sons, Kutch

This gorgeous ink and wash drawing of a cloche has so much presence and volume. The sculptural decorative element at the top is exquisitely rendered.

Cloche, French, eighteenth century

Much of the inspiration for decorative objects comes from nature, as these floral designs for textiles by Anna Maria Garthwaite illustrate so beautifully. These botanical patterns, which take on a seriousness and formality when woven in silk and brocade, are exuberant on the page.

Anna Maria Garthwaite, silk design, c. 1730

Anna Maria Garthwaite, silk design, detail, c. 1730

Anna Maria Garthwaite, silk design (possibly a copy of a French original) detail, 1733

Some of my favorite designs are for tea pots, tea cups and china patterns. They are drawn in flattened-out, foreshortened shapes to best show the designs—you can really appreciate the quality of line, pattern and detail. The decorative motifs are fanciful, lighthearted and graceful—exactly the qualities treasured in a piece of delicate porcelain.

Tea cup designs, Spode, c. 1846

Majolica design, Apple Blossom flower pot, Wedgewood, c. 1850-1860

Coffee and Tea Cups, Spode, c. 1840

Dagobert Peche, Design for a teapot, c. 1922

Textile designs are executed in both minimalist and very painterly styles. Often you will see only one piece of the design completed painted, with the repeats only sketched in. When the designs are for woven fabric or rugs, you sometimes see the graph paper grids they are sketched on.

Fabric designs from Lyons, France, 19th century

Textile design, factory of Jean-Michel Haussmann, Colmar, 1797

Dagobert Peche, design for tapestry fabric for Johann Backhausen & Söhne, 1912

Textile and wallpaper designs were often collected in sample books—some were for companies and/or designers to keep track of their patterns, others were used to market the fabrics. Sample books for textiles, very popular in the 18th century through the 20th century, provide a wealth of information about the history of pattern design, dyeing techniques and the technical means of production. Often they contain swatches of the actual fabrics, shown in the various available colorways.

Wallpaper and border designs, Manufacture Dufour, Paris, early 19th century

Designs for block print fabric, French,  early 19th century

In 2008, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum mounted an interesting exhibition, Multiple Choice: from Sample to Product, that featured sample books for tableware, textiles for interiors and fashion, wallpaper, even buttons. Seeing these lovely books, which contain such a rich visual history, was quite poignant—in the contemporary design world, with electronic formats taking precedence, the paper sample book is truly a thing of the past.

Among the sketches I’ve referenced in this post, many are by well-known designers, others are from an anonymous hand. Some designs were never turned into objects, others are still being manufactured today. But they all continue to live vibrantly on the page, their yellowed and tattered pages still emitting sparks of inspiration.

Wider Connections

The French Archive of Design and Decoration by Stafford Cliff

The English Archive of Design and Decoration by Stafford Cliff

Dagobert Peche and the Wiener Werkstätte, edited by Peter Noever

A Different Canvas: The British Abstractionists

Posted in Female Artists, Liz Hager, Painting, Sculpture, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 13, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

This is the third installment in a series of posts, in which Venetian Red explores aspects of artist-designed textiles.  For all posts in the series, click here.

Henry Moore—Barbed Wire 1946

Henry Moore, Barbed Wire, ca. 1946,
serigraphy in five colors, spun rayon (courtesy The Ascher Collection).

While primarily known as sculptors and painters, the British “Abstractionists” Ben Nicholson (1894-1982), Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), and Henry Moore (1898-1986) also designed a fair number of textiles. Though not always huge commercial successes, in fact their designs did help revitalize British textile design, which was nearly moribund in the pre-War years.

Nicholson, Hepworth, and Moore were eager to experiment with textiles; they all considered designing for the applied arts to be a legitimate part of their artistic output. Further, they understood the power of the mass-distributed textiles to introduce their individual aesthetics to new audiences.

Barbara Hepworth—Pillar, 1937

Barbara Hepworth, Pillar, 1937,
woven cotton and rayon furnishing fabric, produced by Edinburgh Weavers.

A discussion of mid-20th-century textile design in Britain necessarily begins with William Morris (1834-1896), the undisputed progenitor of the industry. Through tireless efforts, Morris and members of the Arts & Crafts movement provided the framework—in terms of both design and production—that would thrust Britain, indeed the world, into the modern design age.

Ben Nicholson—3 Circles, 1937

Ben Nicholson, Three Circles, 1946-47,
screen printed linen, produced by Edinburgh Weavers (courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum).

By the mid-19th century Britain enjoyed clear dominance in the production of textiles. An ample supply of inexpensive cotton thread from her colonies, together with an unfailing commitment to industrialization of the weaving process and to the production of synthetic dyes (spurred by the discovery of synthetic mauve in 1856 by Sir William Perkin) formed the backbone of her competitive advantage.

Roller printed export cotton, Lancashire 1858

Pre-Morris Design—typical roller-printed export cotton, Lancashire, ca.1858
(courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum).

Nonetheless, the nation’s pre-occupation with technology eventually stymied design innovation. By the 1860s, the industry was hopelessly mired in copy-cat design practices that bred profusely-ornate and garishly-colored patterns. The country’s ability to provide innovative décor and fashion fabrics to a burgeoning middle class was seriously compromised.

Wm Morris—Larkspur wallpaper, 1872

William Morris, Larkspur (detail), 1872, wallpaper design.

By the 1870s, Morris and his colleagues succeeded in breathing new life into the British textile trade. Morris’ imaginative and harmonious designs were influenced not only by the arts of Medieval England and France, but 16th- and 17th-century Italian textiles, as well as growing attention to the cultivation of formal gardens. The designs sought to achieved a more naturalistic depiction of floral arrangements in both color and form. Indeed, great observation was at the core of  Morris’ superior draftsmanship.  Morris succeeded in creating designs that are timeless; a century and a half later, we still find them irresistible.

In addition, Morris’ unflagging promotion the standards of hand-made production (natural dying, hand weaving, block printing) led to innovation in weaving techniques, which, in turn, restored a richness of quality to fabrics that had nearly been lost through the rapid mechanization of looms.

Phyllis Barron—Log pattern , 1915

Phyllis Barron, Log, 1915, hand-blocked cotton.

The shadow of Morris’ legacy was long. Certainly, pockets of creativity existed in Britain well into the 1920s. After Morris, the design standard was ably carried  by C.F.A. VoyseyWalter Crane, Rennie Macintosh, Liberty’s, the Omega Workshops, among others. Originally painters, Phyllis Barron (1890-1964), Dorothy Larcher (1882-1952), and Enid Marx (1902-1998) were committed to continue the revival of hand block textile printing techniques that Morris had begun. Through much truly laborious work, they produced many stunning designs, in the process keeping the hand-crafted principles of the Arts & Crafts movement alive.

Enid Marx, Blue Waves

Enid Marx, Waves, ca. 1930s, hand-block printed cotton.

Outside Britain, perhaps the most visible disciples of the movement were Peter Behrens and the Darmstadt colony, the Wiener Werkstätte, and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Lötte Frömel-Fochler—Grünfink

Lotte Frömel-Fochler, Grünfink, 1910, fabric sample.

By the early 1930s, these innovations notwithstanding, the British textile industry on the whole had once again sunk into a deep design funk. In place of British goods, the lushly-ornamental designs of the French had become highly-desirous. The British textile manufacturers were simply unable to compete effectively. Compounding matters, an ever-deepening economic depression enveloped the nation.

Nancy Nicholson—Unicorn, 1930s

Nancy Nicholson, Unicorn, 1930s, bedspread, block print and stencil.

A handful of textile firms specifically sought to redress this problem. In the early 1930s, Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth began experimenting with block printing on textiles through Poulk Press, established by Nicholson’s sister, Nancy. Later they would work under the auspices of Edinburgh Weavers (established in 1928) whose director, Alastair Morton, regularly commissioned artists throughout the 30s, 40s, and 50s to provide avant garde fabrics to the architectural trade.

Alastair Morton

Alastair Morton, late 1930s (?).

In October 1937, Morton launched the “Constructivist Fabrics” collection with designs by Nicholson,Hepworth,Winifred Nicholson (Nicholson’s first wife), and Arthur Jackson (Barbara Hepworth’s cousin).

Ben Nicholson—Princess, 1933

Ben Nicholson, Princess, 1933, hand block printed cotton.

Nicholson was already pre-occupied with flat geometric shapes in his paintings and linocut prints, and it is easy to imagine why he was influenced by Enid Marx’s work (though he found her techniques too slow and soon had his sister printing his designs). Nicholson produced some of the most austere textile prints of the pre-War period; but as Three Circles (above) demonstrates, he also could harness his fascination with geometry into appealing designs.

Hepworth’s textile designs closely follow her abstract paintings and drawings, in which she often worked out ideas for her sculptures. Hepworth had a gift for mathematics, and was close to her father (a civil engineer), so her two-dimensional works often have the vestiges of technical drawings in them. She and Nicholson were married for over 20 years, and although their work is different, it is also highly complementary.

Marianne Mahler—Treetops, 1939

Marianne Mahler, Treetops, 1939,
printed cotton and rayon furnishing fabric, printed by Edinburgh Weavers.

Though the importance of the Edinburgh Weavers within interior design industry was substantiated by the magazines and trendsetters of the 1930s and 40s, Morton once admitted that the fabrics weren’t always commercial successes:

There may be relatively few buildings yet that can suitably use them. But we are confident that they are the type of buildings and fabrics that the present generation wants and their production will have been justified if they have helped to develop a genuine contemporary style of interior decoration, keeping its place in the living culture of today.”

—Alistair Morton and Edinburgh Weavers, exhibition catalogue, Scottish National Gallery of Art, Edinburgh, 1978, p. 12

The company continued to produce avant garde textiles until Alastair Morton’s death in 1963.

Victor Vasarely, Oeta, furnishing fabric, 1962,
printed by Edinburgh Weavers, (courtesy Victoria & Albert Museum)

Henry Moore first became interested in fabrics during WWII, when Czech exiles Zika and Lida Ascher commissioned Moore, Matisse, Alexander Calder, Jean Cocteau, and others, to create designs for a collection of limited-edition silk scarves for their textile company. Soon Moore had filled four notebooks with designs, not simply for this commission, but for furnishing fabrics and dress-making material.

Henry Moore—Three Standing Figures, 1944, silk serigraphed scarf

Henry Moore, Three Standing Figures, 1944
serigraph on silk, printed by Ascher, Ltd.

His textile designs show a wholly different Moore, full of expressionistic line and color. Textile design fitted Moore’s socialist aim of integrating modern art into daily life, so familiar, though ominous, objects, including barbed wire or twisted safety pins,  gave his designs a distinctive hard edge. Whimsical motifs such as clock hands, sea creatures, and piano keys referenced Moore’s pre-war flirtation with surrealism.

Henry Moore, textile design

Henry Moore, textile design from sketchbook, 1940s, pencil/was/crayon/wash.

Given the drab chroma of his iconic stone and metal sculptures, one of the most astonishing elements of Moore’s textile designs is his use of vivid color. The artist conceived his hues—among them lime green, mustard yellow, bright pink—as a counterweight to post-war drabness. Moore once said that color for him was “a bit of a holiday,” and his work in textiles offered him the opportunity to work unfettered in this realm.

Wider Connections

Enid Marx
Alison Morton, hand weaver & daughter of Alistair Morton
VADS—Textile Collection
Meg Andrews—Antique Costumes & Textiles
Barbara Hepworth

“Henry Moore Textiles”

Eminent Victorian: William Morris and “The Beauty of Life”

Posted in Christine Cariati, Fine & Decorative Arts, Textiles, Wallpaper, XC with tags , , , , , on June 11, 2009 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

WilliamMorrisOn his first trip to France in 1855, the 21-year-old William Morris wrote to his mother: “I do not hope to be great at all in anything, but perhaps I may reasonably hope to be happy in my work.” This, for me, sums up Morris’ greatness: his prodigious energy, insatiable curiosity and passion had the underpinnings of a tremendous work ethic, moral integrity and true decency. When Morris died in 1896, at the age of 62, his doctor said the cause of death was simply “being William Morris.” And no wonder—Morris was a poet, novelist, bibliophile, translator, embroiderer, calligrapher, engraver, gardener, decorator, dyer, weaver, architectural preservationist and Socialist. He designed furniture, printed and woven textiles, stained glass, tiles, carpets, tapestry, murals, wallpaper, books and type. An early environmentalist, the floral designs for which he is famous were informed by his knowledge of horticulture and inspired in part by medieval tapestries and the many gardens he planted and tended.

WMIrisWilliam Morris, design for Iris, printed cotton, c.1876

WMJasmineWilliam Morris, Jasmine, wallpaper, 1872

In 1847, after an idyllic childhood, Morris was sent away to Marlborough College a few months after the death of his father. He hated the school but loved the surrounding landscape and spent as much time as possible roaming the countryside. While at Marlborough, Morris abandoned his family’s tame Protestantism and embraced the music, ritual and aesthetics of Anglo-Catholicism. When he went up to Oxford in 1853, he intended to devote his life to God, but he soon abandoned the church for art. He always had a taste for things medieval and Gothic—it is said that he read the novels of Walter Scott at age 4. While at Oxford, he was very influenced by the work of John Ruskin, especially his essay “The Nature of Gothic” in his book The Stones of Venice. Oxford was also where he met his life-long friend, the painter Edward Burne-Jones, the son of a gilder from Birmingham who educated Morris about the plight of working-class laborers.

WMEBJEdward Burne-Jones and William Morris, 1890
photo:William Morris Gallery, London

William Morris was a Renaissance man in Victorian times. He is considered to be the founder, along with John Ruskin, of the Arts & Crafts movement. In his lecture, The Beauty of Life, given in 1880, Morris said: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” He despised the aesthetic failings of the machine age and the division of labor that broke down production, from design to execution, into separate tasks. He extolled the joys of handwork and the integrity of creative labor. He wanted to unify art and craftsmanship. He wrote: “If I were to say what is at once the most important production of art and the thing most longed for, I should answer, a beautiful house.”

A William Morris interior was the antithesis of the Victorian aesthetic of overstuffed rooms, draped with endless yards of fabric, filled with memorabilia, potted plants and heaps of mass-produced decorative embellishments.

VictorianroomVictorian drawing Room, Wickham Hall, Kent, 1897

Even though Morris combined densely patterned carpets, upholstery and wallpaper, the designs, influenced by nature but with orderly, flat areas of color and a graceful linear quality, had a clean simplicity and elegance.

KelmscottDrawing Room, Kelmscott Manor

Earlier I mentioned Morris’ decency. He insisted on a pleasant environment for his workers and his workshops were filled with light and air.

MertonAbbeyMerton Abbey, hand-blocking chintz in the print shop

He also believed everyone should have access to beautiful things: “What business have we with art, unless we can all share it?” He was a man who embodied enormous contradictions: an environmentalist who derided industrialization and urbanization, yet spent much of his life working in London; a Socialist who designed luxury goods for the wealthy and predicted the demise of capitalism. This latter conflict, in part, led Morris away from design into activism and book publishing, but not before appointing his disciple, the extremely talented John Henry Dearle, as the chief designer at Morris & Co.

JHDArtichokeJohn Henry Dearle, Artichoke wallpaper, 1899

JHDcherwellJohn Henry Dearle, Cherwell, wall hanging, 1897
Block printed velveteen

Morris devoted the last 10 years of his life to book publishing. Dissatisfied with the state of British publishing, he founded the Kelmscott Press “with the hope of producing some which would have a definite claim to beauty.” Not surprisingly, it was very important to Morris for his books to have a strong visual element and they were filled with exquisite detail, including illustrations, decorative motifs and printed cloth book covers.

WMbookcoverWilliam Morris, The Roots of the Mountains (London, Chiswick Press, 1890), bound in Honeysuckle printed cotton

WMBookWilliam Morris, for the Kelmscott Press
Proof, title-page, The History of Reynard the Fox, 1893

Even more significant than his own prodigious output is the role Morris played as a catalyst, leaving an enormous legacy to craftsmen, designers, writers, publishers and politicians. He also inspired the founding of many schools and guilds devoted to the Arts & Crafts aesthetic.

CraftsmanThe Craftsman, October 1901
(The first issue, dedicated to William Morris)

William Morris contributed to, and inspired, the renaissance of British craftsmanship which led to an exciting new generation of British textile designers—Dorothy Larcher, Phyllis Barron, Enid Marx among many others. These designers embraced many of Morris’ ideals, but were determined to develop a new, more international aesthetic—experimenting with vegetable dyes, block-printing and traditional hand weaving techniques and taking inspiration from Italian, Scandinavian and Eastern European folk art. Some, inspired by the Bauhaus in Weimar, moved into industrial production.

Dorothy Larcher, Small Feather, block printed linen, 1930sDorothy Larcher, Small Feather, block-printed linen, 1930s

Morris loved beauty and nature but especially delighted in the man made co-existing in harmony with nature—and every beautiful object he created in his intensely productive life was a tribute to that vision.

“My work is the embodiment of dreams in one form or another.” Letter to Cornell Price, Oxford, 1856.

WMsnakesheadWilliam Morris, Snakeshead, printed cotton, 1876

No Trifle—William de Morgan & the Iznik Tradition

Posted in Ceramics, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, People & Places, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , on May 17, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

The making of patterns is no trifle—it’s a rare gift to be able to do it.
—Edward Burne-Jones

Ottoman-era tiles, Yeni Camii, Istanbul

Iznik tiles, Yeni Camii, Istanbul.

De Morgan "Mongolian" motif

William de Morgan, Tile, “Mongolian” motif.  (Photo courtesy William de Morgan Tiles by Jon Catleugh)
Note: the Ottoman inspired colors and ogee (double S shape) motif of the vines.

I first encountered William Frend de Morgan’s (1839-1917) tile work at Kelmscott Manor, William Morris‘ summer home in the Cotswold district of England. While I knew something about the Arts & Crafts movement in England, as well as Morris and the better known members of his circle (Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Madox Brown), I confess, that at the moment of our “introduction,” I knew nothing about de Morgan and his work. Nonetheless, his alluring designs spoke eloquently for him. Beyond the obvious connection to Morris’ design aesthetic, there was something else naggingly familiar about the designs. Armed with this thought, I began to investigate the man and his work.

De Morgan first met William Morris in 1863, and moved immediately into his close circle of artist friends, all of whom were passionate about restoring the hand-crafted arts to Britain. Morris suggested de Morgan work in “the Firm” (at that time Morris, Marshall & Faulkner) by designing stained glass. De Morgan tried it for a while, but gave it up in the early 1870s to concentrate wholly on ceramics. (Not such a long leap, given the similarity in firing techniques.)  De Morgan’s designs are testament to the power of Morris’ vision. The two worked together for many years and de Morgan’s tiles seem to channel the spirit of the master’s aesthetics all-too-adeptly.  But de Morgan was his own artist stylistically, and, as I came to appreciate, he was the first ceramicist to embrace Ottoman-era ceramic design & production methods wholeheartedly.

In our current age of instant images, it is difficult to imagine the impact that newly-discovered cultures had on the Victorians. Certainly, they were well-familiar with the Greeks & Romans. Beginning in the 1850s, however, as printed cottons from India and ceramics from the Far East arrived in Britain, exotic new design aesthetics were “discovered” by Victorian artists. Under the influence of Owen Jones and his The Grammar of Ornament, published in 1868,  newly-leisured middle-class latched onto the Persian and Ottoman styles in a big way. Elaborate smoking rooms and Turkish baths, both of which traditionally sported tiled walls, became the rage.  The brilliant palette of the Ottoman designs, as well as the juxtaposition of pattern against pattern and fanciful animal and floral motifs would have seemed incredibly exotic, and desirable, to a population which until recently had dressed themselves and their houses for the most part in drab, pattern-less designs. The exhibitions of Ottoman and Persian arts staged by the new South Kensington Museum (later the Victoria & Albert Museum) had enormous and immediate impact on Morris and his circle.

A tireless experimenter, De Morgan vigorously embraced the Ottoman method of production, fascinated by luster, the metallic glaze used by the Ottomans and later Renaissance-era Spaniards and Italians. By 1879, de Morgan had developed a reputation for his “Persian” color palette—ultramarine blue nestled against turquoise and green figure prominently throughout his work. Moreover, he “lifted” without much modification the imaginative peonies, roses, carnations, hyacinths and tulips that grace Iznik ware.   Beginning in the 1870s his designs began to incorporate ogee (double s) and palmette elements,  motifs arguably perfected by the Ottomans.  All in all, de Morgan’s designs were always close to the spirit of the originals, though not exact copies.

William de Morgan was a prolific designer and characteristic Victorian, accomplished in many fields. At the time of his death in 1917 (of influenza) his portfolio of tile designs contained upwards of 1200 drawings. This figure probably doesn’t represent an accurate accounting of his total output.  In addition to painting, he produced five best selling novels.

Wider Connections

Good information on de Morgan through the usual source material on the Arts & Crafts movement is scant. For an in-depth discussion of his life and work, see Jon Catleugh‘s book, William de Morgan Tiles.

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