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Family trees: the legacy of May Morris

William Morris, the textile designer, and champion of the British Arts and Crafts movement, is adored by art junkies, designers and hipsters alike. His popularity enjoyed a hearty revival in recent years thanks to taste-makers' predilection for the hand drawn, organic patterns of yesteryear. But it would be detractive to sum up Morris' legacy just by his artistic endeavours – he also contributed significantly to the Art and Crafts movement in the form of one May Morris – his artist daughter.

Much like situation with twentieth century artists Robert and Sonia Delauney, May Morris' creative accomplishments have existed mostly in the shadows of her more well-known male family member. But just like the former couple, critics, historians and scholars have now zoomed into the female artist's work, pushing it up onto its rightful pedestal. Happily, the wider public now also have the chance to experience the world of Morris' delicate splendour.

Cover: Honeysuckle wallpaper, designed c. 1883 © William Morris Gallery, London Borough of Waltham Forest, detail

Mary Annie Sloane, May Morris in the Tapestry Room at Kelmscott Manor, 1912, Watercolour © William Morris Gallery, London Borough of Waltham Forest

A landmark exhibition exploring the life and work of May Morris is currently on show at The William Morris Gallery – it opened at the beginning of this month and is on through January. The show, May Morris: Art & Life, is said to be the most comprehensive survey of Morris' work to date, bringing together over 80 works from collections around the UK, many of which have never been on public display.

The exhibition will reveal the breadth of Morris' creative pursuits, including wallpaper, embroidery, jewellery, dresses and book designs, sketches, and watercolours. Again, much like the Sonia Delaunay retrospective at the Tate a few years ago, the exhibition sheds light not just the works themselves, but the range of disciplines Morris was working in.

Left: Maids of Honour c. 1890s © William Morris Gallery, London Borough of Waltham Forest ; Right: Honeysuckle wallpaper, designed c. 1883 © William Morris Gallery, London Borough of Waltham Forest.

The exhibition tells the story of how Morris took charge of the Morris & Co. embroidery department at age 23, becoming responsible for creating some of the company’s most iconic textiles and wallpaper designs. It focuses on her role in the development of art embroidery – elevating needlework from a domestic craft to a serious art form – highlighting the extent of her influence in the UK and abroad, particularly the US.

The show also looks at Morris' political activity, her foundation of the Women’s Guild of Art, her correspondence with George Bernard Shaw, and generally her work in conserving her father's pioneering role in the British Arts and Crafts movement. It's a unique opportunity to take a long overdue look at Morris' significant contribution to a movement that's shaped so much of our present-day tastes.


May Morris: Art & Life is on at the William Morris Gallery between 7 October 2017 – 28 January 2018. Admission is free.

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