Monday 30 January 2012

William Morris wallpaper & textiles

William Morris by George Frederic Watts 1870

William Morris's name and reputation are indissolubly linked to wallpaper design, but there is a tendency to over-estimate the influence he had in this field, at least in his own lifetime. In fact, despite his much repeated belief in 'art for all', his wallpapers, like most of the products of Morris and Co., were hand-made and expensive, and consequently had a relatively limited take-up. His papers were slow to find a market beyond fellow artists, and were positively disliked by some influential figures, such as Oscar Wilde. However, he has had a long-lived effect on wallpaper design and consumption, creating designs which have enjoyed lasting appeal.

Morris's first wallpaper design was Trellis, a pattern suggested by the rose-trellis in the garden of his house in Bexleyheath, Kent.

Trellis wallpaper 1864

 Designed in 1862, it was not issued until 1864, a delay that was due to Morris's unsuccessful experiments with printing from zinc plates. The first pattern to be issued, in 1864, was Daisy, a simple design of naively drawn meadow flowers.

Daisy wallpaper 1864

The source was a wall-hanging illustrated in a 15th-century version of Froissart's Chronicles, but similar flower forms can be seen in late medieval 'mille-fleurs' tapestries and in early printed herbals. These two designs, and the next pattern Fruit (also known as Pomegranate), share a medieval character that links Morris's early work in the decorative arts with the Pre-Raphaelite painters, and with Ruskin.

Fruit wallpaper 1866

His sources were plants themselves, observed in his gardens or on country walks, and also images of plants in 16th-century woodcuts (he owned copies of several 16th- and 17th-century herbals, including Gerard's famous Herball), illuminated manuscripts, tapestries and other textiles incorporating floral imagery. Although he advised those designing wallpapers to 'accept their mechanical nature frankly, to avoid falling into the trap of trying to make your paper look as if it were painted by hand', he also encouraged intricacy and elaboration so that the repeat itself was disguised. 

Morris designed over 50 wallpapers, and his firm produced a further 49 by other designers. Despite his involvement with wallpapers and his decided views on their design and use, Morris always regarded wallpaper as a 'makeshift' decoration, a tolerable substitute for more luxurious wall coverings. Some of the old snobbery about wallpaper as an imitative material, a cheap option, still persisted, and Morris, as a wealthy man, preferred woven textile hangings for his own home. Helena Maria Sickert described the drawing room at Kelmscott House, Hammersmith, thus: 'beautiful blue tapestry hangings all around the big living room ... the atmosphere was deliciously homely'.

Though Morris himself made little use of wallpapers in his own domestic surroundings, a number of wealthy clients commissioned decorative schemes from Morris & Co. By the 1880s Morris papers were being recommended in many home decorating guides, including the affordable Art at Home series (1876-8). Pages of each were devoted to a discussion of wallpapers, with advice on how to select the best of the latest styles. Morris's papers were too expensive for most, but by the 1880s their growing appeal had been recognised by other designers and manufacturers who began to produce cheaper papers in the Morris style. By the late 1890s Morris wallpapers were commonly found in 'artistic' middle-class homes.

Morris designs seem to have satisfied a widespread desire for pattern in a way which the more formal and didactic designs of the reformers such as Jones and Pugin never did. The next generation of designers were conscious of working with Morris's legacy. For example, Charles Voysey, later described by Essex & Co. in advertisements as 'the Genius of Pattern', produced designs which show clear evidence of Morris's influence in the mastery of flat but complex patterns and in the preference for stylised organic forms and motifs from nature.

Acanthus wallpaper 1875

Bird and Pomegranate wallpaper 
late C19th

Blackthorn wallpaper 
late C19th

Borage ceiling paper 1888-9

Compton wallpaper 
late C19th

Corncockle furnishing fabric 1883

Cray furnishing fabric 1885

Daffodil wallpaper 
late C19th

Ispahan furnishing fabric 
late C19th

Pink and Rose wallpaper 
late C19th

The Strawberry Thief textile

Wandle wallpaper 1883-4

Wallpaper design 1896

Jasmine wallpaper 1872

Wey printed textile design c1883

Snakeshead printed textile design 1876

Peacock and Dragon fabric 1878

Woodpecker tapestry 1885

Artichoke embroidery 1890


  1. Thanks for this great summary of Morris' context. (And as usual a fantastic selection of example images.) I find Morris' paper's beautiful, but I don't know if I would want them on my walls. It strikes me as remarkable that so many of his designs are so dark. I would think that especially in a poorly lit (no electricity) 19th century home, a light wall paper would be more desired.

  2. that was the style then. my aunt had a victorian of that era and the papers were dark but beautiful. then came electric.

  3. It has Huge collection of amazing photographs, i can see many pictures on this post, all the pictures have great fetching look, every picture is unique and attractive, I just want to say thanks for sharing this great inspirational art contemporary photography.



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