In this assignment I am to select a public or commercial space and focus on a textile that is being used in a functional manner. This can either be an exterior or interior; comment upon it’s practical use and presence within/around that environment.
For this Assignment I am going to use the textile works of William Morris, specifically the tapestry called ‘The Forest’ dated 1887, normally housed by the V+A and often displayed at Wightwick Manor, Wolverhampton. In the lead up to this exercise I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a book called ‘William Morris’ by Charlotte and Peter Fiell, published by Taschen in 2017. It is this which is the main source of my William Morris specific information.
Morris’s first introduction to embroidery came whilst articled to architect George Edmund Street who dealt with church building and restoration. He was so keen to master the skill of embroidery that he had a frame made for use in his lodgings. The first known embroidery by Morris is simple and stylised with an ‘If I can’ motto. This is dated approximately 1857.
The next stage of textile evolution for Morris came in approx 1868 with printed textiles. Printed with aniline dyes these floral designs were the first marketed by the Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. (The Firm) Finding the aniline dyes of insufficent quality, Morris researched traditional dyeing techniques and began his own experiments using natural ingredients.
It was 1876 when Morris registered his first oven textile design. Initially the production of designs was subcontracted to established weavers but in early 1877 Morris had decided to establish his own workshop for production. With the help of Luis Bazin and the introduction of Jacquard looms The Firm started to produce woven textiles.
Tapestries are one of the oldest forms of woven textile. Mostly produced between the 14th and 18th century these items were used by the upper classes to add colour to a room, demonstrate wealth, provide entertainment and conserve heat. Large tapestries often depicted narratives from mythology, classic tales or the Bible.
Tapestries designed by The Firm were often collaborative. Figures were drawn by Edward Burne-Jones, animals by Phillip Webb and borders by either Morris or J.H Dearle. In 1881 The Firm moved it’s weaving operations to Merton Abbey, this enabled them to undertake large scale productions of tapestries, one of which was The Forest in 1887.
According to artfund.org ‘The Forest’ was a collaboration between Morris (flowers in the foreground and background greenery), Webb (the five animals) and Dearle (floral details) and it proved to be one of their most popular designs. Initially brought by Aleco Ionides of 1 Holland Park it was later purchased from his descendants by the Victoria and Albert Museum.
This textile has been specifically created to be a decorative feature. Traditionally wool is used in tapestry weaving because of its availability, natural strength and the ease of dyeing it. This tapestry is comprised of woven wool and silk on a cotton warp, this choice of materials allows both a depiction of a greater intricacy of detail and an increased depth to the image.
A patterned textile has the capacity to transform a space. In a plain building a colorful tapestry can light up a room, in addition to having more practical heat conserving qualities. One of the hallmarks of Morris and Cos work is of a vivid bold pattern in unapologetic colour, this textile certainly corresponds to this general stereotyping.
In the case of ‘The Forest’ there is not a pattern or narrative but a depiction of a series of wild animals in a natural setting. My research has not suggested that it is part of a story, though I did find reference to Morris releasing the text ‘The Beasts that be In wood and waste, Now sit and see, Nor ride nor haste’ as a poem called ‘The Lion’.
Measuring 117 cm tall and 152 cm long, The Forest is a sizable piece of work. I would call it an immersive piece of art. The reason I do so is that with such a complex piece of composition one is naturally drawn in to give it a closer examination. Greater attention only yields greater appreciation of the workmanship and design attributes, the kind of piece which can make the rest of a room vanish.
The scale of the components of the image are not accurate to life. They have had to be adjusted to suit the context in which they are being depicted. As a combination they are well balanced. The two birds on the ends of the arrangement reflect each other as do the two seated mammals. They all serve to frame the lion, the central figure.
Though the tapestry depicts a predator with a series of prey, I would argue that the overall mood of the scene is one of peace and tranquility. This is put across with the use of abundant greenery, overall colour palette and the use of animals body language. If the lion was ripping apart the peacock, quite apart from throwing off the balance of the piece, the mood would be more stressful than restful.
When considering the notion of permanence of the textile piece I am torn between the two arguments. No fabric can be thought of as permanent, everything is subject to decay. However, a tapestry is not a transient piece of decoration such as a bowl of fruit. A tapestry is designed and created to be around for a substantial period of time. In opposition to that though, a tapestry is also a removable object enabling them to be moved or stored like paintings and unlike a mural, which would class them as a temporary decorative device. Overall I would argue that a tapestry is a temporary means of decoration, I have decided on this due to it’s easily removable nature and natural tendency to deteriorate over time.
In the book ‘Morris’ by Charlotte and Peter Fiell, they say ‘Driven by his hatred of modern civilisation, Morris sought to reform both art and society by demonstrating through better practice a better and more ethical way of doing things’. (Page 7 Line 4-6). A large portion of the book is comprised of describing Morris’s belief that handmade was superior to mass produced, that in general he was against unnecessary mechanisation unless it resulted in superior quality items. The quote that I have picked out highlights this for me perfectly. To have had his designs mass produced by fully automated systems would have acted against the message of caring about craft which in my opinion was the whole raison d’ etre of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co.
My own response to the textiles and their context is that the design is beautiful, the characters skillfully depicted and the colour palette wonderfully deep and rich. I could spend hours looking at a piece of craft like that, examining the details, finding new intricacies to marvel at. I picked William Morris’s interior textiles because I thought it would be a good meaty topic to write about for this final essay, in addition to that I’ve accidentally found myself another hero of art to add to the list of people to admire!
One thing which really struck me about William Morris was in learning about how he felt that the increased mechanisation and mass production of decorative elements needed rebelling against. It reminded me of the Guardian Article ‘The art of craft – rise of the designer maker’ by Justin McGuirk. The messages of the need to move away from mass production and back to things of quality made by hand are the same in 2019 as they were in the 1800’s. Morris’s poems and patterned furnishings have long outlived him, but even more eloquent than that work is one phrase which has neatly summed up the instinctive feelings of generations, ‘have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’. No-one can summarise it better than that.
Word Count – 1294
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Collections.vam.ac.uk. (2019). The Forest | Morris, William | V&A Search the Collections. [online] Available at: https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O89213/the-forest-tapestry-morris-william/ [Accessed 29 Dec. 2019].
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C8.alamy.com. (2019). [online] Available at: https://c8.alamy.com/comp/PWN4K7/uk-england-oxfordshire-kelmscott-manor-attic-if-i-can-morris-first-embroidery-circa-1857-with-icelandic-saga-carved-wooden-box-PWN4K7.jpg [Accessed 29 Dec. 2019].
Art Fund. (2019). Tapestry: The Forest by William Morris. [online] Available at: https://www.artfund.org/supporting-museums/art-weve-helped-buy/artwork/606/tapestry-the-forest [Accessed 29 Dec. 2019].
National Trust. (2019). Beautiful beasts: Philip Webb and the making of The Forest tapestry. [online] Available at: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/wonderful-webbs-of-wightwick [Accessed 29 Dec. 2019].
McGuirk, J. (2019). The art of craft: the rise of the designer-maker. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/aug/01/rise-designer-maker-craftsman-handmade [Accessed 29 Dec. 2019].
Victoria and Albert Museum. (2019). V&A · What is tapestry?. [online] Available at: https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/what-is-tapestry [Accessed 29 Dec. 2019].