May Morris: arts & crafts designer

Mason, Anna and others

 London, Thames & Hudson, 2017 ISBN: 978 0 500 48021 2 224 pages 

 If you have been around embroiderers or quilters for any length of time, you will have heard of William Morris, one of the initiators and a very influential contributor to the Arts and Crafts movement in the U.K. Perhaps not quite so well known is the contribution made to the movement by his youngest daughter, May. The five authors of this handsome book have set out to remedy that.  There is a brief foreword, followed by six chapters, each focussed on one aspect of May’s life, skills and development as a designer and craftswoman. The first chapter is a brief, twenty-three page biography of May, which traces her life from her birth (1862) to her death in 1938. William Morris encouraged both of his daughters, who had a broad education compared with most girls of the period. They also learned music, painting and needlework, the more usual subjects for middle class females at that time. 

There follows a chapter about May’s development and talent for art. It focuses on her known sketches and watercolours, many of which have been lost. After her brief stint at Notting Hill High School for Girls, May studied at the National Art Training School, attached to the Victoria and Albert Museum. The next chapter is written by three women and is the longest in the book. It is called, simply, ‘Wallpapers and Embroidery’. After leaving art school, May did some designs for her father’s business. She managed the embroidery part of the business, doing exquisite embroidery herself and training others. Incidentally, May designed and put together embroidery kits – a lucrative addition to the business. As an active member of the socialist movement, she ensured pay rates for their workers were fair and they worked far less hours a week than other women who embroidered for a living. May’s skills as a designer, embroiderer and competent manager added considerable money to the firm’s coffers. 

 The next three chapters cover ‘Book Covers and Designs’, ‘Dress and Costume’ and ‘Jewellery and Metalwork’, the last being a real surprise to me. I knew something of her other talents but the jewellery is stunning, the designs breath taking in their beauty. 

 The book is lavishly and beautifully illustrated. My favourite photos are on pages 112-113 and of course, in the jewellery chapter. Do check this book out. May’s work is so skilled, her designs so imaginative. I would have liked a longer biography chapter. She was such an interesting and talented woman in so many areas. I do think this book has been successful in redressing, in part, the previous neglect of her contribution to the success of the Arts and Craft Movement. 

 Erica Marsden