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May Morris

21st February 2017

Reading an article this week in the Guardian about May Morris and the Valentine she sent to George Bernard Shaw, we realised that it’s been a while since we’ve written and researched Morris’ family. The younger of his two daughters born in 1862, May was an important figure in the Arts and Crafts movement. Though frequently overlooked for her own achievements due to her father and family name, we thought we’d take a moment to write about her!

Unsurprisingly, Morris encouraged both his daughters to take an interest in crafts- in fact, by the time they were seven and eight, their mother Jane Morris was teaching them to embroider. May was a talented artist, following in her fathers footsteps and spent her life devoted to crafts. In 1885, at the age of 23, May took over the embroidery section of Morris & Co. from her father, after she studied at South Kensington School of Design. From this point on, all the new designs were done by her and John Henry Dearle. After William Morris’ death in 1896, she continued on, but just as an advisory role.

Another of her notable achievements is that she founded the Women’s Guild of Arts in 1907; remaining the president until 1935. The Women’s Guild was a response to the Art Workers’ Guild, established in 1884 by British architects inspired by- you guessed it!- William Morris’ ideas and the Arts and Crafts movement. Just like her father then, May appeared to always be pushing the boundaries and was extremely forward thinking- as it wasn’t until the 1960s that women were admitted into the Art Workers’ Guild.

On a more personal note, the article in the Guardian spoke about her love for George Bernard Shaw (who insisted on being called Bernard Shaw.) The pair met as both were involved in the Socialist League, however the romance wasn’t to be and she ended up marrying another socialist, Henry Halliday Sparling. This marriage didn’t last- and sadly May remained alone for the remainder of her life.

British Library Board (Add. MS 50563)

How beautiful is this Valentine? Created by May herself, apart from showing that Shaw was presumably the love of her life, it shows her remarkable artistic talent. Though she sent this anonymously, he knew it was from her though, and since his plays had yet to earn him fame and fortune- and wouldn’t for a further decade- at 29 to her 24, he was unable to reciprocate her affections. Within months of the Valentine being sent, May was engaged to Sparling – perhaps this was fuelled by her rejection from Shaw? The end of her marriage after four years was perhaps not helped when Shaw came to live with the couple due to the drains at his mothers house – where he was still living – needed work. The photograph below shows May Morris, Henry Halliday Sparling, Emery Walker and George Bernard Shaw on Hammersmith Terrace in London on the 3rd February 1889.

Walker & Boutall/Reproduced with kind permission of the National Trust and the Society of Authors on behalf of the Bernard Shaw Estate

Regardless of her love life, looking at the work May produced and the life she led in terms of her work ethic, it’s clear she took huge influence from her father. Heavily involved in the Arts and Crafts scene throughout the 1890s and 1900s, she took on all aspects of the scene; “She designed jewellery; she wrote a play, White Lies, in 1903; she wrote articles and a book on embroidery: Decorative Needlework, published in 1893.  She taught, and was then in demand on the lecture circuit – in 1910 travelling on a tour of America.  She was an advisor and teacher at the Central School of Arts & Crafts and at Birmingham, where friends and old employees also taught.  She was a regular exhibitor at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society.” – Arts and Crafts Museum.

If you’ve read some of Morris’ work, you may see the introductions May wrote- spending years editing his collected works. Visiting Kelmscott Manor- Morris’ home in Oxfordshire, you will hear about the work she did for the village of Kelmscott, working to build a village hall (designed by Ernest Gimson) to improve the lives of the workers, was involved in the WI and many other aspects of the village. Despite her full working life then, it’s clear she took after her father in filling her life full of work and was obviously inspired by how he saw the world with his pioneering views. There are many accounts of how well she treated her workers, on race day inviting workers to her garden parties and giving annual presents. She died a beloved member of Kelmscott village’s community and it appears now she is also being recognised for her professional achievements – though perhaps previously overshadowed by her father- at this time in particular it was a huge triumph for her to have achieved all she did as a woman.

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