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May Morris; Life and Legacy.

27th January 2019

“I’m a remarkable woman, always was, though none of you seemed to think so.” – May Morris.

The quote above has always brought a smile when we think of it. It was written in a letter May sent in 1936 to George Bernard Shaw, a Irish Playwright and seems to reflect the fire May had – perhaps arguably inherited from her father. We like her tenacity she showed throughout her life and this quote seems to reflect that. The fact is, she did a lot for the Arts and Crafts movement and was hugely influential in her father’s business, Morris and Co.

Though she achieved a lot, over time, her influence and prestige seems to have been lost somewhat. It’s a shame because of all she achieved – which was especially important because she was a woman. The things she achieved throughout her life are vast and we wanted to take a closer look at them in this blog. There was a wonderful exhibition at the William Morris gallery in 2017 and it was perfect to cast more of a light on May’s work and life. Our friend Helen Elletson, curator at the William Morris Gallery said, “We talk all the time about [William] Morris being a polymath, but May was multi-talented, just like her father” in a quote to the Financial Times.

May Morris

The daughter of William Morris, we can only imagine the amount of creativity and political talk in the house as May and her sister Jenny grew up. Her mother Jane was a Pre-Raphaelite beauty and modelled in lots of the famous painters art. She favoured the looser more artistic dresses and dressed her daughters in such clothing. They were loose and without corsets, May wrote in her journey aged eight, “I am a great tomboy.” She was home schooled and at age sixteen, attended the National Art Training School which would later become the Royal College of Art.

Morris & Co.

When May was 23, she was put in charge of the embroidery section at Morris & Co. The whole Morris family had a love and talent for embroidery. Her mum and auntie, Bessie Burden were keen at it and were really talented. The ”Burden” stitch is named after the sisters and is a hard one to master for today’s embroiderers. May and her sister were being taught to embroider by the time they were seven and eight respectively.

From the time she was put in charge of the embroidery section, all the new designs were done by herself and John Henry Dearle. When he father died in 1896, she did continue on in the business, but only as an advisory role.

Aside from her career highlights, May also founded the Women’s Guild of Arts in 1907 and remained the president until 1935. It was a direct response to the Art Worker’s Guild; that women weren’t permitted to join until the 1960s. Despite there being many women in the arts, it’s clear they weren’t being represented and acknowledged. So it was forward thinking and blatant gumption that May was showing. May appears to be much like her father; both skilled in the arts and invested in pushing the societal boundaries.

Personally, she fell in love with George Bernard Shaw. They met when they were involved in the Socialist League but the romance wasn’t to be and she married Henry Halliday Sparling. The marriage didn’t last and she remained alone for the remainder of her life.

The Arts & Crafts Movement

It’s clear May’s work ethic came from her father. May was involved in the Arts and Crafts scene throughout the 1890s and 1900s. She took on various 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.

May wrote many introductions for William Morris’ works, she spent 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. May 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. It appears she is lately also being recognised for her professional achievements. Though they were 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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🌷 William Morris month day 30 🌷 As we come near the end of Morris month, we’re celebrating with a fabric stack, full of beautiful licensed designs, which is your fave? 🌿 “Remember that a pattern is either right or wrong. It cannot be forgiven for blundering, as a picture may be which has otherwise great qualities in it. It is with a pattern as with a fortress, it is no stronger than its weakest point.”- William Morris 🤍 
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🌷William Morris Month Day 28🌷 Happy Easter weekend everyone! 🐥 We hope everyone has a lovely long bank holiday 🌿 We’re already planning some beautiful William Morris tablescapes, nothing too complex, all you need is some Morris florals, some flowers and lots of chocolate! 🐰
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#wiliammorris #williammorrisfabric #williammorrisfabrics #fabric #fabrics #eastertable #eastertable #easterstyling #preraphaelite #preraphaelites #floraltable #preraphaelitebrotherhood #victoriandesign
🌷 William Morris Month Day 26 🌷 Absolutely loving a spring time floral on the table right now, especially when paired with an Easter craft or two! 🤍
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🌿 William Morris Month Day 25 🌿 Florals on florals on florals; all of the William Morris florals just look so beautiful together and, as Morris said himself, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful” 🌷
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🐥 William Morris Month Day 23 🐥 Loving the sunshine this week for springtime 🌿 We absolutely love Willow Bough on the table in the sunshine paired with spring blooms 🌷
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🌷 William Morris Month Day 22🌷 A themed table is always our favourite, we’ve been loving setting the table lately with an Easter theme- especially when it means we can eat the eggs after! 🐣✨ 
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#williammorris #williammorrismonth #williammorrisfabric #williammorrisfabrics #preraphaelite #eastertables #eastereggs #eastertablescape #springflorals
🌿 William Morris Day 20 🌿 William Morris fact of the day; did you know he founded the Kelmscott Press? 🖋️ He wrote of the venture – “Here is a new craft to conquer and to perfect.” Printing began at the press in Spring 1891 🪴 He designed multiple fonts including “Golden” Roman typeface and “Troy” Gothic type along with “Chaucer” and he worked to create beautiful books in regards to their designs which took into account their type, image and decorative elements – you can see beautiful examples of what he achieved today if you do a quick search on the Kelmscott Press- it’s well worth a Google! 🌷
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#williammorris #williammorrisfabric #preraphaelite #preraphaelites #kelmscottpress #morris #williammorrismonth #williammorrisdesign #victorian #victorianart #victorians
🌷 William Morris Month Day 19🌷 Happy first day of spring everyone! 🪴 We celebrated in our favourite way; coffee and cake of course! 🍰 Now we love florals all year round of course, but especially love adding in even more this time of year to reflect the blooms in the garden 🌷 What’s your favourite Morris design this time of year? 🌿
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📝 William Morris Month Day 18 📝 Did you know that as well as being an incredible designer, William Morris was also a brilliant writer and poet; have you read any of his writing? What’s your favourite quote? 🌷🌿
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☀️ William Morris Month Day 17 ☀️ The sunshine today has made us feel so excited for spring, it’s almost officially here! 🪴 This William Morris bunting is the dreamiest backdrop to all the spring summer days in the garden, it’s by @ellejoycreations - isn’t it fabulous!🌷
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🐰 William Morris Month Day 16 🐰 A Sunday spent Easter decorating, these cute little bunnies were a craft a few years back and they are always a firm favourite to bring out this time of year to hang on our Easter tree 🐥 Have you started decorating or eating eggs yet? 🐣
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🍓 William Morris Month Day 15 🍓 Absolutely can’t wait for the summer months to get our Strawberry Thief picnic basket and blanket back out- if you missed this craft we have a DIY on our website blog, along with a lot of other craft ideas and how-to blogs ☺️
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🍓 William Morris Month Day 14 🍓 Strawberry Thief was inspired by William Morris’s watching the thrushes under the strawberry nets at the stunning @kelmscottmanor 🌿 May Morris conjured up this scene when speaking of the design, “You can imagine my Father going out in the early morning and watching the rascally thrushes at work on the fruit beds and telling the fanned who growls ‘I’d like to wring their necks!’ that no bird in the garden must be touched. There were certainly more birds than strawberries in spite of attempts at protection. And the walls of the little dining-room are hung with this note of the June garden and the little lords of it.” 🍓 What a lovely insight into the Morris family life! 🥰
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