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.