14th January 2019
It’s no secret that William Morris was hugely pioneering in his methods of producing art. Passionate about art being returned to the craftsmen instead of being machine made. This was during the Victorian industrialisation that was occurring at the time. In Summer 1881, Morris took out a lease on Merton Abbey in Surrey. It sat on the River Wandle (after which one of his most beautiful chintzes was named.)
Merton Abbey had originally been a silk weaving factory dating to the 18th Century by Huguenot weavers. By the time Morris was exploring the premises to look to buy it to produce Morris & Co. fabrics, it was printing cheap tablecloths – not very impressive to Morris of course! The Abbey was built next to the river and then used for fabric printing over the years. The pure water was ideal for dyeing purposes. Tested by Morris and William de Morgan, the water was found to contain qualities that were especially good for madder dyeing.
In an almost romanticised yet true story, the land surrounding Merton Abbey was planted with willows and poplars. Used in the dyes and the open buttercup meadows were the perfect space for stretching out the fabric to dry after it had undergone the dyeing process. The buildings were long and low lying and sat on acres of land. It was perfect for the whole of Morris & Co. to work within one compound. There was a special dye house for chintzes, one for wool and one for silk. It meant that Morris could really scale production whilst keeping it hand crafted using traditional methods.
Using the brilliant book “William Morris” by Helen Dore, we can get much more information of the Abbey. It’s a fascinating read that we seem to come back to time and time again. We’re sure you’ve heard us reference it before. You can get it on Amazon here. She neatly summarises the influences and feelings of Merton Abbey within this book, “What Morris achieved here was indeed the Ruskinian ideal of production in the most pleasant of surroundings and working conditions.” (Page 87)
One of Morris’ most famous achievements when it comes to his printing is the indigo discharge technique. He managed to produce designs with such rich and beautiful colours. Using his own vegetable dyes, they were hand printed on cotton fabric. Morris was overwhelmingly influenced by nature as you can see in his designs; but using these vivid beautiful colours almost makes it look like he’s printed them using the colours themselves.
W.R.Lethaby in his memoir “Philip Webb and his Work” in his Morris chapter perhaps writes it more succinctly than we can. It is “as if the cloths were stained through and through with the juices of the flowers.” Remember – they couldn’t just digitally print the exact colour they wanted back when they were creating these dyes. It was a much more labour intensive process. The achievement of not only creating them but also hand printing to last the test of time is truly remarkable.
Staying true to his passion of hand crafting rather than machine printing, the Morris chintzes were all hand printed. This could never have been done by the machine rollers. It was also a way the average middle class consumer could afford a Morris design. The Morris & Co. products – hand crafted and and printed using expensive materials were hugely costly and out of the realm of the budget of the working people. Luxuries such as woven fabrics, tapestries, embroideries and hand tufted rugs were for the rich. However, chintzes could be bought and used in a smaller quantity – perhaps they couldn’t afford a tapestries. But within budget perhaps was a piece of chintz that could be used to create a cushion cover or other small craft.
The fact that they were more accessible made them very popular. The lowered price point whilst still being of remarkable quality and extreme beauty with their hand print and colours made them one of Morris’s hallmarks. The chintzes weren’t originally for this purpose however – they are meant to be used as wall hangings. In Standen for example, Daffodil chintz is hung in the Morning Room.
At this time, Morris hadn’t yet been successful in printing on cotton to the standard he required. He of course would go on to do so, but the early cotton prints by Thomas Clarkson at Bannister Hall Print Works in Preston didn’t please him.
We hope you’ve enjoyed reading more about Morris and the chintzes. There’s so much to learn about that he achieved throughout his life and the passions he turned into a reality. We’d like to again reference the book that we used to back up our own knowledge of the blog. William Morris, Helen Dore, 1990 pages 86-88.