William Morris: Story, Memory, Myth

I popped along to the William Morris: Story, Memory, Myth exhibition at the newly opened Two Temple Place gallery today, to have a gander at more Morris textiles, tapestries and embroideries (having previously visited Morris' Red House in Kent)!

The exhibition catalogue describes the "close relationship" between the arts of storytelling and craft; Dr Esmé Whittaker explains how, traditionally, "the craftsman's workshop was the place where stories from the past and from faraway places were exchanged between the resident master craftsman and travelling journeymen", and that "Morris also believed that storytelling belonged within the craftsman's workshop". This makes perfect sense when we consider that Morris was not only a designer but also a poet, and (as I will go on to explain), combined both facets of his creativity. This is particularly interesting for me, being both a writer and crafter.

Unfortunately cameras were not allowed in the exhibition, but I will include photographs from the exhibition catalogue.

The exhibition was centred around four tapestry panels from the Morris and Burne-Jones designed frieze The Romance of the Rose. Le Roman de la Rose was one of the most influential texts of the Middle Ages. The first part of the poem was written by Guillaume de Lorris in 1230, and the second part around 1275, after Lorris' death, by Jean de Meun, but the version Morris and Burne-Jones would have read was a translation by Chaucer, The Romaunt of the Rose.

The poem recounts a dream in which the pilgrim-narrator encounters a beautiful garden, in which he has a vision of a rosebud, symbolising ideal love. A personified Love strikes him with an arrow, and thus the pilgrim is determined to reach the rosebud. He is aided (and hindered) in his quest by a number of allegorical figures.

The tapestry panels, like the Bayeux Tapestry, are in fact not tapestry at all, but an incredibly detailed, large-scale embroidery. The five panels of The Romance of the Rose took  Lowthian Bell's wife Margaret and daughter Florence eight years to complete (from 1874-82), and no wonder; the detail and texture is astounding. The embroidered wall hanging I saw in the Red House pales by comparison! The Romance of the Rose is comprised of silks, wools, and gold thread on linen; unfortunately the photographs in the exhibition catalogue don't do it justice, but here they are:

The Pilgrim Studying Images of the Vices on the exterior of the Garden of Idleness

The Pilgrim Greeted by Idleness at the Gate of the Garden

The Pilgrim in the Garden of Idleness


Love Leading the Pilgrim Through the Briars

The Pilgrim at the Heart of the Rose
A genuine tapestry in the exhibition which was of particular interest to me was The Woodpecker tapestry. This tapestry is "an example of Morris working simultaneously as a poet and a decorative designer." It is one of a series of tapestries for which Morris composed lines of verse (which were later published in his book Poems by the Way in 1891). The tapestry is around 12 feet high (so is no small feat!) and depicts a woodpecker sitting in a tree heavy with fruit. The text, "I once a King and chief/Now am the tree-bark's thief,/Ever 'twixt trunk and leaf/Chasing the prey" refers to the Ovid story of Picus, King of Ausonia, who was transformed into a woodpecker by the goddess Circe because he did not reciprocate her love.

It's good to see that I follow in a rich tradition of combining poetry with illustrative textile art.

The Woodpecker tapestry
The most breathtaking piece of the exhibition was an embroidered wall hanging depicting Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit trees. Also around 12 feet high, the wall hanging is rendered in silk thread which reflects the light, giving a fluid motion to the folds of Pomona's robes. The design the embroidery is based on was actually originally a design for tapestry, from the same series of illustrated poetry as The Woodpecker tapestry. The verse of the embroidery reads "I am the ancient apple queen/As once I was so am I now/For evermore a hope unseen/Betwixt the blossom and the bough/Ah where's the river's hidden gold/And where the windy grave of Troy/Yet come I as I came of old/From out the heart of summer's joy". The embroidery was completed around 1885 by the Royal School of Art Needlework in floss silks on linen.

Pomona
 The final piece of embroidery on display was a frieze by Morris' daughter, May, following in the tradition of her father by illustrating one of his poems. The frieze included quotations from Morris' poem June, from the book The Earthly Paradise. The frieze put me in mind of a giant sampler, with its verse surrounded by a floral border. I will have to do some more research into samplers, particularly since Joetta Maue describes my work as "samplers" in this post.