A Champagne (yet right-on) Socialist, and some blokes who sew

According to a 1908 biography of William Morris I picked up on my trip to Brighton, Morris (much like me) was "a born romantic". However, his romanticism was applied to "the hard facts of life"; he channelled his "sense of wonder" and "passion for beauty into the making of beautiful things which were eventually to become the starting-points for the wonderland of a new civilisation: in a phrase - the discovery of the romance of work." In short, Morris yearned for a socialist utopia in which great pleasure and pride was found in every type of work, and (in particular) in the decorative arts. 

This love of work is evident in, I think I can safely say, all the minor masterpieces of arts and crafts design that Morris and Co. produced.

William Morris
Morris wasn't merely a romantic artist and designer, however; as an article in the Socialist Review put it, he was "a socialist by design". He wrote pamphlets, gave speeches, edited two socialist newspapers, and was one of the first to join the Social Democratic Federation, in 1883.

In keeping with his socialist principals, "William Morris even envisaged a time when the sexual division within the domestic arts would vanish for ever. He anticipated the day when 'the domestic arts; the arrangement of the house in all its details, marketing, cleaning, cooking, baking and so on' would be in the hands of everyone"

In many respects, his dream has become a reality; no longer do domestic duties appear to be divided (quite so) strictly along gender lines. However, my dad may do the bulk of the ironing, but the cooking is still Mum's "job"; Dad lacks the confidence to try cooking anything more adventurous than his famous "baked bean shepherd's pie" (it's a culinary... experience).

As far as craft is concerned, more men do seem to be turning to the needle, although gender lines are more rigid here; Mum may do the majority of the DIY, but, at least in my household, it's the women who darn the proverbial socks.

"Manbroiderers" of the Jamie "Mr X Stitch" Chalmers ilk are trying to change this. I suspect the upsurge in male embroiderers is due to a few factors; the "invention" of the "new man"; the current vogue for all that is analogue and twee; and a similar vogue for the ironic and post-modern.

Throngs of men embroidering at craft nights, however, is something that, unfortunately, I've yet to see. It would be encouraging to have some brothers-in-arms!


Elusive male crafters at an East London Craft Guerrilla night

After all, there's certainly nothing effeminate about Chalmer's work; one of his most recent undertakings was a series of cross stitchings of the spam filtered out of his inbox, including the ubiquitous invitations to "sharpen your love sword"!



Richard Saja and "Johnny Murder", founder of the Manbroidery blog here on Blogger, are fellow male embroiderers. 

Richard Saja,  "... and a half-extinguished fire is soon relit", 2011
"Johnny Murder" doing his thing... bare chested... with a cigarette (very much putting the "man" in "manbroidery")

A section of male society who have taken to embroidery in force, perhaps surprisingly, is prisoners. Fine Cell Work is a charity which aims to "foster hope, discipline and self-esteem" through teaching British inmates to hand embroider. Their embroidery is then turned into cushions, bags, and patchwork kilts. The prisoners are paid for their work, and trained to a high skill level by volunteers from the Embroiderers and Quilters Guild, as the photographs below show:
Love Cushion, a Daisy de Villeneuve design embroidered by British prisoners
Beetroot design, embroidered by British prisoners

The enterprise is clearly vastly rewarding for the prisoners; Steve, an inmate at Wandsworth prison, is quoted as saying that he is "learning a new skill" which he "did not think possible. I also know that people do care about me and what I do because otherwise why would people take an interest in my fine cell work! I now believe what others think about me makes a real difference to how I conduct myself.”

However, it would be wonderful to see some more embroidery by un-incarcerated men! Come on guys! Get stitching.

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.

The Red House

Today Mum and I made a mother-daughter pilgrimage to The Red House in Bexleyheath, Kent. The house was commissioned, designed and lived in by William Morris, and completed in 1860. It is one of the foremost examples of architecture of the Arts and Crafts Movement, but the main reason for our visit was that The William Morris Gallery here in Walthamstow is closed, and thus this was my only real chance to have a look at some original Morris textiles.

As soon as we entered the house we were met by an early example of Arts and Crafts work; stained glass windows with birds by Phillip Webb, figures by Morris' friend Edward Burne-Jones, and floral designs by Morris himself. Two of the figures depicted by Burne-Jones represented Love and a blindfolded Fate, holding the wheel of fortune.
Stained glass window in entrance hallway of The Red House; photograph shows detail with floral designs by Morris and bird designs by Phillip Webb

Just inside the hallway are Morris' first two wallpaper designs, Daisy and Trellis, which he produced with Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. Trellis (Morris' furnishing company) was inspired by the garden at Red House.




In the first room of the house we came across the first set of textiles. A wooden printing block (which would have been used to print wallpapers and fabric) is displayed alongside samples of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co.'s wallpapers and textiles.
Wooden printing block displayed with printed fabric

The dining room contained the exhibit of greatest interest to me; an unfinished wall-hanging depicting Aphrodite worked in embroidery. The craftsmanship of the needlework and scale of the piece, though unfinished, staggered me. It is a beautifully realised piece, painterly, with exquisitely subtle shading and life-like texture. I hope to one day have the time to work on such a large scale (and with such skill)! The wall hanging is thought to have been embroidered by Bessie, the sister of Morris' wife, Jane.

The house was filled with Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. designs; in the dining room stood a table by Phillip Webb, and three chairs designed and made by the company.



There is more needlework on display in Morris and Jane's bedroom; two tapestries, one a daisy design by Morris, originally completed by Bessie (but this reproduction sewn by The William Morris US Society) in couching (a technique in which wool is laid across the fabric and fastened to it with small stitches), and the other an elaborate embroidery in close stitch bearing Morris' favourite Chaucher proverb: He who loves best remember longest. This embroidery has been analysed and found to have been completed by one highly skilled needleperson and two apprentices.

Detail from the embroidered tapestry
We learnt from a tour guide that Morris was taught to embroider by "Red Lion Mary", the housekeeper of Morris and Burne-Jones' bachelor pad/student digs in Red Lion Square, London (of course, when Morris had mastered the craft he then delegated it to the women of the family! Embroidery has long been considered a "woman's craft"!)

A portrait of the man himself (looking rather sheepish)