Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Flowers in Art: William Morris - herbals, flowers and making patterns

Don't copy any style at all, but make your own; yet you must study the history of our art...
William Morris
William Morris (1834-1896) has had a significant influence on decorative art in the UK. His designs are based on natural forms - many of which are flowers. Of the nearly 600 designs which are attrubuted to him there are very few which do not feature flowers, leaves, trees or plants.

Wallpaper, William Morris
Late 19th century

Victoria and Albert Museum
Museum no. E.504-1919

Along with people like Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Morris was also one of the most prominent practitioners within the Arts and Crafts Movement an aesthetic movement that was prominent in the UK and USA between 1880 and 1910. He influenced a number of other important designers such as Charles F.A. Voysey (1857-1927).

William Morris, as a writer, designer and socialist had a vast range of interests (see Wikipedia entry for a quick overview) but I'm interested in how William Morris developed his flower designs and this post will focus on that - and also include other interesting tidbits.

Sources I'm using for this post and of further information include:
  • "The Flowers of William Morris" by Derek Baker published for the centennial of Morris's death in 1896. This comments at some length on the sixteenth-century herbals (books) favoured by Morris
  • The Victoria and Albert Museum. The V&A is an especially interesting place in relation to Morris. It now includes his work in its archives (eg wallpaper) but it also houses some of the works of art which Morris himself used to stimulate his own designs - such as the 'herbals', which contained descriptions and illustrations of herbs, flowers, fruit and other plants.
The first pattern to be issued, in 1864, was 'Daisy', a simple design of naively drawn meadow flowers. The source was a wallhanging illustrated in a 15th-century version of Froissart's Chronicles', but similar flower forms can be seen in late medieval 'mille-fleurs' tapestries and in early printed herbals.

These two designs, and the next pattern Fruit (also known as Pomegranate), share a medieval character that links Morris's early work in the decorative arts with the Pre-Raphaelite painters, and with Ruskin. However, they are also influenced by Morris's abiding interest in naturalism in ornament.

Lecturing on pattern in 1881, he claimed, 'any decoration is futile ... when it does not remind you of something beyond itself'. His sources were plants themselves, observed in his gardens or on country walks, and also images of plants in 16th-century woodcuts (he owned copies of several 16th- and 17th-century herbals, including Gerard's famous Herball), illuminated manuscripts, tapes-tries and other textiles incorporating floral imagery. His designs were not to be literal transcriptions of natural forms but subtle stylised evocations.
Victoria and Albert Museum - William Morris - wallpaper design
Design for Windrush printed fabric by William Morris. (Identification from Linda Parry, ed.: William Morris, Abrams, 1996, ISBN 0-8109-4282-8, p. 265)

His designs were used for wallpapers, textiles, tiles, stained glass, ordinary glass ware - in other words all manner of things which were used in a decorative way and were produced or commissioned by his company, Morris and Company.
The wallpapers, textiles, carpets, tapestries, and furniture designed by the Firm were intended to create an integrated artistic interior and, in so doing, to transform domestic life into a deeply aesthetic experience. Morris wished "to revive a sense of beauty in home life, to restore the dignity of art to the ordinary household decoration."Huntington Exhibition 2004
Arthur Sanderson & Sons Ltd were first commissioned to produce wallpapers for Morris & Co. in 1930. This page of the William Morris website provides some fascinating archives of images relating to the applied use of flower designs done in pear wood blocks.

I've tried to summarise some of the features of the floral design work of William Morris below:

Context and influences:

He was much influenced by John Ruskin who was an observer of nature and an artist who enjoyed drawing flowers and who collected herbals. He emphasised in his book 'Elements of Drawing' the importance of close observation. He was also a member of a Pre-Raphaelite circle that included Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones.

Morris was also of the view that it was desirable to surround ourselves with decoration, lesser art not fine art, originating from natural sources rather than scientific representation.

'The Great Herbal',
book with woodcut illustrations, printed by Peter Treveris, 1526.
Victoria and Albert Museum no. L.1059-1901


Morris collected and used herbals to suggest designs incorporating specific flowers or plants. Herbals were books about plants which contained illustrations which were woodcuts or engavings of high quality and were first printed around the sixteenth century.

He also visited South Kensington Museum (now the V&A) to study designs from Turkey and Persia and the Islamic influences on flowers; incorporated wild tulips (a near eastern flower) into his garden at Kelmscott. (Note: At the time of writing Kelmscott Manor, former home of William Morris, is flooded due to the extensive rain and flooding in central and western England.). Given my own endeavours in this respect (see Plant Motifs and Art #2 at the V&A), I am persuaded that it's worthwhile to pursue this line of study some more.


His knowledge of flowers was considerable but his designs were rarely botanically correct - however he also had a practical perspective on this
Of course you understand that it is impossible to imitate nature literally; the utmost realism of the most realistic painter falls a long way short of it.
William Morris ' Making the best of it'
Morris himself summarised the key qualities for a designer when he said you must fully understand nature and study it closely, know your history and then develop and use your imagination.
The Flowers of William Morris
Kennet indigo-discharge printed textile designed by William Morris.
(Identification from Linda Parry: William Morris Textiles, New York, Viking Press, 1983, ISBN 0-670-77074-4, p. 155)

Ornamental pattern work...must contain three qualities: beauty, imagination and order.
William Morris ' Making the best of it'
For those designing pattern
Above all, avoid vagueness...definite form bounded by firm outline is a necessity for all ornament...do not be afraid of your design or try to muddle it up so that people can scarcely see it; it if it is arranged on good lines and its details are beautiful you need not fear it looking hard so long as it covers the ground wel and is not wrong in colour.
William Morris ' Making the best of it'
In choosing natural forms be rather shy of certain very obvious decorative ones, eg bindweed, passion-flower and the poorer forms of ivy, used without the natural copiousness. I should call these trouble savers and warn you of them....we have had them used so cheaply this long while we are sick of them
William Morris ' Making the best of it'

He liked to develop medievalism within his gardens - first at The Red House and then at Kelmscott Manor both in terms of design and the plants.

This post has barely scraped the surface of the wealth of information that exists about William Morris - so do explore the links if you'd like to know more.

Note (and an aside): Jane Morris, William Morris's wife, is the model for Dante Gabriel Rossetti's painting Proserpine 1877 (Tate Gallery). This is a photograph of her posed by Rossetti from the William Morris Gallery. It's one of the earliest examples of pre-raphelite photography.



  1. a great post :D I saw a really good exhibition of his work in Birmingham a few years ago.

    When I was doing A level art at school he was an influence on some of my fabric designs - so a trip through time there :)

  2. Thanks, Katherine for this blog post. I have always admired Moriss' work. This is a good informative article, and the links are great. His work is seminal for an amazing amount of work and design. It is resurfacing in so many ways. Thanks again.


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