Wednesday, 3 November 2010

William Morris 'Bird' Textile Design

Illustration: William Morris. Bird woven textile design, 1878.

William Morris Bird textile design was released as a woven fabric in 1878. It proved both popular with the general public as indeed it did with Morris himself, who used the fabric on the walls of his drawing room at Kelmscott House from its original release date until his death in 1896. The design is said to have been inspired by Italian woven silk work from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that Morris observed during his frequent visits to the South Kensington Museum, later to become the Victoria and Albert Museum. However, although the design work reproduced by Morris could well have been inspired by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the same style of motif can trace its history back much further than either the sixteenth century or indeed Italy.

Some of the early examples shown in this article derive from the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and are both Spanish and Italian in origin. However, the compositional use of symmetrically facing or opposing animals is an old one and can be found across the globe. However, in this particular instance can be traced back through the Italian examples that Morris was inspired by, to Islam, the Byzantine Empire and eventually to much earlier empires and cultures of the Middle East.

Illustration: Italian silk textile design, 12th century.

Morris himself was well aware of the pedigree of this compositional style and admitted to the use of the pattern as an easy combination of both the luxury entailed in Byzantine and Islamic pattern work, along with a more practical European grounding in medieval styling. It was this combination that appealed to Morris sense of historical perspective as far as textile design was concerned, which also brought its own element of integrity through using work from a period in European and Mediterranean history that was steeped within the world that belonged to a hand rather than machine dominated economy.

This is not to say that Morris produced some form of pastiche or even a pseudo-Islamic, Byzantine and Medieval amalgamation. The Bird fabric of 1878 is very much one of Morris own fabrics, being instantly identified with both his style and that of a slightly broader Englishness which Morris often attempted to foster, even when using foreign sourced inspirations. This does not necessarily signify that the Italian inspiration, and through that the much earlier styles that in turn inspired the Italian version, are missing in Morris eventual design work, but it would be surprising if Bird was not included in Morris English themed Arts & Crafts output during this period, as it fits the style and theme of his narrative so well.

Illustration: Spanish silk textile design, 13th century.

Morris was also intrigued by the practical considerations of this particular style of textile design as he felt that the relatively tight symmetrical nature of the composition made it ideal for suspending, as in window or door curtains, because the fabric seemed to naturally fold in and out on itself, giving views of at least one side of the symmetrical theme.

Morris often referred to the woven version of the Bird design, there was also a printed one, as a tapestry weave. This is not strictly true as the fabric was woven as a doublecloth. However, in some respects he was right in his description even though not technically, as the fabric would have appeared as a fairly substantial weighted sample that could easily have been mistaken for woven tapestry weight fabric. In fact the Bird fabric that he used to decorate his drawing room at Kelmscott House for twenty years was hung in the same way as would a tapestry.

Illustration: Woven textile design, 14th century.

The 1878 Bird textile design is often seen by many as being typical of Morris woven work. That this most English of designers was prepared to seek inspiration from much further afield than that of his immediate surroundings, says much about the inspirational awareness and to some extent the awakening of that awareness within the British Victorian decorative arts in particular. Morris indeed was inspired not only by Mediterranean sourced textile work, but that of Islam and India amongst others. Although Morris is often associated with the Englishness of his approach to textile design at least in its appearance and presumed inspiration, it should not be forgotten how wide he was prepared cast his observational eye when both considering initial inspiration for his pattern work and the vocabulary of textile composition in general.

Illustration: William Morris. Bird woven textile design, 1878.

Reference links:
William Morris Full-Color Patterns and Designs (Pictorial Archives)
William Morris: Patterns & Designs (International Design Library)
Designs of William Morris (Phaidon Miniature Editions)
William Morris Arts & Crafts Design Wall Calendar 2011
William Morris (Temporis)
William Morris Perpetual Calendar
William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Home
William Morris: A Life for Our Time
The Beauty of Life: William Morris and the Art of Design

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