Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Acanthus and Vine by William Morris

Illustration: William Morris. Acanthus and Vine tapestry design, 1879.

Acanthus and Vine was the first tapestry design produced by William Morris. In fact he personally hand wove the original in 1879, using his bedroom at Kelmscott House as a temporary tapestry studio. He facetiously nicknamed the tapestry Cabbage and Vine because of the less than stylised acanthus leaves. Although some still prefer to call the piece by Morris nickname, the composition is more in keeping with the classical traditions, be it through the Northern Renaissance, of the iconic acanthus and vine leaves so readily recognised as being so much a part of the classical world.

Morris himself had always wanted to achieve the ideal of weaving his own tapestries. He saw this form of textile craft as the highest expression of all the textile-based crafts and wished that everyone would follow his example of using tapestries as wall coverings instead of wallpaper, which if he didn't loathe, he at least actively disliked as an interior medium. Although this was certainly only a personal preference of Morris, it can be said that tapestry weaving was the textile craft that perhaps came closest to being recognised as a fine art craft in its own right.

Morris took nearly five months and well over five hundred hours to complete Acanthus and Vine. We know this because he kept a careful record of time spent on the tapestry. He found the process, as do many, extremely therapeutic. The physical process of slow hand weaving forces the individual to sit within another world where the priorities are not those of the every day and the familiar. Hand tapestry weaving cannot be hurried or rushed as it is a process led discipline and good results can only be achieved through yielding to the physical process of the yarn and tapestry frame. Because tapestry weaving literally forced Morris out of the busy life that entailed a Morris & Co schedule whereby he was at the beck and call of the wealthy and the titled, all of whom wanted Morris to make personal appearances during the refurbishment of their interiors by his company, he was more than happy to spend the time creatively and quietly weaving. His only companion was usually his daughter May who used to sit at the bench watching her father adding coloured yarns to the weaving.

Illustration: William Morris. Acanthus and Vine tapestry design, 1879.

Although Morris first example of tapestry weaving, like most peoples, was a little stretched and misshapen, he was not put off and being the individual he was, learnt from mistakes made during the weaving process. He soon had Morris & Co producing a range of tapestry pieces for sale to his wealthy clients. He moved John Henry Dearle who had been in charge of stained glass production, and placed him in charge of the new department.

Although many would see the copious amounts of textile and wallpaper design work that Morris produced over decades, as perhaps his leading legacy, Morris would undoubtedly have seen his significant but more limited tapestry production as a more fitting gift to the history of textile craft.

Although the contemporary world of tapestry weaving was not started by Morris, it was his enthusiasm for the genre that helped to engender a serious aspect to the craft. It is one that was to see a number of European fine artists during the latter nineteenth century and all through the twentieth, treat the craft of tapestry weaving with the dignity it had probably not seen since the days of the large Belgian and French tapestries of the Northern Renaissance.

Tapestry has now gone well beyond its original remit of the woven, as a number of twenty first century exhibitions have shown. Although Morris might well have disapproved of the path that contemporary tapestry has taken, there is no doubt that the craft is a vital element in both textile and fine art worlds. At least some of this recognition can be placed with Morris, along with his initial and temporary bedroom tapestry studio of 1879.

Reference links:
William Morris: A Life for Our Time
HISTORY OF THE MERTON ABBEY TAPESTRY WORKS FOUNDED BY WILLIAM MORRIS.
William Morris Textiles
William Morris Full-Color Patterns and Designs (Pictorial Archives)
Designs of William Morris (Phaidon Miniature Editions)
William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Home
William Morris on Art and Socialism
William Morris (Temporis)
William Morris Vase 20"x20"
The Gardens of William Morris
The Art of William Morris in Cross Stitch
Tree of Life Ruby Wall Tapestry with free hanging rod by William Morris, 40 x 53 inches
Counted Cross Stitch Chart Woodpecker on Tree of Life by Arts and Crafts Movement Founder William Morris
William Morris Birds 20"x20"

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