Art Through Time: A Global View
Domestic Life Art: The Orchard (also called The Seasons)
In 1861, the design firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, & Co. was established with the aim of providing beautiful, hand-crafted furniture, wallpaper, textiles, carpets, glass, and other domestic wares to a broad spectrum of society.
In 1875, the firm was reorganized under the name Morris & Co. and in 1881, workshops, structured on the model of medieval craft guilds, were established at Merton Abbey. Several years later, the name “Arts and Crafts movement” was coined to describe the design reform philosophies of William Morris and his partners and collaborators, among whom were architect Philip Webb, designer John Dearle, and Pre-Raphaelite painters Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones.
Unlike the industrial factories that were cropping up across the English landscape, the Merton Abbey workshops were dedicated to production by hand. Wallpaper patterns were printed with stamps and textiles were woven on looms. For the leaders of the Arts and Crafts movement, only humans, not machines, could guarantee artistic integrity. This artistic integrity was, in their view, crucial because it was linked directly to social morality. Good design was equated with moral living. Ultimately, however, the costs associated with their production methods kept their designs (and their utopian ideals) out of reach for the general population.
This tapestry, designed by Morris and Dearle, was created at Merton Abbey. It exemplifies the values of the Arts and Crafts movement. Believed by Morris to be the most worthwhile craft, tapestry revived a form that flourished during the Middle Ages, when it was the most prized, and the most expensive, of pictorial arts in Europe. The heavy, woven textiles served the practical purpose of insulating the drafty rooms of pre-modern homes, while at the same time beautifying those spaces and often providing messages about virtuous living. This tapestry shows four figures, dressed in romanticized medieval garb, holding a scroll inscribed with verses about the seasons. As the text moves from season to season with each figure, the floral and vegetal motifs change to match. The plants, trees, fruits, and flowers in the tapestry have patterns similar those Morris and Dearle used in their wallpaper and textiles, reflecting both truth to nature and clarity of design.
Sarah D. Coffin, Curator of Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Decorative Arts, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum
“The Arts and Crafts movement started in England in the 1830s and ’40s, and moved on through William Morris to the late nineteenth century, both in England and in the United States, as well as having influence all over the place. This particular group that centered around William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelite painters felt that truth was important in their mission. The reaction is against the Industrial Age and the proliferation of cheaply made and not necessarily well-designed objects. There was a strong moralistic streak to this. There was a sense that the Industrial Revolution seemed to be degrading life and that morality was in fact very much on the wane. They had a very grand notion that design impacts everybody’s life every day, and that uninspired, bad design denigrates quality of life. Also the inspiration for this movement in the 1830s—this is when you have Byron and Shelley and the Romantic poets. Morris himself was actually better known in his day as a philosopher and as a poet. And it was only in the later nineteenth century that we think of him more in terms of his designs.
Morris was basically a socialist who wanted good design for all people. But, of course, the cost of hand producing things was high. And therefore, the only way to really enable large numbers of people to have this was to do the style of the hand-crafted, but not necessarily hand-crafted throughout. It really came to William Morris to pinpoint it in terms of furnishings and in his case he was probably most successful in his designs for wall coverings, wallpapers, and textiles.”
Kaplan, Wendy. Leading the Simple Life: The Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain 1880–1910. Miami: Florida International University, 1999.
Latham, David. Writing on the Image: Reading William Morris. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007.
Marsh, Jan. William Morris & Red House: A Collaboration Between Architect and Owner. Swindon: National Trust Books, 2005.
Miele, Chris. From William Morris: Building Conservation and the Arts and Crafts Cult of Authenticity, 1877–1939. London: The Paul Mellon Centre, 2005.
Parry, Linda. William Morris: Art and Kelmscott. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell, 1996.