William Morris was simply the most consequential creative of his time. Reading a list of his interests and accomplishments, you wonder if he ever slept. A leader of the pre-Raphaelite movement, he was a painter, author, architectural preservationist, fine press publisher, socialist and as this exhibition reveals, a talented designer and businessman. Be aware that this is not an exhaustive exhibition of everything Morris produced. That would have included handmade books, furniture, stained glass and much more.
The show is set in the galleries reserved for textile exhibitions and explores the fabrics and wallpaper patterns of Morris & Co. Founded in 1861 as Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., after 1875 the firm was solely owned by Morris. The popularity of its products is suggested by the fact that it lasted until the beginning of World War II. It was committed to producing elegant home goods largely by hand in older, “medieval” craft techniques. The company aimed to counter the shoddy junk produced by mechanical production. As is evident in these pieces, global influences on its designs include Japanese art, Islamic decoration and especially nature itself. But there are also many references to England, including designs named for specific rivers and patterns that reference children’s stories.
Morris had talented designers working for him, and what we call “Morris” designs are sometimes the work of these talented allies and employees. So not only those by his pre-Raphaelite allies Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but also those by the underappreciated John Henry Dearle and even Morris’ own youngest daughter, May. Her mother, who taught her to embroider, was the pre-Raphaelite beauty Jane Burden Morris. So talented and savvy was May, that at the age of twenty-three, she was put in charge of the entire Morris & Co. embroidery department. The fabric in a fire screen shows off her graceful design sense. Still, most of the fabrics and wallpapers here are by William Morris himself, and his genius for two-dimensional design is on full display. A dazzling “Peacock and Vine” tapestry displays almost magical visual effects. The tapestry “Pomona,” a collaboration between Burne-Jones and Dearle, is a pre-Raphaelite stunner. The lank, S-curvy figure of the goddess of abundance is set against a jungle of leaves, fruit and flowers.
An entire gallery is devoted to the Morris & Co. designs that graced Chicago’s John J. Glessner House, the 1880s Romanesque mansion on Prairie Avenue by Henry Hobson Richardson. An enormous Persian-inspired rug that was long in the home’s entry hall is given pride of place. Turns out, Frances Glessner was an embroiderer herself and shopped for Morris designs at Marshall Field’s.
Pithy quotes by Morris and information about production adorn the handsome navy blue walls. Intriguing photographs of the interior of Morris’ own Kelmscott House reveal what the fabrics and patterns looked like in place. Overall, this is the perfect show for people who, trapped inside by the winter and the pandemic, have been rethinking their own interiors. Morris’ advice? “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” (Mark B. Pohlad)
“Morris and Company: The Business of Beauty” is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan, through June 13.