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Unfaithful, too striking… why William Morris’ wife was expelled from the Arts and Crafts movement | William Morris

Unfaithful, too striking… why William Morris’ wife was expelled from the Arts and Crafts movement | William Morris

Revered for its textiles, art and socialism, William Morris is the famous leader of the Arts and Crafts movement, a renowned intellectual who revolutionized decorative art and design in Britain. His wife, Jane, meanwhile, has been relegated to the status of a silent muse.

Now, the couple’s first joint biography will highlight their personal and creative partnership and reaffirm Jane Morris’s rightful place – a skilled embroiderer and talented designer – in the history books.

“Jane’s work has been undervalued and generally ignored,” said Suzanne Fagence Cooper, author of the forthcoming biography, How we could live. “She is seen as just a face and not a designer with her own ideas.”

Immortalized forever in pre-raphaelite paintings of her obsessive lover Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Jane Morris was essential to the establishment and success of her husband’s decorative arts firm, Morris & Co, in 1861, the book explains.

William Morris, 1887.
William Morris in 1887. Photograph: GL Archives/Alamy

“They needed her soft skills and her embroidery skills, and her willingness to be the pre-Raphaelite face of the Morris company brand,” Fagence Cooper said.

Jane’s artistic contributions were overlooked, Cooper thinks, in part because she was such a famous beauty, who was notoriously unfaithful to her husband along with his friend Rossetti and others. “I think there has been some itching about it. It made her a more complicated figure,” she said.

As the working-class daughter of an ostler and laundress, Jane had no formal education and was considered unworthy – and unequal – of her wealthy middle-class genius of a husband: “The people want to put William Morris on a pedestal,” said Dr. Johanna Amos of Queen’s University in Ontario. “There is this vision of Jane as someone who betrayed this lion of the British art scene in the 19th century. And I think it hurt his reputation.

But without Jane’s housekeeping and networking skills, Morris & Co might not have come into being, Cooper said: “It was set up, essentially, around her dining table at Red House in Kent.”

One of William Morris’ first decorations was a daisy-patterned wall hanging for Red House, which has since cemented his reputation as a design pioneer. “Jane later told her daughter May, in a letter, that she picked out the fabrics for it. And she and Morris sat down together, figured out what pattern was possible, and then they sewed it together,” a said Cooper.

The couple invited their artist friends, including Edward Burne-Jones and Rossetti, to help them finish decorating Red House – and when the first talks about Morris & Co took place between the men, it’s likely Jane was present , and involved, thinks the Cooper agency. “They were designing for Red House, and the first designs took place there. But then they decided to expand it and start selling those models,” she said.

Jane Morris with her daughter May, circa 1865.
Jane Morris with her daughter May around 1865. Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

In particular, she thinks that Jane would have put forward ideas on the embroideries that they could sell. “She was involved in getting the materials and choosing the right fabric, embroidery threads and silks. She is absolutely essential to making the products, as well as bringing people together to begin the process of creating Morris & Co.”

For more than 20 years she then ran the embroidery side of the business which, according to the Cooper agency, became “very big”.

“She sewed and supervised the tailoring for all the women, as they turned the men’s creations into beautiful hangings and decorations,” she added.

Amos said, “She probably made choices around color, around stitch selection, around how the work took shape.” But her ability to make those decisions and interpret her husband’s ideas has not traditionally been recognized as a work of creative ‘design’.

Since all of Jane’s work was unpaid, and unlike her male co-founders, she had no money to invest in the business, her name does not appear in the company’s accounts. . It wasn’t until 2012, when Jane’s letters were discovered and published, that her “unseen” work on Morris & Co designs became known to scholars, the Cooper agency said.

The biography, published on June 9, will also demonstrate that Jane was involved in Rossetti’s artistic process when she posed for The blue silk dresshis painting of her, in 1868.

Jane herself made the dress she was sitting in, Cooper said, “and there was a lot of back and forth in the letters between her and Rossetti about what she should look like, how she should look. feel. And Rossetti really bows to his expertise.

But it’s only in the small “memory books” she made for friends that Jane has the opportunity to display her own “really distinctive” designs, the Cooper agency said. “They are very geometric and rely a lot on the contrasts of red and black, and all the backgrounds are nuanced with small lines, which almost look like embroidery stitches.

“They look much more like vanessa belle‘s work – they have an early Bloomsbury feel. It’s very different from what William Morris was doing.

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