Finding beauty in nature and provincial traditions of the 16th and 17th centuries, William Morris is widely considered the driving force behind the revival of British textile arts. At the height of its success, Morris & Co. was selling textiles, stained glass, ceramics, wallpapers and furnishings, yet the company’s humble beginnings are rooted in embroidery commissions which transformed the dark and heavy interiors of the Victorian period.
Disillusioned with the increasingly polluted city of London and its vast array of new machinery in the industrial age, Morris became fascinated by nature, believing its organic forms would enrich one’s home as well as the lives of the craftsmen producing his designs. These views never left him: Morris & Co. products are characterised by mesmerising repeating patterns of stylised birds, fruit and swirling foliage. Above all, Morris valued hand craftsmanship and spent years teaching himself complex medieval methods of textile production. Natural dyeing methods were used and various materials experimented with as he sought to find some form of perfection that brought a sense of purity, beauty and integrity to his designs. With this profound knowledge came far more refined designs which boldly rejected mainstream Victorian tastes.
By 1885 Morris had turned his attention to other ventures within the business, handing the embroidery section to his daughter May, herself a talented embroiderer and passionate advocate of the Arts and Crafts movement. Whilst a majority of the designs produced for the firm were direct creations of William Morris, he was adept at handing on the reigns to a team of skilled draughtsmen who produced designs for many important commissions, none more so than John Henry Dearle.
Dearle began his career with the firm as a shop assistant at 449 Oxford Street in 1878. Recognising the young man’s potential during his apprenticeship, Morris allowed Dearle to create fabric details and floral backgrounds for many of his designs. The pair opened a tapestry workshop at Queen Square shortly after and by 1890, at the age of 31, Dearle was Head Designer of the firm and responsible for handling the company’s commissions for house decorative schemes.
Under the guidance of May Morris, Dearle produced a series of portières featuring some of his most recognisable designs, including Owl (c.1895) now on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Whilst his artistic style always remains loyal to William Morris’ aesthetic, the 1890s mark a clear attempt from Dearle to develop a mature, more individual artistic vision. Morris’ early embroidery work typically features repeating patterns, yet in Acanthus, Dearle opts for a different design approach: a singular central acanthus motif which grounds the piece. He surrounds this dominating feature with a sensation for the eyes: interlocking vines and swirls of vibrantly coloured flowers. Among them are two of Dearle’s most distinctive designs: the pointed-headed tulip and dark veining on various flowers and leaves. Designed on linen and embroidered in silk using a dazzling array of colours, the quality of the piece remains in keeping with the Arts and Crafts tradition, valuing the skills of the craftsman over industrial machinery. Another example of this portière exists in the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. Their version was embroidered by Mary Isobel Barr Smith: a woman from wealthy and influential family who furnished a great number of their homes with Morris & Co. fabrics and furnishings.
A stunning visual representation of Dearle’s achievements as a talented embroiderer, designer and artist, we are delighted to be able to offer this portière, passed down from the original owner, as part of our upcoming auction of Decorative Arts: Design since 1860 on 11 April, in Edinburgh.
Viewing in London
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