The work and career of May Morris has, until recently, been somewhat overshadowed by the work of her father, William Morris, however she played a major role within the embroidery and design landscape of Arts & Crafts Britain and was extremely important in her own right. In 1885, at the age of 23, she became manager of the Morris & Co. embroidery department. Her artistic upbringing had greatly influenced her interest in the arts and in making, and in this she was assisted by her studies at the National Art Training School. By the mid-1880s she was a skilful embroiderer and designer and continued to lead the department at Morris & Co. until the death of her father in 1896. Although May continued to produce pieces for the firm after her departure, she also focused on private embroidery projects and for these she did not have to adhere to the design restrictions and product ranges of the company.
The breadth of May’s work was further realised after her death, when a large quantity of drawings, embroidery patterns and photographs were uncovered at her previous home, Kelmscott Manor. In 1941 this archive was purchased by the Ashmolean Museum, where it remains today. The archive is remarkable, comprising a range of designs for everything from screens and hangings to cushions and garments. It also reveals May’s working processes, from initial studies through to completed patterns, providing us with an invaluable insight into her work.
Included in the group was the design for the present lot, a watercolour study depicting a tabby cat sitting in a wooded landscape (see illustration), detailed with graphite and black chalk. When comparing the finished embroidery to the study almost every detail, from the swallows in the sky, the positioning of the trees, to the rabbits in the right-hand corner, correspond with the finished piece. There are also further studies of a tabby cat within the collection, including an example drawn on a brown envelope, with a corrected design of the head facing forward rather than to the side, pasted on top of the drawing.
Caroline Palmer, who featured these images in her article for the Decorative Art Society Journal Designs of May Morris in the Ashmolean writes about May’s love of drawing and the importance which she placed on the study of nature in advance of completing her designs. May’s preference for incorporating English hedgerow and meadow plants, which feature in her preparatory sketches, are in contrast with her father’s recurring motifs of pomegranates and acanthus, and thus helped distinguish her work as distinct from that of Morris & Co.
The Hunter at Bay also illustrates May’s passion for reviving traditional embroidery techniques, with subtle references to earlier crewelwork and folkloric patterning. The label verso, written in her hand, explicitly credits her as designer and embroiderer; a concept which was an integral tenet of the Arts & Crafts ideology and remained at the heart of her work.
Decorative Arts: Design since 1860 | Wednesday 1st April at 10am | Online Only