V&A Museum William Morris Buy Art Prints Now
from Amazon

* As an Amazon Associate, and partner with Google Adsense and Ezoic, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
Email: [email protected] / Phone: +44 7429 011000

William Morris and the V&A began their relationship when the artist was commissioned to decorate one of the museum's interiors. This was the beginning of a lasting relationship that continues even past Morris's death with his daughter, May.

Morris's talent came to the museum's notice following an exhibition of work of his company, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., at the 1862 International Exhibition. At the time the V&A was known as the South Kensington Museum and the director was a man called Sir Henry Cole. Cole commissioned Morris's company to create the 'first-class' West Dining Room.

Morris called upon influences from the Gothic Revival and Medieval styles and worked closely with collaborators, in particular, the architect Philip Webb and the painter Edward Burne-Jones. Their design featured a restful, blue and green colour scheme to compliment the intent to use the space to serve refreshments. The space went on to become known as the "Green Dining Room" due to the colour scheme and the heavy use of organic patterns that would go on to become one of Morris's signature features.

Morris went on to become the V&A's official Art Director, lending his influence to all of the exhibitions that were created during his lifetime. During this time, he also took more control of his business and even renamed it Morris & Company after significant restructuring. By 1876, William Morris had solidified himself in the national consciousness as an excellent designer and at this time he became an examiner for the museum's art school. Eight years later, he received an invitation to become one of the Museum's Committee of Art Referees. This prestigious group featured famous painters like Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Lord Leighton and Sir Edward Poynter. It was their responsibility to help the museum choose whether or not to purchase new holdings.

Over the next 17 years, Morris was personally involved with the acquisition of various items. In 1887 a Medieval tapestry depicting the Trojan War was acquired from Tournai, Belgium on his advice. In 1893, he assisted with the purchase of a 16th-century Persian rug known as the "Ardabil carpet", a specimen said to be one of the largest and finest of its kind. Morris also contributed his own work to the V&A's collections. He donated a miniature tapestry loom, previously used in his company's workshop at Merton Abbey to instruct trainee weavers. His loyalty went beyond professional activities and Morris enjoyed touring the museum as a visitor. Morris used the exhibitions for creative inspiration and he would try and recreate the historical styles he found in the textiles on display.

As talented as Morris was, his legacy may not have been assured without the work of his daughter, Mary 'May' Morris. While May was a skilled artist in her own right, she also worked hard to ensure that her father received the recognition he deserved. She donated examples and objects related to his work to a variety of exhibitions. In particular, she denoted a great many of William Morris's designs to the V&A for use in their dedicated "Morris Room" and exhibition. This occurred in 1938 when May Morris died and the items included 30 different wallpaper designs, textiles, embroidery, a selection of drawings designed to demonstrate her father's design process and more.

Morris has been and continues to be an inspiration to many other artists but it may have been his daughter who described his work best. She said "[my father] thought in mass, as it were, not in line...". The V&A museum has continued to collect examples of William Morris's work since May Morris's donation in 1930 but her offering still comprises the majority of the exhibition.