18 October 2017

May Morris:Art and Life at the William Morris gallery

This small exhibition brings together a collection of work and artefacts by May Morris, who lived in the shadow of her father, William Morris, but successfully made her own way developing embroidery as an artform, living an artistic lifestyle and consolidating her father's reputation by way of the 24-volume Collected Works. The exhibition room is dominated by her large-scale embroideries, and the first impression is that tackling embroidery on such a large scale must be daunting. There is some very fine accurate stitching in some of the pieces, but often she sensibly used thick threads and large stitches to achieve large-scale effects, as you can see when you look closely, and she would have helpers to complete the large designs, some of them six feet high. Some of the hangings are protected by a rope barrier to stop you getting too close, but not all of them, so you can get a good idea of the amount of work involved in making an embroidery of that size. One double panel is stitched onto a fabric that already has a pattern woven into it, increasing the sense of richness. Another is based on a silk mesh so fine it's almost invisible. There is the original artwork for her best-selling honeysuckle wallpaper - I think my mother had that in her kitchen at one time, and it's still available at £70 a roll from John Lewis. Nothing ground-breaking though, nothing too far removed from the established Arts and Crafts pattern of interwoven foliage and decorative birds. And her birds are really not that well drawn, nothing to compare with the birds-with-attitude of the Strawberry Thief. Worth a visit, but not worth trekking half way across London.