May Morris & Celebrating Female Artists for International Women's Day

Growing up as the younger daughter of the Pre-Raphaelite artist and designer William Morris and his wife, artist model and embroiderer Jane Morris, you would expect her to be great. And Mary "May" Morris (1862–1938) was. Therefore I have chosen her to be our female artist to celebrate International Women's Day. This is a painting of her by Edward Burnes-Jones.

May Morris was an English artisan who had a successful career as a designer, maker & exhibitor of embroidery and jewellery and became a leading contributor to the Arts & Crafts Movement. Here is one of her designs.

May studied textile arts at the South Kensington School of Design, and ran the embroidery department of her father’s famous firm Morris & Co.from 1885 when she was only 23. She also taught embroidery at the LCC Central School of Art, London from 1897 until 1910. She was Head of the Embroidery Department from 1899 until 1905. She also taught at Birmingham, Leicester & Hammersmith Art Schools. Here are more examples of her beautiful work.

In 1909 May began a 5 month lecture tour of USA on the Arts & Crafts Movement.To her surprise she became caught up in the women's rights movement becoming an outspoken advocate for trade unions and guilds for female textile artists. The Hero Image for today is an example of May's jewellery displaying the suffragette colours of purple for dignity, white for purity and green symbolising hope for the future. She had however, already in 1907 founded (with Mary Elizabeth Turner) the Women’s Guild of Arts as the Art Workers Guild did not admit women.

Unfortunately there can be no doubt that her famous father overshadowed her accomplishments. Not to take from the brilliant work of William Morris, we must also acknowledge his talented daughter whose embroidery was innovative and influential. She also designed wallpaper and here we see her Honeysuckle design.
May designed tiles.
And Wall hangings and bed curtains.
Here is a close up of her stitching where the wings of the parakeets are done in tapestry stitch (or shading) and each feather is outlined with metal thread that has been couched down.

And she designed jewellery.

In 1890 May married Henry Halliday Sparling (1860–1924), Secretary of the Socialist League. Unfortunately the marriage broke down as a result of May's affair with playwright George Bernard Shaw. Here is here The Orchard wall hanging designed at this time.
There can be no doubt that May lead a privileged life surrounded by her mother and father's famous friends. A painting of her by Gabriel Rossetti demonstrates her obvious beauty and sensitivity.
And there can be no doubt that she had great respect for her father's work editing his Collected Works in 24 volumes for Longmans, Green & Co., (published from 1910 to 1915). She even commissioned, after her father's death, two houses to be built in the style that William Morris loved in the village of Kelmscott in the Cotswolds where she died in 1938.

May Morris left Kelmscott Manor to the University of Oxford on the understanding that no modern innovations, improvements or installations be put in or made to the House in view of its age and its historic interest as the Home of the late William Morris.
She also donated examples of William’s designs to the Victoria and Albert Museum.

It is sad that May Morris didn't seem to realise that her own work and talent also needed to be preserved. On this International Women's Day let us give credit to her for the outstanding contribution she made to embroidery as an art form and to the broader field of textile art.

To conclude today is a piece of embroidery designed and executed by May Morris, titled, believe it or not- Australia.

I’m going to end the week with an Australian woman who couldn’t paint or embroider but who was probably the first person to use street art for political purposes. She was a friend of George Bernard Shaw so must have known May Morris. You will have to wait until tomorrow to learn who she is and what she got up to.

Anne Newman

Oil Painter in realistic genre style, predominantly buildings and people. To continue the discussion contact Anne on or phone +61 407 516 522

Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Subscribe to Anne Newman Artist

Get the latest posts delivered right to your inbox.

or subscribe via RSS with Feedly!