Designs for 'Fruit' and 'Wreath' wallpapers by William Morris, 1862-6

'Fruit' or 'Pomegranate' design

Fruit design by William Morris, 1862. Museum no. E.299-2009, © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Fruit design by William Morris, 1862. Museum no. E.299-2009, © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

This early wallpaper design by William Morris (1834-1896) is known as 'Fruit' or 'Pomegranate' and dates from around 1865. It borrows motifs from Morris's medieval-style tapestry work, displaying a historical influence that his early work in the decorative arts shares with the Pre-Raphaelite artists and with their supporter, the art critic John Ruskin.

It also highlights his interest in naturalism and plant forms. At first, Morris tried to print his designs at his studio in Red Lion Square in oil colours from etched zinc blocks. The process did not work.

To overcome this failure, he ordered traditional pearwood blocks to be cut for 'Fruit'. Production was then subcontracted out to Jeffrey & Co. of Islington, which specialised in the production of hand-printed wallpapers. Although Morris's designs were prohibitively expensive and initially the preserve of the wealthy, 'Fruit' is one the most enduringly popular. It became a favourite with the design-conscious middle-classes of late nineteenth century, and is still available from the Morris & Co. division of Sandersons, who own
the original printing blocks.

Sections of this design vary in character, and it is probable that they are by different hands. The draughtsmanship of the olive branches is reminiscent of Morris's style, whilst the pomegranates have a robust quality which could link them to Philip Webb (1831-1915).

The architect, Webb, often collaborated closely with Morris, and it was common practice for a working design to be passed around like this during its conception.

The olive branch motif does not appear in the actual printed wallpaper, yet it has obvious similarities with Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co.'s design by Philip Webb for the V&A's Green Dining Room, circa 1866.

'Wreath' or 'Poppy' design

Wreath design by William Morris, 1876. Museum no. E.501-1919, © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Wreath design by William Morris, 1876. Museum no. E.501-1919, © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Dating from about 1880, this original wallpaper design by Morris & Co. is known as 'Wreath' or 'Poppy'. It shows clearly how William Morris's confidence in creating highly sophisticated pattern repeats had evolved by the late nineteenth century. The design's rich colours, scrolling foliage and effect of three-dimensionality are typical of Morris & Co.'s output from the mid-1870s onwards. Like the famous 'Acanthus' paper (Circ. 297-1955) from which it borrows the motif of stylised scrolling foliage, it is characterised by large-scale, very dense patterns where the relationship between background and foreground is closely interwoven. These later designs required a more complex printing technique and a far greater number of individual printing blocks. This made the papers more costly than Morris's simpler, earlier designs. Less medieval in style than 'Fruit' (E.299-2009), this design borrows more from the scrolling patterns of Jacobean floral embroidery.

The draughtsman responsible for this technically adept drawing may not have been Morris, as his strengths were more conceptual than illustrative. Instead, it is possible that the designer George Wardle (c. 1834-1910) executed this design for production, working from Morris's first version of the design, which is now in the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. Wardle was an excellent recorder of pattern and managed the Morris studio throughout the 1870s. This design was intended as a guide for the printer to use when matching the colours. Pencil notes with instructions about the colours have been added to the drawing on the front and on the reverse.

In addition to this design, the V&A holds specimens of the actual 'Wreath' wallpaper produced by Morris and Co. in different colourways.

 

Acquired with support from The Art Fund.

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