'Trellis' wallpaper design by William Morris, 1862
Today William Morris is probably best known as a designer of wallpapers and textiles, but it was his own experience of decorating a home that prompted him to turn to the design and production of domestic furnishings. Trellis was his first wallpaper pattern and is just one of the many works by Morris in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Morris (1834-96) had trained as an architect and had early unfulfilled ambitions to be a painter. As a student at Oxford he met the artist Edward Burne-Jones, and through this friendship he came into contact with the Pre-Raphaelite painters, such as Rossetti, and others in their circle. In 1859 Morris married Jane Burden, an unconventional beauty and a favourite model for the Pre-Raphaelites. He immediately commissioned his friend, the architect Philip Webb, to build them a new home on land he had bought in Bexleyheath, Kent. Now a suburb of London, Bexleyheath was then a rural area. Morris wanted a modern home which would nevertheless be ‘very medieval in spirit'. This is exactly what Webb gave him.
Morris and his wife moved into Red House in 1860 and spent the next two years furnishing and decorating the interior. Morris did much of the work himself, with help from his artist friends. Prompted by the success of their efforts, they decided to start their own company. In April 1861 Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. was established at 8 Red Lion Square in London. It produced a range of original domestic furnishings including embroidery, tableware and furniture, stained glass and tiles. Wallpapers were soon added to the list because Morris was unable to find any he liked well enough to use in his own home.
Trellis was Morris’s first attempt at designing a wallpaper. Its pattern is said to have been inspired by the gardens at Red House, which were organised on a medieval plan with square flowerbeds enclosed by wattle trellises for roses. The birds were drawn by Philip Webb. The design itself certainly has a medieval character – the motifs are drawn in a slightly naïve style reminiscent of the woodcut images in 16th- and 17th-century herbals. Morris collected these early printed books and often took his inspiration from their simple stylised illustrations. Although his later wallpaper designs were more complex and sophisticated, his first efforts – Trellis, Daisy and Fruit – have had an enduring appeal. Trellis remained a personal favourite for Morris and he chose it for his bedroom at Kelmscott House, his London home for the last 18 years of this life.