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William Morris & Wallpaper Design

'Trellis' woodblock printed wallpaper, by William Morris, England, 1864. Museum no. E.452-1919, © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

'Trellis' woodblock printed wallpaper, by William Morris, England, 1864. Museum no. E.452-1919, © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Morris's name and reputation are indissolubly linked to wallpaper design, but there is a tendency to over-estimate the influence he had in this field, at least in his own lifetime. In fact, despite his much repeated belief in 'art for all', his wallpapers, like most of the products of Morris & Co., were hand-made and expensive, and consequently had a relatively limited take-up. His papers were slow to find a market beyond fellow artists, and were positively disliked by some influential figures, such as Oscar Wilde. However, he has had a long-lived effect on wallpaper design and consumption, creating designs which have enjoyed lasting appeal.

First wallpaper designs

Morris's first wallpaper design was Trellis, a pattern suggested by the rose-trellis in the garden of his house in Bexlevheath, Kent. Designed in 1862, it was not issued until 1864, a delay that was due to Morris's unsuccessful experiments with printing from zinc plates. The first pattern to be issued, in 1864, was Daisy, a simple design of naively drawn meadow flowers. The source was a wallhanging illustrated in a 15th-century version of Froissart's Chronicles, but similar flower forms can be seen in late medieval 'mille-fleurs' tapestries and in early printed herbals. These two designs, and the next pattern Fruit (also known as Pomegranate), share a medieval character that links Morris's early work in the decorative arts with the Pre-Raphaelite painters, and with Ruskin. However, they are also influenced by Morris's abiding interest in naturalism in ornament. Lecturing on pattern in 1881, he claimed,

'any decoration is futile ... when it does not remind you of something beyond itself'.

'Daisy' wallpaper by William Morris, 1864. Museum no. E.443-1919, © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

'Daisy' wallpaper by William Morris, 1864. Museum no. E.443-1919, © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

'Fruit' (or 'Pomegranate') wallpaper, by William Morris, 1866. Museum no. E.447-1919. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

'Fruit' (or 'Pomegranate') wallpaper, by William Morris, 1866. Museum no. E.447-1919. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Nature as inspiration

'Acanthus', wallpaper by William Morris, 1875. Museum no. E.495-1919, © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

'Acanthus', wallpaper by William Morris, 1875. Museum no. E.495-1919, © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

His sources were plants themselves, observed in his gardens or on country walks, and also images of plants in 16th-century woodcuts (he owned copies of several 16th- and 17th-century herbals, including Gerard's famous Herball), illuminated manuscripts, tapes-tries and other textiles incorporating floral imagery. His designs were not to be literal transcriptions of natural forms but subtle stylised evocations. In The Lesser Arts he wrote:

'Is it not better to be reminded however simply of the close vine trellises which keep out the sun ... or of the many-flowered meadows of Picardy ... than having to count day after day a few sham-real houghs and flowers, casting sham-real shadows on your walls, with little hint of any-thing beyond Covent Garden in them?'

Although he advised those designing wallpapers to 'accept their mechanical nature frankly, to avoid falling into the trap of trying to make your paper look as if it were painted by hand', he also encouraged intricacy and elaboration so that the repeat itself was disguised.

Morris designed over 50 wallpapers, and his firm produced a further 49 by other designers including George Gilbert Scott (usually credited with Indian), Kate Faulkner (Carnation), and J.H. Dearle (Compton). Every pattern employs plant form, whether expressed in a luxuriant naturalism (Acanthus, Pimpernel, Jasmine) or a flatter, more formalised style (Sunflower). In common with many of the writers offering advice on home decorating, Morris maintained that the choice of wallpaper must take into account the character and function of the room. He advised that

'if there is a reason for keeping the wall quiet choose a pattern that works well all over without pronounced lines, such as Diapers, Mallows, Venetians, Poppys, Scrolls, Jasmine, etc'

(all plural titles of Morris & Co. papers). Alternatively,

'if you venture on a more decided patterning ... you ought always to go for positive patterns ... the Daisy, Trellis, Vine, Chrysanthemum ... Acanthus or such'.

Despite his involvement with wallpapers and his decided views on their design and use, Morris always regarded wallpaper as a 'makeshift' decoration, a tolerable substitute for more luxurious wall coverings. Some of the old snobbery about wallpaper as an imitative material, a cheap option, still persisted, and Morris, as a wealthy man, preferred woven textile hangings for his own home. Helena Maria Sickert described the drawing room at Kelmscott House, Hammersmith, thus:

'beautiful blue tapestry hangings all around the big living room ... the atmosphere was deliciously homely'.


Borage ceiling paper, William Morris, 1888-9. Museum no. E.833-1915. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Borage ceiling paper, William Morris, 1888-9. Museum no. E.833-1915, © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Though Morris himself made little use of wallpapers in his own domestic surroundings, a number of wealthy clients commissioned decorative schemes from Morris & Co. An extensive redecoration of No.1 Holland Park, for the Greek merchant A.A. Ionides, included several wallpapers as well as tapestries, woven hangings and painted wall decoration. The Antiquities Room, for example, seen in a contemporary photograph, was papered with Chrysanthemum. Other photographs show Vine, Garden Tulip, and various Morris papers elsewhere in the house. The lonides house was considered a showcase for Morris & Co. designs, and certainly led to further commissions.

The Howard family employed the company in their London house, and again at Castle Howard, Yorkshire, and at Naworth Castle, Cumberland, where several Morris papers still survive. Major country houses such as Wightwick, near Wolverhampton, and Standen, Sussex (completed in 1894), built by Morris's architect friend Philip Webb were furnished extensively with Morris papers. At Standen the Billiard Room had Pomegranate, while the Drawing Room had Sunflower in green, as a background for paintings. Each of the 12 bedrooms had Morris paper, mostly the lighter patterns. At Wightwick, where the decorative scheme was not supervised by Morris & Co., the owners chose the papers themselves and the prevailing style and colouring was richer and more typically Victorian than Standen. Morris papers, such as the large-scale Acanthus, were used in conjuction with other contemporary wallpapers, and other wall  coverings, such as chintz.

Daisy, Trellis and Pomegranate were all used in 1867 at Speke Hall, the house of Liverpool shipping magnate Frederick Leyland, and he also bought Morris papers for his London houses in the 1860s and 1870s. But generally speaking, in the early years of 'the Firm', sales of wallpapers were rather limited, and fashionable taste took a while to accommodate Morris's designs. Though naturalistic, they were not of the over-blown chintzy floral style generally described as 'French', then popular with aristocratic and wealthy customers. On the other hand, though many were 'flat' and to a degree stylised, often drawing on medieval sources for their motifs and character, they did not have the severity and the moral overtones of 'reformed' design, typified by Owen Jones, Pugin and their followers.

Certainly Morris's papers did not find favour immediately: around 1865, Lady Mount Temple's London house was decorated in the 'French' fashion with 'watered papers on the walls, garlands of roses tied with blue bows! Glazed chintzes with hunches of roses ...' She recalled that Rossetti came to dinner, and 'instead of admiring my room and decorations, as I expected, he evidently could hardly sit at ease with them'. When asked if he could suggest improvements he advised her to 'begin by burning every-thing you have got'. Shortly afterwards Morris & Co. carried out some renovations, and a Morris paper was hung on the staircase walls, followed in September 1865 by Morris's Daisy in grey in an attic room (the paper supplied by Cowtan & Son, their only order for a Morris paper around this time). The result was that 'all our candid relations and friends intimated that they thought we had made our pretty little house hideous.'

Sales of Morris papers continued modestly, mostly to 'purchasers who had acidently [sic] seen some of his [Morris's] wall-papers.' As Metford Warner explained later, most West End decorators dismissed his papers as 'too peculiar' when they first appeared. It was only when Eastlake's book Hints on Household Taste (1868) stimulated wider interest in interior design that the trade, and the public, began to appreciate Morris's designs.


By the 1880s Morris papers were being recommended in many home decorating guides, including the affordable Art at Home series (1876-8). Pages of each were devoted to a discussion of wallpapers, with advice on how to select the best of the latest styles. Papers by Crane, and by Morris, were regularly commended, either in the illustrations or sometimes by name (Lady Barker, for example, suggested Vine and Jasmine as suitable patterns for the drawing room). Mrs Orrinsmith's book shows three designs by Morris (Jasmine, Rose and Vine), though she does not credit the designer or the manufacturer, which tends to suggest that she was writing for an educated audience already familiar with such designs.

The writers themselves were certainly practising what they preached. The frontispiece of Robert Edis's influential book The Furniture and Deco-ration of Town Houses (1881) shows his own sitting room, with Pomegranate wallpaper and other 'Aesthetic' furnishings. Certainly Morris's patterns fulfilled the demands of these authors for papers in 'quiet' or 'subdued' colours, and designs which were 'rich yet grave' or 'calm yet cheerful'. Though these publications were aimed at a general readership, most of the authors were themselves personally connected with artists, architects and designers, including Morris's own circle; Mrs Orrinsmith, née Lucy Faulkner, was the sister of Morris's associates Kate and William Faulkner.

Decorating 'artistic' middle-class homes

'Sunflower', wallpaper by William Morris, 1879. Museum no. E.817-1915, © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

'Sunflower', wallpaper by William Morris, 1879. Museum no. E.817-1915, © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

By the late 1890s Morris wallpapers were commonly found in 'artistic' middle-class homes. According to the Daily Telegraph, 'university dons' were typical of Morris & Co.'s clientele, and 'when married tutors dawned upon the academic world, all their wives religiously clothed their walls in Norham Gardens and Bradmore Road [Oxford] with Morris designs of clustering pomegranates.' In the 1870s the art critic Walter Pater, who lectured at Oxford, lived in one of the newly-built houses in Bradmore Road, opposite Mr and Mrs Humphrey Ward. Mrs Ward, a best-selling novelist, described Pater's 'exquisite' house with its drawing room decorated 'with a Morris paper' and other carefully chosen Aesthetic accessories.

The Wards adopted a similar style themselves, though as Mary Ward explained, the average income of married tutors was not much more than £500 a year:

'We all gave dinner-parties and furnished our houses with Morris papers, old chests and cabinets and blue pots ... Most of us were very anxious to be up-to-date, and in the fashion, whether in aesthetics, house-keeping or education.'

In John Galsworthy's The Man of Property (1922; the first part of the Forsyte saga), Soames Forsyte, the title character, and a shrewd art collector, lives in a London house which is characterised by Aesthetic tastes, with 'inner decoration which favoured the First Empire and William Morris.'

Artists themselves also favoured Morris papers. They were hung in the London home of Edward Borne-Jones, and were used throughout at 18 Stafford Terrace, the home of Punch cartoonist Linley Sambourne, where they were deemed the perfect complement to other Aesthetic furnishings - dark wood furniture, de Morgan pottery and tiles, oriental screens, fans and peacock feathers. The total cost of Sambourne's wallpaper scheme was £35 5s.

Illustration from 'The Building News', wallpaper decorations by Jeffrey & Co., 1879. Museum no. 29502D-60, © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Illustration from 'The Building News', wallpaper decorations by Jeffrey & Co., 1879. Museum no. 29502D-60, © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

In the Dining Room and the Morning Room, Fruit was used, with a blue ground in the latter. The large first-floor Drawing Room was papered in a yellow and white version of Larkspur, a light, unassertive background to a dense hang of pictures. When the house was redecorated by Sambourne's daughter Maud in 1912, the original scheme was preserved as far as possible. Maud wrote:

'I have been to Morris's about the papers and they have all our dear old patterns. They sent me a large packet to see, and some chintzes too.'

Morris papers were each produced in several colourways, but this range of choice was not always sufficient for demanding clients. Laura Alma-Tadema wrote to Ford Madox Brown, an artist who was closely involved with Morris's firm, complaining that they had refused to supply a paper in the colour she had requested to match a chintz. She reported that the firm had replied to the effect that 'they consider their taste quite complete and they have given shades enough for me to he pleased with'.

Despite the enthusiasm of aristocratic clients and artistic circles, Morris papers were not universally admired as decorations for the ordinary home. A writer in the Journal of Decorative Arts in 1892 praised the design and colour of Morris papers, but went on to say,

'many of the patterns are not such as to make them acceptable for general purposes. Mr. Morris is so palpably the decorator of the palace and "grande ville" that his productions are not subject to the same criticisms as those of ordinary folk. The patterns are palatial in scale, and whilst their colouring is very beautiful and soft, the magnitude of the designs exclude them from ordinary work.'

Certainly many of Morris's later patterns - notably Acanthus and St James's (which was in fact designed for the London palace of that name) - are on a grand scale; St James's requires two widths of paper to complete the pattern horizontally, and the vertical repeat is 119.4cm, requiring two blocks to print each colour. He felt that his larger patterns worked well in smaller rooms, but this went against the prevailing view of the tastemakers from Eastlake onwards.

Illustration from 'The Building News', showing 'Rose Paper' wall decoration, designed by Walter Crane, 1879. Museum no. 29502F-38, © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Illustration from 'The Building News', showing 'Rose Paper' wall decoration, designed by Walter Crane, 1879. Museum no. 29502F-38, © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

There is no doubt that some of Morris's designs are assertive, an effect exaggerated in certain colourways, and this was further cause for criticism. Mrs Watson, for example, condemned

'that school of mural decoration for which the designs of Mr William Morris may be taken as the leading type' because 'it fell into the common error of considering wallpaper as an independent system of decoration in itself, instead of as a portion of the general scheme, a background for the contents of the chamber whose nakedness it is to cover.'

The subdued good taste that most Morris papers represented was not to everyone's liking. In Forster's novel Howard's End (1910), Margaret Schlegel comes to prefer the hold, assertive style of furnishing in the home of her friends the Wilcox family to the subtleties of the Aesthetic style she encounters elsewhere:

'After so much self-colour and self-denial Margaret viewed with relief the sumptuous dado, the frieze, the gilded wallpaper, amid whose foliage parrots sang.'

She recognises that the paper and the room's heavy furnishings are well matched. And Oscar Wilde, so often associated with the Morris style, in fact disliked Morris papers and preferred the Japanese leather papers which he used in his own London house at 16 (now 34) Tite Street. The architect Richard Norman Shaw also disapproved of Morris's delight in 'glaring wallpapers', though several of his clients (such as Wickham Flower at Old Swan House) favoured them. Shaw wrote:

'It is disconcerting, you will admit, when you find that your host and hostess are less noticeable than their wallpapers and their furniture ... present day belief that good design consists of pattern - pattern repeated ad nauseam - is an outrage on good taste. A wallpaper should be a background pure and simple that and nothing more. If there is any pattern at all ... it ought to be of the simplest kind, quite unobtrusive ...'


'The Saladin', wallpaper by Charles F.A. Voysey, about 1897. Museum no. CIRC.261-1953, © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

'The Saladin', wallpaper by Charles F.A. Voysey, about 1897. Museum no. CIRC.261-1953, © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Morris's papers were too expensive for most, but by the 1880s their growing appeal had been recognised by other designers and manufacturers who began to produce cheaper papers in the Morris style. The Silver Studio, in particular, was responsible for many wallpapers in the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau styles which show clear evidence of Morris's influence and example. Even by the late 1870s machine-printed papers in the Aesthetic style were available for as little as 7d a roll. His success in creating structured patterns from natural forms, with a sense of organic growth controlled by a subtle geometry, was his most important design legacy.

Morris' legacy

Morris designs seem to have satisfied a widespread desire for pattern in a way which the more formal and didactic designs of the reformers such as Jones and Pugin never did. The next generation of designers were conscious of working with Morris's legacy. For example, Charles Voysey, later described by Essex & Co. in advertisements as 'the Genius of Pattern', produced designs which show clear evidence of Morris's influence in the mastery of flat but complex patterns and in the preference for stylised organic forms and motifs from nature.

Morris also transformed the way in which people of relatively modest means decorated their houses. By designing and selling all the ingredients of the Morris style in a single outlet, first in the relative obscurity of Bloomsbury, and from 1877 in premises on Oxford Street, he allowed the householder to furnish in a co-ordinated fashion. His was thus one of the first 'one-stop shops' for interior decoration. Liberty's, opened in 1875, and specialising in oriental arts, was the other.

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