According to “The Twelve Days of Christmas,”
On the second day of Christmas, my true love sent to me,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.
In “The Story of Cupid and Psyche,” the first section of the long narrative poem Earthly Paradise (1868-1870), William Morris may have termed “The eagle, and the peacock, and the swan” the “nobles[t]” birds, but this renowned British designer and writer drew inspiration from numerous birds, doves included.
As the name suggests, doves are integral to Morris’s Dove and Rose design—a repeating pattern of stylised doves and foliage. This furnishing fabric, originally produced for Morris & Co. by Alexander Morton & Co. in 1879, was made of woven silk and wool double cloth, and was particularly suitable for curtains and hangings. Dove and Rose was available in various scales and colourways. The V&A’s textiles and fashion collection contains seven pieces of this lovely fabric. My favourite example of Dove and Rose, and probably our most festive version, is pictured below.
This piece of fabric, like so many others, reveals much about its designer. Morris was a highly influential figure in what came to be known as the Arts and Crafts Movement—a reaction against industrialisation which prioritised traditional skills. Dove and Rose speaks to Morris’s preference for subtle vegetable colourants over bright, modern aniline dyes, and to his interest in old techniques. As the designer, who established his company in 1875, did not have many hand-operated Jacquard looms at his disposal in 1879, Dove and Rose was originally made by Alexander Morton & Co., a weaving company strongly associated with domestic production. Later on Morris was able to produce this fabric at Merton Abbey Mills, which the designer took out a lease on from 1881.
This fabric also emphasises Morris’s commitment to his ideal of beauty. Morris, along with like-minded contemporaries including Arthur Lasenby Liberty, the founder of Liberty & Co., associated beauty with the natural world, design from various parts of the world including the Middle East, and the past. Dove and Rose therefore features doves, acorns, and the like, celebrates stylisation and symmetry, and has a faded and romantic historical feel.
Unsurprisingly, Morris drew inspiration from a range of sources. He regularly admired birds and other aspects of nature with a designer’s eye, he studied the history of design with great enthusiasm, and he was surrounded by creatives, including his daughter May Morris, whose talents included embroidery design. As the Collections Management Assistant at the Clothworkers’ Centre, I’m particularly fascinated by the fact that William Morris drew considerable inspiration from V&A objects. He was, moreover, heavily involved with the Museum from the 1860s until his death in 1896.
From the outset the V&A sought to inspire excellence in design, and this continues to be central to the Museum’s ethos. Here at the Clothworkers’ Centre many of our visitor are seeking, and finding, inspiration. Things have come full circle; Morris’s pieces are some of our most frequently requested objects.
If you’re interested in making an appointment to view textiles and fashion objects at the Clothworkers’ Centre, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This post was edited by the author on 21 December 2020 as part of work on sensitive terminology and topics.