The first-ever Scottish exhibition about the work of May Morris is closing next week.
Being held at Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh, Art & Life tells the overlooked story of May Morris (1862–1938), the youngest daughter of William Morris, and her extraordinary work and contribution to the British Arts and Crafts Movement, and runs until 14 March.
The exhibition repositions May Morris as a key female force in securing the legacy and international influence of the Arts and Crafts Movement.
Bringing together over 80 original textiles and drawings from collections around the UK, May Morris Art & Life will explore May’s extraordinary body of work, and why she deserves recognition outside her familial namesake.
For more than 100 years May’s contribution to the decorative arts, in particular to embroidery, has languished behind her father’s illustrious career. Revealing the breadth of May’s creative pursuits,the exhibition features wallpaper and embroidery alongside jewellery, dresses and book designs, as well as sketches and watercolours, which May painted throughout her lifetime.
At the age of 23 May took charge of the Morris & Co embroidery department and was responsible for creating some of the company’s most iconic textile and wallpaper designs. With a focus on May’s role in the development of art embroidery – elevating needlework from a domestic craft to a serious art form – the show highlights the extent of her influence in the UK and abroad, particularly the US.
Alongside her artistic background, May was exposed to political influences from an early age. She would often model for her parents’ artist friends, including the pre-Raphaelite painters Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, and George Howard.
Through her father, May was drawn into political activity in the emergent Socialist movement becoming close to Eleanor Marx, George Bernard Shaw, and future Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald.
Seeking an alternative to the Art Workers Guild, which did not accept female members until as late as 1964, May founded the Women’s Guild of Art in 1907. Painter Evelyn De Morgan, jeweller Georgie Gaskin, bookbinder Katherine Adams, and sculptor Mabel White were some of the earliest members of the Women’s Guild whose mission was to provide a forum for social and professional networking within the arts and in May’s words ‘… to meet women who are not playing at art’.
May was a prolific creator throughout her lifetime and continued to receive commissions right up to the final months of her life.
While her own artistic reputation was overlooked after her death, May was instrumental in preserving and shaping her father’s legacy. As well as publishing 24 volumes of The Collected Works of William Morris, May ensured examples of her father’s designs were donated to the V&A and secured the future of Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire, the Morris’s country residence, as a house of historic interest.
Celia Joicey, director of Dovecot Studios, said: ‘Dovecot is delighted to showcase the exquisite artwork, embroidery and jewellery of May Morris in this important Arts and Crafts exhibition. As a Tapestry Studio, we hope 21st century audiences will take inspiration from May Morris’ distinctive engagement with the politics and economics of making work by hand.’
Kate Grenyer, Dovecot exhibitions curator, added: ‘May was extraordinary, a brilliant craftswoman and a dynamic presence to all whose lives she affected. It has been a joy to work with the archives of William Morris Gallery and to bring these together with extraordinary objects from the UK’s major collections to bring May’s story to Edinburgh and to wider public attention.’