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This is a review of William Morris: Textiles and Wallpaper, one of 2 currently running exhibitions dedicated to the Pre-Raphaelites at the Metropolitan Museum of Art here in New York City.

A couple of things to note about this particular exhibition. If you are expecting something on the scale of the previous Pre-Raphaelite exhibition that originally was at the Tate and then came to the US via the National Gallery you will be disappointed. There are only about 30 pieces or so with the greatest concentration on Edward Burne-Jones. This is not a complaint by any means, I just want to temper expectations for those who might be coming out of town to see this. I’ll be splitting my review into two parts: part one will focus on William Morris: Textiles and Wallpapers, an adjoining installation that runs until the end of July and part two will focus on The Pre-Raphaelite Legacy: British Art and Design. I’m doing it this way because the Morris ends first and I really do think everyone interested in textiles, not to mention the Pre-Raphaelites, would do themselves a disservice to miss it.

A brief introduction of William Morris first. This is courtesy of Wikipedia as the editors there can say it better than I can:

William Morris (24 March 1834 – 3 October 1896) was an English artist, writer, textile designer and socialist associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and English Arts and Crafts Movement.
Born in Walthamstow, Essex to a wealthy middle-class family, Morris studied Classics at Oxford University, where he came under the influence of medievalism. There he became a close friend of artist Edward Burne-Jones and joined the Birmingham Set. After university he trained as an architect, married Jane Burden, and became close friends with artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti and architect Philip Webb. Webb and Morris designed a family home, Red House in Kent, where the latter lived from 1859 to 1865, before relocating to Bloomsbury, central London. In 1861, Morris founded a decorative arts firm with Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Webb, and others: the Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. The firm profoundly influenced the decoration of churches and houses into the early 20th century.

Most of my dealings with Morris have come via his wife’s involvement with Dante Gabriel Rossetti. As I’ve previously stated I am an unabashed Rossetti fan, and Morris always struck me as a poor cuckold. I have FEELINGS about the Morris/Rossetti/Jane triangle and unfortunately they have always clouded my views. I say this because I feel I’ve really done a huge disservice to poor old William as a result. I have never really paid attention to his works and history, which is tragic. I am in the process of remedying that!

Let’s get to the installation itself. First if you don’t know the layout of the Met well (and even if you do) this is somewhat hard to find. The map tells you it is located in gallery 599 but the gallery isn’t really a gallery, it’s more of an alcove. If you’re coming in from the main entrance on 5th avenue you walk to the stairs (don’t go up them), hang a right and walk straight ahead. You’ll be in gallery 301 and on the left hand side you’ll see 2 staircases heading down. Take either one of those stairs and you’ll be in gallery 599. If you’ve entered the medieval section (gallery 305) with the large gate you’ve gone too far, just double back. Specifically what you’re looking for is the Antonio Ratti Textile Center, the installation is located right outside of it.

This was my first time being able to get up close and personal with Morris’ textiles. I had the fortuitous luck of being the only person at the installation so I was able to really take my time and study without feeling like I was in the way of others. On display were the following:

  • Compton

  • Blackthorn

  • Wild Tulip

  • Marigold

  • Brother Rabbit

  • Rose & Lily

  • Kennet

    Also displayed are textiles dated from the 15th – 16th centuries that are thought to have inspired Morris. I don’t want to review every single item on display but I want to touch upon my favorites: Brother Rabbit and Blackthorn.

    Brother Rabbit is quite possibly the most adorable print I’ve ever seen. Ignoring the rabbits for a moment, I want to discuss the birds. I’m not quite sure what kind they are, perhaps partridges? There should be a comprehensive guide to the birds in Morris wallpapers because there are quite a lot of them! Regardless, they’re almost hidden in the busyness of the print but if you tried to take them away the whole picture would look incomplete. This is something I noticed with all of the Morris prints, each small minute part is extremely important to the whole of the picture. This is genius. I know on first glance to some the prints seem extremely cluttered but if you break down each portion you really see how hard it is to make them a cohesive whole. A more modern example would be the tiled backgrounds you see on some webpages. If each section isn’t seamless the background suffers.

    The rabbits in Brother Rabbit remind me a bit of Three Hares Eating Wild Grapes by Shigemasa Kitao, just sans the demonic looking eyes. I am particularly impressed with how the ears of the rabbits meld into the flower petals. There is a definite difference between the two but the flow of the picture is uninterrupted. Lastly the color is pretty darn dramatic for being over a 100 years old. One of the things that struck me the most about all of the textiles is just how even with the great age of these, the colors are still pretty rich. It’s a wonder to behold.

    Blackthorn is just COOL. I want a bedspread in this print. I want pillows in this print. I want a velvet coat lined in it, it’s just that dramatic. I never took botany so I can’t really recognize any of the flowers in this short of the sunflowers and I think forget-me-nots? Not sure. What struck me the most about this print though is that if you gaze at it from a few feet back, it sort of looks like a face, specifically the Green Man of folklore. I am a massive fan of folklore (I sometimes think if you’re a Pre-Raphaelite fan you most likely are) so when I first saw this I nearly squeaked in joy. The wallpaper is also very reminiscent of autumn, it makes me crave blustery days with a hot cup of tea and falling leaves under my boots. It’s wonderful.

    One thing that kept jumping out at me while I looked at all the textiles was just how modern they are. I know some think of wallpaper as stuffy and old but these feel very fresh. I’m not sure if it’s because the subject matter Morris picked is mostly timeless (there will always be a person at some point who will like flowers & animals) but looking at them in person you never get the feel that these are over 100 years old. It’s a testament to his genius. Also looking at these in person is completely different than seeing a swatch online. There are nuances to these pictures that only seem to jump at when you have the piece in front of you. Rose & Lily for instance SHIMMERS. It’s beautiful.

    The full Pre-Raphaelite exhibit also features some Morris pieces, I will review those in my thoughts on that exhibition. I highly recommend seeing this installation, especially if you were Morris-deficient like I was. It runs until July 20th. The National Portrait Gallery in the UK has just announced their own Morris exhibition – Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and his Legacy, 1860-1960 and I am seriously considering making the trip to see it this fall.

    This concludes my review on William Morris: Textiles and Wallpaper. Thanks for reading! Comments & thoughts are always appreciated.