I’m standing in front of William Morris’s bed which has been lent to us from Kelmscott Manor in Gloucestershire. I think this is the first time the bed has left the house since it was first installed at the end of the 16th century. Now the bed itself stood in that house when William Morris first took out a lease on the property in 1871 and apparently he so loved this bed that he wrote a poem which praises its comforting warmness. It starts ‘The winds on the wold. And the night is a-cold. And Thames run chill’ et cetera et cetera.
Now sometime later his youngest daughter May, decided to embroider the words of this poem into a valance or pelmet which was hung around the top. May was so much like her father, so she was totally bought into his socialistic thinking, his idea of collaborative working. She was a very skilled needlewoman but later on she went onto supplement her skills by training at the South Kensington Schools of Design. Like Morris, she was a Pre-Raphaelite in the sense she had a very profound understanding of natural forms. But like Morris she decided to stylise and abstract because she realised she was actually working on a flat surface.
The cover of the bed was made after William Morris’ death and this was a more sort of intimate collaboration, in that it was designed by May but worked by her mother, Jane Morris. Although the design seems very formal, as you look around the edges you will see how May has introduced all these quirky elements from the natural world, almost like a page of a written manuscript where you have odds of creatures lurking in the margins of the page, here we have a ladybird and a caterpillar.
There’s a kingfisher, and at the base of the cover, May designed this wavy blue line which represents the Thames, in the centre of which is a heron holding an eel in its beak. So this cover really sums up the close working relationship between father, mother and daughter. The whole design of this is very individual and its very skilful at the same time and this really shows how May was more that just a sort of maker, she was a designer and in her lifetime she did much to promote the status of embroidery and of women working in the visual arts, encouraging women to develop a more practical and public role in craft and design.