Perpetuating the memory of one of the greatest men of the Victorian age


Posted on July 1, 2020

Design for Bird woven wool, William Morris, pencil and watercolour on paper, 1878

Consisting of a range of original items, the majority of The William Morris Society’s collection was acquired through the generous gift of the late Mrs Helena Stephenson, a keen Morris enthusiast and collector, who also bequeathed Kelmscott House to the Society in 1970.

It includes Sussex chairs, wallpaper, textiles, Kelmscott Press books, typographical samples, Socialist pamphlets, Morris & Co catalogues, designs on paper, William De Morgan ceramics and an original Albion printing press. Amongst the designs for mural decoration are a number for several major commissions, namely, St James’ Palace, the repainting of the Oxford Union debating Hall ceiling in 1875 and for the ceiling of the drawing room of No 1 Holland Park. Textiles in the collection range from cotton and silk damask samples to Hammersmith rugs and woollen curtains. Original designs consist of drawings for wallpaper, stained glass, murals, embroideries and woven textiles, including this design for Bird.

The Society holds an impressive collection of original designs by Morris & Co. It is particularly appropriate that the design for Bird resides in our collection at Morris’s former home because it was created by Morris in 1878 specifically for the drawing room there. In 2015 Bird was taken as the inspiration for the Society’s new visual identity due to its historic importance and the major significance to Kelmscott House.

On 25thMarch 1877 Morris wrote to Thomas Wardle,‘I am studying birds now to see if I can’t get some of them into my next design.’ This is the first of a group of designs showing pairs of facing birds, perched and in flight. Morris’s inspiration for these designs came from 16thand 17thcentury Italian woven silks seen in the collections of the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A).

Morris leased Kelmscott House in April 1878 and designed Bird to hang in the house. Photographs show it draped around the walls of the first-floor drawing room. This double-woven woollen fabric hung from picture-rail to floor and, together with a Tulip and Lily carpet, would have resulted in blue and green being the predominant colours of the room.

May, Morris’s younger daughter, described the pattern as ‘intimate and friendly…the most adaptable to the needs of everyday life. It suggests not the wealth of the Millionaire but the modest competence of a middle-class merchant who lives…with the few beautiful things he has collected slowly and carefully.’

The William Morris Society owns examples of the Bird woven wool as curtains in both of the available colourways of blue and red. A framed example can be seen in our current online exhibition, Highlights from The William Morris Society’s Collection.

Text by Helen Elletson, curator.