Review: The Business of Beauty at the Art Institute displays William Morris’ genius in home textiles and design


“Have nothing in your houses that you don’t know to be useful or that you don’t believe to be beautiful.” English textile designer William Morris said in 1880. The statement represented his business mission of promoting true craftsmanship and persuading the masses that they should not settle for cheap, mass-produced bric-a-brac. This quote still represents the artistic vision of William Morris, 140 years later, and now appears on everything from coffee mugs to wallpapers and t-shirts.

Morris and Company: the business of beauty is an elegant exhibit now in the Textile Galleries at the Art Institute of Chicago through June 13. Morris was an important figure in the Arts and crafts movement; he promoted the principle of craft production in the Victorian era when the emphasis was on industrial ‘progress’.

The exhibition of approximately 40 works, drawn primarily from the Art Institute’s holdings, explores the company’s design principles and showcases the vision, designs and manufacturing processes employed by the company and its designers/creators . He also notes the sites in the Chicago area where the work of Morris and his contemporaries appeared.

Pomona. From the designs of Sir Edward Burne-Jones and John Henry Dearle, woven by Walter Taylor and John Keich at the Merton Abbey Tapestry Works, London. Pomona, figure design 1882, background design 1898, made 1906. The Art Institute of Chicago, Ida ES Noyes Fund.

Morris founded the company in 1861 and it existed until 1940; the founder died in 1896. His aesthetic vision remains alive today because the textile and wallpaper creations of Morris & Co. have been continually reinvented in new forms over the years. The company’s designs are still sold today under license to Liberty of London and Sanderson & Sons, part of the wallpaper and fabrics business Walker Greenbank (which owns the “Morris & Co.”) brand. .

Morris himself was an intriguing figure. We would call him a polymath today. Artist, designer, poet, novelist, book designer, publisher, political activist and socialist writer/lecturer. He was born into a wealthy family and studied classics at Oxford University; it was also influenced by medievalism. He married Jane Burden; his circle of friends included pre-raphaelite artists Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti and neo-Gothic architect Philip Webb. Morris’ craftsmanship in home fabrics was heavily influenced by plant and floral forms and by medieval details, intense colors and intricate patterns.

Examples of textile design from the William Morris collection.

Morris’ political and artistic views converge in this quote from 1877 when he said, “I want no more art for a few than I want education for a few or freedom for a few. . (Morris’ view of the value of handmade goods for the home did not recognize that such goods were unaffordable to the average worker, then or now.)

The exhibit opens with a view of the entrance wall with its explanation of Morris and Company and an introduction to exhibit highlights. This piece features an armchair upholstered in Morris fabric and a large tapestry portrait of Pomona (the goddess of abundance in Roman mythology) from designs by Edward Burne-Jones and John Henry Dearle.

Many of the exhibits feature original Morris materials, including wallpapers, upholstery and other household fabrics and flooring. Embroidery and woodblock fabric printing were important creative forms for the Morris company, all done by hand.

FIG leaf. Designed by May Morris, produced by Morris & Co., London. Design 1896. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of the Crab Tree Farm Foundation. Image courtesy of the Art Institute.

Morris’ wife, Jane, and their daughter May were both accomplished embroiderers. May began to embroider at an early age, initiated by her mother’s handmade decorations for their home as well as business activities. At the age of 23, May was the supervisor of the Morris Company’s embroidery division and held this position until her father’s death.

Embroidery kits were one of the most popular products in her department; these kits contained fabric marked with a pattern and recommended embroidery threads. (When I was a young girl, my mother, in an effort to make me more “feminine,” urged me to join her in this tedious activity. Eventually, I was old enough to rebel.)

Later, May Morris taught, wrote, lectured and founded the Women’s Guild for the Arts to support and provide networking opportunities for female British designers who were, of course, excluded from the Male Art Worker’s Guild.

Original carpet from the entrance hall of Glessner House.

A gallery in the exhibit features textiles from a Chicago house museum that you can visit today. The Glessner House, a National Historic Landmark on historic Prairie Avenue, was designed by Henry Hobson Richardson in the Richardsonian Romanesque style and completed in 1887. John Glessner was an executive of an agricultural manufacturing company that later became part of International Chicago-based Harvester (now known as Navistar International). His wife, Frances Glessner, a patron of the arts and craftswoman herself, was introduced to Morris’s work at a conference in 1883. She later purchased textiles, a large entrance hall rug, and a other materials as well as new and old furniture in the arts and crafts style.

The highlight of the Glessner Gallery is the original entrance hall rug (now replaced in the house with a reproduction). The Glessner House is open for timed tours on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. To buy tickets in advance.

Morris and Company: the business of beauty continues at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave., through June 13. The exhibition is located in the lower level textile galleries. The museum is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Monday and 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. for members only. Admission is $14 to $25, depending on where you live; discounts are available for students and seniors. Note that the locker rooms and food service are closed for the moment.

All photos by Nancy Bishop unless otherwise noted.

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