Curator's Insight - Morris & Co.
LEANNE SANTORO shares four major embroideries from Morris & Co.
Building on the Gallery’s existing and substantial holdings, four major Morris & Company works – embroideries – were recently acquired through the bequest of Joanna Erlistoun Simpson (née Thomson) through the Art Gallery of South Australia Foundation. Joanna Simpson is the granddaughter of Erlistoun Mitchell (née Barr Smith), the embroiderer.
The four embroideries were designed by May Morris, daughter of William Morris, the leading figure in the British Arts and Crafts Movement, established in London in 1887 as a reaction to the poor state of British design and manufacture. Many of the group, including the founders of Morris & Co., saw the decline in British design and workmanship as a consequence of the mechanical processes of industrialisation, arguing for a return to the handmade. The arts and crafts movement had a palpable presence in Adelaide, with teaching at the School of Design under British-trained Harry P. Gill’s direction and many works of art imported from Britain at the turn of the century.
The works offered for acquisition to the Gallery were purchased from Morris & Co. by wealthy Adelaide residents Robert and Joanna Barr Smith, one of Morris & Co.’s most significant international clients. Seven houses in and around Adelaide were extensively furnished by three generations of the family over a period of forty-five years.
A pioneer of art embroidery, May Morris ran the embroidery department of Morris & Co. and was a successful designer of wallpaper, jewellery and woven textiles. As part of the firm’s range, May Morris designed embroidery kits, which were then sent from Britain to clients around the world. Each kit included a design marked in outline, accompanied by a small completed sample section, which indicated the stitching techniques and colours to be employed. It was a highly successful business model and the kits sold in great numbers. The four works acquired were embroidered from such kits by the Barr Smiths’ daughter, Erlistoun, in Adelaide. The designs could also be purchased ‘complete’ for a higher fee, although Erlistoun enjoyed stitching the works herself, reflecting the arts and crafts philosophy of workers taking pleasure in making items by hand.
The acquisitions comprise Vine leaf table cover, an intricately designed piece combining several patterns. The entire surface of the cover is embroidered, unlike many other table covers, which were embroidered only around the border, with the central section left unembellished. Floral motifs adorn Adelaide, two panels from a screen, which were designed and named especially for the Barr Smiths, a sign of their importance as frequent clients of Morris & Co. An extant photograph shows Erlistoun sitting in front of a wooden screen bearing the two panels. Small embroideries such as these were often used in screens or as cushion covers.
Fruit garden portière contains an orchard of flowering and fruiting trees arranged on the surface and connected by vine tendrils, with the background Oak fabric visible behind the design. Fruit garden, also known as Orchard, is regarded as one of May Morris’s most outstanding designs. She exhibited a version of it at the 1890 Arts and Crafts exhibition in London. A portière is a hanging curtain placed over a door or over the doorless entrance to a room, its name derived from the French word for door, porte. This work is currently on display in gallery 18.
Leanne is Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at AGSA. This article first appeared in AGSA Magazine Issue 38.