The iridescent glow radiating from the Yale Center for British Art in recent nights attracts passersby like moths to a flame. The cause for such curiosity has been an illuminated 18-foot-tall stained glass window in the Center’s entrance court. The window is part of an exhibit titled “The Beauty of Life” featuring a variety of works by design artist William Morris and the company he founded, Morris & Company.
Described as a “man of tremendous energy,” William Morris (1834-1896) is considered to be one of the most versatile artists Britain has ever produced. He served as a prominent leader of the Arts and Crafts Movement of the 19th century. This exhibit commemorates his life’s work with nearly 200 pieces including designs for stained glass, tapestry and a selection of rare books and manuscripts. A devotee and advocate of the decorative arts, this exhibit offers something for every curious moth.
As a child raised in Walthamstow, England during the 19th century, Morris was preternaturally interested in bygone eras. He focused particularly on medievalism, stories of romantic chivalry, and the beauty of the natural world. At Exeter College, Oxford he studied medieval history and met Edward Burne-Jones, who would become his lifelong friend and collaborator.
Diane Waggoner, the exhibition curator for “The Beauty of Life,” expounded upon Morris’ fascination with history.
“Throughout his career, Morris looked to the past as inspiration for the present,” Waggoner said. “He believed industrial production created cheap and shoddy goods.”
Waggoner also serves as assistant curator for the Department of Photographs at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Morris desired to return to the pre-industrial revolution days of the Middle Ages where craftsmen were both the designers and the manufacturers of products. His regard for the Middle Ages is seen throughout the collection of items, which the exhibit categorizes into three different groups: church décor, domestic decorative arts, and the art of the book.
Morris & Company’s most successful product was stained glass for churches, owing to the popularity of the Gothic Revival which began during the 1860s. The high ceilings of the Center for British Art’s central atrium have allowed a breathtaking window created for a Unitarian church in Lancashire, England in 1898 to be completely reassembled for the first time in more than five decades. The installation, which took two weeks to construct, provides a rare opportunity to examine Morris & Company’s glass up close. Designed by Burne-Jones two years after Morris’ death, the window was created using medieval “pot-metal” or colored glass. Illuminated from 6 a.m. to 12 a.m. daily, the installation is a must see for any passerby.
Morris’ versatility in the decorative arts is particularly evident in the exhibit’s collection of domestic pieces. Waggoner noted Morris’ attention to the minutiae.
“Everything Morris designs he does himself. Even when designing embroidery he was knowledgeable of stitches,” she said.
Morris’s interest in the natural world is highlighted by the interior décor. The lively colored floral patterns of tapestry, wallpaper and carpet designs are fascinating examples of “The Beauty of Life.”
Beyond Morris & Company’s works, the exhibit also provides visual perspective into William Morris’ creative process.
“I was particularly fascinated by the film on the printing process,” architecture student Wade Fuh ’05 said.
Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the film accompanying a series of tapestries illustrates how Morris revived the early technique of hand-block printing. Although a slow and arduous system when compared to industrial methods available at the time, Morris believed that the technique created the most beautiful man-made quality, thus leading to an overall improved quality of life.
Some three dozen drawings, rare books and manuscripts from the Center for British Art, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and the Huntington Library demonstrate Morris’ contribution to the printed word. Founder of the Kelmscott Press, Morris disapproved of 19th century binding techniques and made innovations accordingly.
Elisabeth Fairman, curator of rare books & manuscripts at the Center for British Art, proudly pointed out the exhibit’s impressive collection of William Morris printed works, two of which come from Yale’s own collections at the Beinecke and Yale Center for British Art.
“The exhibit includes four copies of the Kelmscott Chaucer, the most beautiful printed work of the 19th century,” Fairman said.