Home decoration has serious artistic value, as the Tuesday presentation on “The Homes of William Morris” at the Yale Center for British Art made clear.
About 60 people gathered for the talk, given by Imogen Hart, assistant curator in the department of Exhibitions and Publications at the Center. Tapestries and books created by Morris, a British artist active during the 1860s and ’70s, are currently on display at the Center as part of “Making History: Antiquaries in Britain,” an exhibition that went up in early February.
Credited with founding the Arts and Crafts movement, Morris, who worked across a range of artistic media including poetry, wall hangings and furniture and book design, is known for his revolutionary emphasis on the artistic value of craft design.
“Morris renewed attention to the rightful place of design in the arts,” Hart said, adding that he elevated interior design and home decoration to an artistic pursuit.
Citing works that Morris displayed in his own homes, including two wall hangings displayed in “Making History,” Hart noted Morris’ fascination with medieval design and attachment to physical places, particularly Kelmscott Manor, his summer home in Oxfordshire, England. Morris taught his wife, Jane, medieval embroidery techniques, Hart said, adding that Jane and her sister did much of the stitching for her husband’s designs.
Senior Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts Elisabeth Fairman, who curated the exhibit, said that she positioned Morris’ works at the conclusion of “Making History,” because of the mid-19th century artist’s gestures to art and design of the Middle Ages and his lasting popularity today. Fairman added that Morris’ art fits well into the exhibit because his beloved Kelmscott Manor is owned by the Society of Antiquaries, an academic institution that donated 100 works to the show and is more often associated with medieval works than with art created during Morris’ time.
“I think [Morris’] name still has resonance for people,” Fairman said, adding that “Making History” has had a particularly high number of visitors so far.
The pieces by Morris on view include his famous editions of Chaucer’s works published by the Kelmscott Press, which Morris founded in 1891 to produce hand-designed books based on 15th century printing methods. Fairman said that in addition to embellishing the books with elaborate designs and pictures, Morris created his own typography for the project. According to Fairman, many people consider these editions of Chaucer to be the most beautiful modern books in existence.
Professor Edward Cooke, who has taught a Yale-in-London course on William Morris three times, said he believes Morris to be the first theorist of crafted objects.
“He is the first person who moved craft outside the trade and made it a chosen endeavor,” Cooke said. “He empowered the middle and upper classes to make their own things and was the first person to say things are better because we make them [ourselves].”
Cooke said he sees Morris’ philosophy as the first step in a movement toward appreciating the inherent value in “Do-It-Yourself” creations. Morris is also a useful lens into the world of design and art in 19th century Britain, even though at the time of his death he was better known as a poet, Cooke added.
Hart’s lecture was part of the “Art in Context” talks that have been a fixture at the Center for British Art for over 20 years, according to Linda Friedlaender, the Center’s curator of education. The weekly, interdisciplinary talks typically feature speakers not affiliated with the Center.
In 2004, the Center held an exhibit on “The Beauty of Life: William Morris and the Art of Design.”