This section is from the book "Tapestries; Their Origin, History And Renaissance", by George Leland Hunter. Also available from Amazon: Tapestries; Their Origin, History, And Renaissance.
William Morris (1834-96) who founded the tapestry works at Merton near London in 1881, was a genius. He had more influence on the industrial arts, I believe, than any other man in the world's history. He actually made the blind see and the lame walk. He changed the whole point of view of thousands who buy art objects, and the methods of many who produce them.
He had no sympathy with the aims and methods of the Royal Windsor Tapestry Works. In a lecture the year of their establishment, he said:
"I am sorry to have to say that an attempt to set the art going, which has been made, doubtless with the best intentions, under royal patronage at Windsor, within the last few years, has most unluckily gone on the lines of the work at the Gobelins, and if it does not change its system utterly, is doomed to artistic failure, whatever its commercial success may be".
The extraordinary thing about William Morris's revival of the art of tapestry weaving as practised in the XVI century, is that he did it with his own hands. All other revivals with which I am acquainted imported trained workmen from the centres of tapestry production - from Flanders to Italy and other countries in the XV century; from Flanders to Paris and Mortlake at the beginning of the XVII century; from Beauvais to St. Petersburg and Madrid at the beginning of the XVIII century; from Aubusson to Windsor and Williamsbridge in the XIX century.
But William Morris imported no workmen from abroad. Indeed, he did not approve of their methods. He visited the Gobelins to see what the mechanism was really like and then studied out the details of the craft from an old French official handbook published prior to the Revolution, had a loom set up in his bedroom at Kelmscott House, Hammersmith, and in order to avoid interfering with his other occupations, used to rise betimes and practise weaving in the early hours of the morning. In four months of the year 1879 he spent no less than 516 hours at it. His diary is headed, "Diary of work on Cabbage and Vine Tapestry, at Kelmscott House, Hammersmith. Begun May 10, 1879".
Plate no. 129. The Knights of the Round Table and the Maiden of the Quest, one of a set of 4 Holy Grail tapestries designed by Burne-Jones and Morris and Dearie and woven at Merton for Stanmore Hall. I like this better than any other tapestry design made since the XVI century, and consider it worthy to be compared with the pieces of the Golden Age of Tapestry.
He was still at it in the spring of 1881. On March 12, 1881, his diary reads (quoted in Mackail's William Morris II., 45), "up at 7:30, about four hours tapestry." A week later, "up at 6 1/2, four hours tapestry." As the mornings lengthened in April, "up at 6, two hours tapestry"; "up at 5:30, three hours tapestry".
Morris had a special affection for tapestry. Four years before work was begun at Merton he wrote to Mr. T. Wardle in March, 1877:
"The tapestry is a bright dream indeed; but it must wait till I get my carpets going; though have had it in my head lately, because there is a great sale now on in Paris of some of the finest ever turned out; much too splendid for anybody save the biggest pots to buy." The sale referred to was that of the Duke of Berwick and Alba's collection (See Alba Sale 1877).
In November of the same year in another letter to Mr. Wardle, Morris discusses the commercial side of tapestry: "Let's clear off what you say about the possibility of establishing a non-artistic manufactory. You could do it, of course; 'tis only a matter of money and trouble; but cui bono? It would not amuse you (unless I wholly misunderstand you), and would, I am sure, not pay commercially; a cheap new article at once showy and ugly, if advertised, with humbug enough, will sell, of course; but an expensive article, even with ugliness to recommend it ... I don't think anything under a Duke could sell it . . . Nothing is so beautiful as fine tapestry, nothing so ugly and base as bad; e.g., the Gobelins or the present Aubusson work; also tapestry is not for anything but figure work (except now and then I shall mention wherein presently). The shuttle and loom beat it on one side, the needle on the other, as pattern-work; but for figure-work, 'tis the only way of making a web into a picture. . . . The exception I mentioned above would be the making of leaf and flower pieces (greeneries, des verdures), which would generally be used to eke out a set of figure-pieces. ... I intend setting up a frame and working at it myself. . . . To recapitulate: Tapestry at its highest is the painting of pictures with coloured wools on a warp; nobody but an artist can paint pictures; but a sort of half-picture, i.e., scroll-work or leafage could be done . . . under direction".
Plate no. 131. The Departure of the Knights, one of the set of 4 Holy Grail tapestries at Stanmore Hall, designed by Burne-Jones and Morris and Dearie, and woven at Merton under the personal supervision of the Morris and Dearie.
In March, 1878, he writes to Mr. Wardle: "I enclose a warp from a sixteenth-century piece of tapestry, which as you see is worsted: the pitch is 12 to the inch: nothing in tapestry need be finer than this. In setting up your work you must remember that as tapestry hangs on the wall the warps are horizontal, though of course you weave with them vertical. If you send me the space of your loom I will make a design for it".
Plate no. 133. The Failure of Sir Lancelot, one of the set of 4 Holy Grail tapestries designed by Burne-Jones and Morris and Dearie (see chapter V (Mortlake, Merton, And Other English Looms) under Merton and also chapter IX (Designs And Cartoons. Portraits In Tapestries. Counterfeit Arras. Animals In Tapestries. Verdures) on Designs and Cartoons), and woven at Merton. The set was awarded the Grand Prize at the Paris Exposition of 1900, the only non-French tapestries ever awarded a Grand Prize by the French.
Of contemporary French tapestry weaving Morris said in a lecture delivered in December, 1877, and reprinted under the title of the Lesser Arts: "If you are curious on the subject of its [tapestry] technic you may see that going on as in its earlier, or let us say its real, life at the Gobelins in Paris; but it is a melancholy sight: the workmen are as handy at it as only Frenchmen can be at such work, and their skill is traditional, too, I have heard: for they are the sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons of tapestry weavers. Well, their ingenuity is put to the greatest pains for the least results; it would be a mild word to say that what they make is worthless; it is more than that; it has a corrupting and deadening influence upon all the Lesser Arts of France, since it is always put forward as the very standard and crown of all that these arts can do at the best; a more idiotic waste of human labour and skill it is impossible to conceive. There is another branch of the same stupidity, differing slightly in technic, at Beauvais; and the little town of Au-busson in mid-France has a decaying commercial industry of the like rubbish".
In Morris's earliest experiments in weaving, as far back as the year 1878, he had the assistance of Mr. J. W. Dearie whom he taught as he learned, and who still carries on the work at Merton. At first they confined themselves to floral designs. The first figure tapestry was the Goose Girl at Merton in 1881, from a cartoon by Walter Crane. After that, with one exception, the figures were designed by Burne-Jones, but in the form of wash drawings with little colour. The colours were put in and the foliage, flowers and borders were designed by Morris and Dearie (See chapter IX (Designs And Cartoons. Portraits In Tapestries. Counterfeit Arras. Animals In Tapestries. Verdures)).
Plate no. 135. The Star of Bethlehem in Exeter College Chapel, a tapestry designed by Burne-Jones and Morris and Dearie and woven at Merton. It is quite as attractive as the illustration indicates, and is a model for designers of tapestry to follow.
"At Merton," says Mr. Wardle on page 47 of volume II of Mackail's William Morris, "the three apprentices Dearie, Sleath and Knight, lived in the house. We gave them board and lodging and a certain weekly stipend. It is worth while to note that there was no sort of selection of these boys.
......Dearie was put to the tapestry because that business then wanted an apprentice; and so of the other two".
Among important tapestries produced at Merton: the Star of Bethlehem for Exeter College Chapel at Oxford (See plate no. 135); the Seasons at the Victoria and Albert Museum; Flora, Pomona; the Primavera of Botticelli; Praising Angels and Ministering Angels, for Eton College Chapel; the Passing of Venus, burned at the Brussels Exposition in 1910; scenes from the Roman de la Rose; David instructing Solomon in the Building of the Temple; the splendid set of four tapestries for Stanmore Hall, picturing the Story of the Holy Grail (see plates nos. 129, 131, 133).
The last set was awarded a Grand Prize at the French Exposition of 1900, the only non-French tapestries ever thus honoured. No higher seal of approval could be set upon them.
Among later tapestries by other designers are the Blindfolding of Truth, by Byam Shaw (See plate no. 137); the Chace, by Heywood Sumner; a large historical tapestry commemorating King George V's coronation, adapted from Bernard Partridge's famous cartoon "The Arming of the King"; a tapestry designed by Mrs. Adrian Stokes illustrating Schiller's lines,
Plate no. 137. The Blindfolding of Truth, a tapestry designed by Byam Shaw and woven at Merton. It shows that the designer understands true tapestry technique.
Ehret die Frauen, sie flechten und weben Himmlische Rosen auf irdischer Leben.
It is worth noting that Merton tapestries are comparatively coarse in texture - from 10 to 16 ribs to the inch.