A feel­ing for beauty

Helen El­let­son cel­e­brates the spe­cial con­tri­bu­tion made by two neigh­bours–may Mor­ris and Emery Walker–to Ham­mer­smith’s vi­brant Arts-and-crafts tra­di­tion

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

Helen El­let­son cel­e­brates the spe­cial con­tri­bu­tion made by two neigh­bours to Ham­mer­smith’s vi­brant Arts-and-crafts tra­di­tion

ONCE a slightly un­fash­ion­able area of west Lon­don, the Ham­mer­smith river­side be­came a hub of artis­tic ac­tiv­ity in the late 19th cen­tury, as Pre-Raphaelites, print­ers, ty­pog­ra­phers, book­binders, ce­ram­i­cists, sculp­tors and painters set up their homes and busi­nesses be­side this pic­turesque stretch of the River Thames. Wil­liam Mor­ris (1834–96), the most fa­mous mem­ber of the Arts-and-crafts Move­ment, who made Ham­mer­smith his home, de­scribed the lo­ca­tion as ‘cer­tainly the pret­ti­est in Lon­don’.

His younger daugh­ter, May (1862–1938), who de­fined the area as a ‘left-be­hind neigh­bour­hood’, noted that it ‘was scarcely Lon­don, with the great elms along the river front and the sun re­flec­tions and re­splen- dent sky mir­rored on the wide wa­ter’. May’s rep­u­ta­tion has been some­what over­shad­owed by the tow­er­ing fig­ure of her fa­ther, but she’s step­ping out of his shadow this year with a ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tion in the au­tumn and a book fea­tur­ing new re­search on her life.

Her great friend and next-door neigh­bour, Emery Walker (1851–1933), is also

claim­ing his share of the lime­light as his re­mark­able house at 7, Ham­mer­smith Ter­race has just re­opened to the pub­lic af­ter re­fur­bish­ment.

May and Walker were ded­i­cated So­cial­ists and tal­ented artists: May’s many skills in­cluded de­sign, em­broi­dery, jew­ellery mak­ing and writ­ing and Walker was a pho­tog­ra­pher and en­graver-ty­pog­ra­pher as well as co-founder of the Doves Press.

The Mor­ris fam­ily moved to Ham­mer­smith in 1878, nam­ing their new home Kelm­scott House af­ter Kelm­scott Manor, their coun­try re­treat near Lech­lade. The Walker fam­ily took up res­i­dence in Ham­mer­smith Ter­race shortly af­ter­wards, but, al­though Mor­ris spot­ted the man he called ‘the brown vel­veteen artist’ prom­e­nad­ing along the path with his fam­ily out­side his house shortly af­ter­wards, they didn’t meet un­til the 1880s, when they were drawn to­gether by their shared So­cial­ist be­liefs. Walker or­gan­ised Sunday lec­tures in the Coach House at Mor­ris’s home on Up­per Mall and the two men only had to stroll a short dis­tance along the river­bank for their daily meet­ings.

They also shared a pas­sion for print­ing and it was a lec­ture that Walker gave in 1888 on his­toric type­faces that in­spired Mor­ris to set up the Kelm­scott Press in 1891, in order to pro­duce il­lus­trated hand­printed books, with Walker act­ing as his ty­po­graphic ad­vi­sor.

In 1901, Walker es­tab­lished his own Doves Press at 1, Ham­mer­smith Ter­race with the book­binder T. J. Cob­den-san­der­son. It was to have a last­ing im­pact on the pri­vatepress move­ment in the 20th cen­tury, even though the part­ner­ship ended badly in 1908, fol­low­ing a dis­agree­ment over the fu­ture of the com­pany, with Cob­den-San­der­son later tip­ping all the type into the Thames in the dead of night.

May lived at Kelm­scott House with her fam­ily be­fore mov­ing a short dis­tance along the river to 8, Ham­mer­smith Ter­race in 1890. Like her fa­ther, she en­joyed a close friend­ship with Walker, call­ing him ‘a rock of stead­fast­ness and re­li­a­bil­ity’, and they cor­re­sponded un­til the end of Walker’s life. The links be­tween the Mor­ris and Walker fam­i­lies also left its mark on the in­te­ri­ors of Walker’s home, which have sur­vived vir­tu­ally un­changed since the early 20th cen­tury. To cross its thresh­hold is to be trans­ported into a trea­sure house of the Arts-and-crafts Move­ment, filled with Mor­ris & Co wall­pa­per and tex­tiles, Philip Webb fur­ni­ture, De Mor­gan ce­ram­ics and White­fri­ars glass.

‘There is now no other Mor­ris in­te­rior in Lon­don to equal it,’ en­thused Sir John Bet­je­man, ‘nor was there ever a Mor­ris in­te­rior to re­tain so many relics of the Mor­ris move­ment… it leads one in to a king­dom that can never be cre­ated again.’

Luck­ily for those who worked on the restora­tion, Walker’s pos­ses­sions were

care­fully la­belled or in­ven­to­ried by the fam­ily and the in­te­ri­ors were pho­tographed by

Coun­try Life in 1964 and 2003. This con­sci­en­tious­ness was very help­ful when it came to pro­tect­ing, stor­ing and re­assem­bling the 4,000 items in the build­ing. The sense of place has also been re­tained: the charm of the house is that it looks like a lived-in fam­ily home, as if the Walk­ers have just left the rooms.

The per­sonal feel is am­pli­fied by many of Walker’s me­men­toes of the Mor­ris fam­ily orig­i­nally from Kelm­scott House, such as a 17th-cen­tury li­brary chair, given to him by Mor­ris’s widow, Jane. Upon it is a beau­ti­ful flo­ral ta­pes­try cush­ion cre­ated by May to fit the seat, per­fectly con­vey­ing her great af­fec­tion for Walker with its wo­ven in­scrip­tion ‘MM to EW’.

Sev­eral more ex­am­ples of May’s work are also on view in the house, in­clud­ing a silk cush­ion de­pict­ing pop­pies, de­signed by May and em­broi­dered by Walker’s daugh­ter, Dorothy. It is likely that this orig­i­nated as one of the kits pro­duced by Mor­ris & Co from the late 1870s that could be pur­chased by the pub­lic, ei­ther in a raw state, par­tially com­pleted or to­tally fin­ished.

An ex­quis­ite mille­fleur crewel­work bed­cover in one of the bed­rooms was de­signed and worked by May for Walker’s wife when she was bedrid­den to­wards the end of her life. It is a sim­i­lar de­sign to the one May and her mother, Jane, made for Mor­ris’s bed at Kelm­scott Manor years ear­lier and was so cher­ished by the Walk­ers that it was used as the pall on the cof­fin at fam­ily fu­ner­als.

Right from the start, Mor­ris had recognised May’s tal­ent for de­sign­ing and stitch­ing—she had be­gun to learn em­broi­dery from her mother while still a child—and he en­trusted his daugh­ter with run­ning the em­broi­dery depart­ment of Mor­ris & Co when she was just 23 years old. She also be­came one the com­pany’s prin­ci­pal de­sign­ers, pro­duc­ing work no­table for its rich­ness, colour and beauty. The im­por­tance of the em­broi­dery sec­tion grew un­der May’s su­per­vi­sion. The em­ploy­ees—who in­cluded Wil­liam De Mor­gan’s sis­ter Mary, W. B. Yeats’s sis­ter Lily and the ac­tress Florence Farr Emery—came and worked in her draw­ing room in Ham­mer­smith Ter­race and were vis­ited by Mor­ris ev­ery

morn­ing. Just down­stream, the Wil­liam Mor­ris So­ci­ety in the base­ment of Kelm­scott House holds a fur­ther sub­stan­tial col­lec­tion of May’s de­signs and worked em­broi­deries, in­clud­ing her Min­strel with Cym­bals, one of a small num­ber of fig­u­ra­tive de­signs sold by Mor­ris & Co. Del­i­cately drawn in pale, sil­very colours, this cym­bal-player echoes Mor­ris’s min­strel-an­gel fig­ure draw­ings for stained glass. It’s worked in a va­ri­ety of stitches: ta­pes­try, long and short, split, satin and couch­ing.

The Or­ange Tree em­broi­dery is a beau­ti­fully pre­served ex­am­ple of May’s del­i­cately bal­anced de­sign and bold colour­ing. Amid the glow­ing or­anges are del­i­cate sprigs of or­ange blos­som, com­ple­mented by a vi­brant blue back­ground. Like other em­broi­deries by May, it has a sur­face that is en­tirely stitched. The panel—worked in ta­pes­try stitch, long-and-short stitch, stem stitch and French knot—was cho­sen by Royal Mail to be made into a first-class stamp in 2012 to high­light May’s achieve­ments as a ‘Bri­ton of Dis­tinc­tion’.

West­ward Ho! was a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween mother and daugh­ter, with May de­sign­ing and Jane em­broi­der­ing. It’s worked in darn­ing stitch with stylised poppy mo­tifs. May and her team also cre­ated the strik­ing Mor­ris & Co Vine silk em­broi­dery, whose tra­di­tional ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal sym­bol­ism of the grapevine would have made the panel per­fect for an al­tar frontal.

May re­garded em­broi­dery as one of the high­est art­forms, writ­ing in her book

Dec­o­ra­tive Needle­work (1893) that ‘the de­sire of and feel­ing for beauty, re­alised in a work of def­i­nite util­ity, are the vi­tal and es­sen­tial el­e­ments of this as of all other branches of art’. But she was also acutely aware of its de­clin­ing rep­u­ta­tion, warn­ing ‘that the crafts, which one must in­sist are an es­sen­tial part of the in­dus­trial life of Eng­land, are dead or fast dy­ing; they are pass­ing rapidly in a sin­gle gen­er­a­tion’. She made it her mis­sion to do what she could to pre­serve them and to pro­mote the women work­ers in whose hands the fu­ture lay.

It was while liv­ing at 8, Ham­mer­smith Ter­race that she co-founded the Women’s Guild of Arts in 1907 to pro­vide a cul­tural home for a wide ar­ray of prom­i­nent craft work­ers and act as a coun­ter­part to the ex­clu­sively male Art Worker’s Guild, of which her fa­ther had once been its master. She served as both Honorary Sec­re­tary and Chair, and pro­posed mem­ber­ship for Walker, who was one of the first male Honorary As­so­ciates; he went on to act in an ad­vi­sory ca­pac­ity for the women of the Guild and gave lec­tures on print­ing for mem­bers.

Dur­ing the pe­riod of its ex­is­tence, the Women’s Guild of Arts at­tracted more than 100 mem­bers; its ar­chive, now at Kelm­scott House, high­lights the mem­bers’ achieve­ments in a va­ri­ety of crafts and il­lus­trates May’s commitment to as­sist­ing her fel­low craftswomen through col­lab­o­ra­tion and ca­ma­raderie.

Al­though May was a leading ex­po­nent of the em­broi­dery re­vival, her im­pact has faded over the years, just as Walker’s im­por­tance to the Arts-and-crafts Move­ment is now lit­tle known. Later in her life, May told Ge­orge Bernard Shaw: ‘I’m a re­mark­able woman—al­ways was, though none of you seemed to think so.’ It’s time for the part she played in the wider story of the move­ment to be recognised, just as Walker’s con­tri­bu­tion can be more fully ap­pre­ci­ated now that the doors to his re­mark­able house have re­opened.

The au­thor would like to thank Lucinda Macpher­son for her con­tri­bu­tion to this article

Emery Walker’s House (7, Ham­mer­smith Ter­race, Lon­don W6) can be vis­ited on pre-booked, one-hour tours at 11am, 1pm and 3pm on Thurs­days and Satur­days. Group tours can be ar­ranged by ap­point­ment. For more in­for­ma­tion, visit www. emery­walker.org.uk The Wil­liam Mor­ris So­ci­ety’s mu­seum is in the Coach House at Kelm­scott House, 26, Up­per Mall, Ham­mer­smith, Lon­don W6. It is open to the pub­lic on Thurs­days and Satur­days from 2pm to 5pm. Please check the web­site to make sure it’s not run­ning pri­vate events on the day you want to visit. The Wil­liam Mor­ris So­ci­ety and Women’s Guild of Arts ar­chives can be viewed by ap­point­ment. Visit http:// williammor­ris­so­ci­ety.org ‘May Mor­ris: Art and Life’ is at the Wil­liam Mor­ris Gallery, Lloyd Park, For­est Road, Waltham­stow, Lon­don E17, from Oc­to­ber 7 to Jan­uary 28, 2018 (www.wm­gallery.org.uk)

‘It leads one in to a king­dom that can never be cre­ated again

The Or­ange Tree (about 1885) em­broi­dered by May Mor­ris dur­ing her res­i­dence at Kelm­scott House in Ham­mer­smith, Lon­don

Top: Emery Walker’s din­ing room. Above: Cush­ion de­signed by May Mor­ris and em­broi­dered by Dorothy Walker, with a crewel­work bed­cover made by May

Wil­liam Mor­ris’s 17th-cen­tury li­brary chair in the din­ing room of Emery Walker’s house

A re­cently dis­cov­ered pho­to­graph of May Mor­ris (about 1910), per­haps taken in con­nec­tion with her tour of North Amer­ica

Emery Walker, co-founder of Doves Press, shared a pas­sion for print­ing with his friend and neigh­bour Wil­liam Mor­ris

Top: West­ward Ho! em­broi­dery by May and Jane Mor­ris. Right: Min­strel with Cym­bals (about 1895) by May Mor­ris

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