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
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