How can local plants and animals inspire art? William Morris founded his company, Morris & Co., in 1861 to produce hand-crafted decorative objects inspired by local plants and animals. In this spotlight, we explore Morris & Co.’s work in wall decorations. Morris preferred tapestries, which are made from fabric, but he also designed less-expensive wallpaper so more people could afford it.
Even though he was committed to creating wall artworks that more people could afford, Morris was also committed to high quality and beauty. When Morris first started working, the rapid machine-printing process was common. This process allowed companies to produce a lot of wallpaper very quickly, but the quality was not as good as handmade wallpaper. Morris wanted to create a change in the way people created decorative arts for the home and make quality wall decorations more accessible.
For William Morris, the best inspiration came from his garden where he cared for native plants. Morris lived in Southern England, so almost all his designs include plants and animals native to Southern England. At a time when other designers and artists were inspired by plants imported from all over the world, Morris looked to local plants. At first, people thought Morris’s inclusion of local plants was odd and unappealing, but over time, they started to appreciate his work.
Morris wanted to recreate the garden’s natural beauty on the walls of the home. He honed his skills as a multisensory observer of nature, and he developed his relationship with the natural world through maintaining his garden. Garden care required focused engagement through sight (looking closely and noticing small details), smell (noticing the smell of each plant), touch (feeling the textures of the different plants and plant parts), taste (local plants are important food sources in every community), and hearing (listening for the different animal sounds in the garden and the sounds of the breeze through the plants) . Multisensory engagement with his local garden gave Morris a deep appreciation of nature.
Morris believed that it was not possible to create exact imitations of nature and also that it was not desirable. He understood plants on a deep level and wanted to use his artistic designs to capture the essence of nature’s beauty. After carefully observing the plants and animals he wanted to include, Morris created stylized depictions of the plants and animals. These stylized depictions left some details out and highlighted other details.
Questions & Prompts
Look closely at this fabric wall art created by Morris & Co. What do you notice first? What do you notice after looking for a full minute?
What garden sights do you think inspired Morris in this artwork? What garden sounds do you think inspired Morris in this artwork? Tastes? Smells? Touches/Textures?
Which parts of this artwork seem naturalistic to you? Which parts seem stylized?
Inspiration from Past Nature
Morris drew inspiration from history. He designed the garden of his home, Kelmscott Manor, to resemble an early modern European garden (approximately 16th century). His garden, which doesn’t exist anymore, may have looked a bit like The Huntington’s Herb Garden, which is based on an Early Modern Italian herb garden. Learn more about Morris’s garden at the Kelmscott Manor website.
Growing up, Morris enjoyed reading books from his family’s private library. He especially enjoyed herbals like The Herbal, or General History of Plants, which included text and illustrations on different plants. These books were written hundreds of years before Morris designed his textiles. This page is from one of Morris’ favorite books. How might these herbals have influenced Morris? What similarities do you observe between the illustrations on this page and the designs that Morris created?
Morris was inspired by the natural qualities in medieval aesthetics. Look at a close-up of the border of a medieval manuscript. What similarities do you observe between the designs in this manuscript and the designs Morris created?
The Design Process
Scroll through the images below to follow the steps in Morris’s design and printing process.
Design a Wallpaper
Morris & Co. created artistic wallpapers using repeated patterns. The patterns are made up of stylized plants from the artists’ local communities. Try it yourself!
Observe the plants and animals in your local community. Which plants do you want to include in your design? Do you want to include any animals?
Create drawings of the plants and animals you plan to include. How realistic do you want them to be? What style do you want to use?
Create a pattern. Draw three columns (like you can see in this image). Create a repeating design pattern. You might choose to use folding and tracing to help you create the repeat. Take your time; it is a challenging task!
References and Resources
Barber, Jacq. n.d.“Bringing the Garden Indoors: How Nature Inspired William Morris.” National Trust. Accessed August 16, 2021. https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/bringing-the-garden-indoors-how-nature-inspired-william-morris.
Klose, Alice. August 29, 2018. “Sustainable Luxury.” The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. https://www.huntington.org/verso/2018/08/sustainable-luxury.
Parry, Linda. 2013. William Morris Textiles, 2nd ed. London, England: V&A Publishing.
“William Morris and Wallpaper Design.” n.d. Victoria and Albert Museum. Accessed August 16, 2021. https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/william-morris-and-wallpaper-design.