May Morris (1862-1938)

Born: Mary Morris; also known as Mrs Henry Sparling

Sector: Household Goods (Textiles)

For many fans of the Arts and Crafts movement there is only one Morris. The biography section at the London Library bears witness to this, with two shelves full of books written by and about William Morris, artist, writer and poet. Several of them were edited by a less well-known Morris – William’s younger daughter, May. For decades May lived in the shadow of her eminent father. When she died in 1938, the obituary in The Times described her as ‘daughter of William Morris, the poet’ and it was only after five sentences that any of her own achievements were mentioned. It was really only in the 1980s that her own story started to get attention. Since then there has been slow recognition that she had had a long career of her own, working well into the 20th century and becoming pre-eminent in her chosen field of embroidery. Designs that were previously attributed to William Morris have been acknowledged as May’s. The important role she played in supporting other women who were professional makers is also now far better understood.

Mary Morris, soon known as May, was born in the Red House in Bexleyheath on 25th March 1862. Her sister, Jenny, was just 15 months older than her and growing up the two girls were close to one another as well as developing good friendships with the children of Georgiana and Edward Burne-Jones. May was later one of the women depicted in Edward Burne-Jones’s painting, The Golden Stairs.

May Morris, second from left, with Margaret Mackail (née Burne-Jones), Jenny Morris; Philip Burne-Jones
by Frederick Hollyer; albumen cabinet card, 1874; NPG x19860© National Portrait Gallery, London

Jenny and May were initially educated at home but in the autumn of 1874 they became pupils at Notting Hill High School. The school was only one year old, the first to be set up as part of what is now the Girls Day School Trust. Not only did the school provide an education of a similar standard to that enjoyed by boys, it also allowed a select group of teenage girls to form friendships and discuss the restrictions that society placed on their ambition. Unsurprisingly at least one of May’s contemporaries, Helena Swanwick, features on the Millicent Fawcett statue in Parliament Square. Later pupils included Margaret, Lady Rhondda and the eminent statistician Frances Wood.

Smart and talented, aiming for a place at Oxford or Cambridge, Jenny developed epilepsy when she was 15 and the absence of effective treatment for her condition as well as the social stigma involved meant the end of those dreams. Both sisters were withdrawn from school in 1876; the quality of Jenny’s life was immediately greatly reduced and May’s formal academic education ended at the age of 14. It also meant that if William Morris wanted his business to continue into the second generation, he would have to rely on May.

Career decisions
In the autumn of 1878, May enrolled at the National Art Training School, where she specialised in embroidery, a skill she had already started to develop at home. Embroidered textiles were always part of the commercial offer from Morris & Co but at first items were made by friends and family members, including Janey and Jenny Morris and May’s aunt, Elizabeth (Bessie) Burden, who taught at the Royal School of Needlework.

In 1878, the William Morris signed a lease on a house in Hammersmith and it was around this time that Morris & Co started manufacturing carpets, rugs and tapestry. The first pieces were woven on huge hand-looms in the coach-house (now the site of the museum) and May started to get involved in the design process. She was soon contributing other Morris & Co product lines. A famous Morris & Co wallpaper design, Honeysuckle, is now dated to 1883 and attributed to May while another, Arcadia, is dated at around 1885. That same year, aged just 23, May took full charge of the business’s embroidery division.

May’s new role required her to engage with clients to understand what they were looking for, agree a design, either from the existing catalogue or a new commission, price the work, oversee the production, ensure invoices were sent out and bills were paid. She was also responsible for recruiting and training new embroiderers. The division produced a wide range of products: wall hangings, screens, cushion covers, tablecloths as well as kits that enabled customers to make an item themselves so May had to manage a large product portfolio. Finished items accounted for less than 2% of the orders by volume but generated 50% of the income. The contribution of the embroidery division to the total turnover of Morris & Co was relatively small but it brought prestige. May’s work was exhibited at the first Arts and Crafts Exhibition in 1888. In the 1891 census May describes herself as ‘artist, designer and embroiderer’ and puts a firm ‘x’ in the box for ’employer’.

Socialist action
In September 1888, a short article on ‘William Morris’ Womenkind’ commented that ‘Miss May Morris especially is an enthusiastic advocate of Socialism and a frequent contributor to its journals. She practises the doctrine of “Whoso will not work neither shall she eat” by earning her living as a designer; and many of the art fabrics Morris and Co. are her work.’ Always progressive, William Morris’s politics became increasingly left-wing and in January 1883 he joined a radical new organisation, the Social Democratic Federation. At the end of 1884 both William and May were part of a breakaway group that formed the Socialist League in the new year of 1885. Eleanor Marx, Edward Aveling and Walter Crane were among the other members. May attended meetings including one large one in the East End of London where speakers included Stewart Headlam. In June 1888, when Annie Besant and Herbert Burrows stirred up the strike by the match girls at Bryant, May was one of the contributors to the strike fund.

It was through her socialism that she met George Bernard Shaw in 1884. Over the next two years they spent a lot of time together. May fell hard for him, evidenced by the Valentine’s card she made for him in 1886, but GBS always had other women on the go and in the end he rejected her. May married another member of the Socialist League, the journalist Henry ‘Harry’ Spurling, in 1890 and after their wedding they moved to 8 Hammersmith Terrace, next door to what is now Emery Walker’s house (he moved from number 3 to number 7 in 1903).

May Morris c.1880s-1890s
May Morris by Sir Emery Walker; half-plate glass negative, circa 1880s-1890s
NPG x19692 © National Portrait Gallery, London

However May’s heart was still with GBS and she was drawn back to him in the early 1890s. Although the relationship again went nowhere, it was enough to put an end to her marriage and May and Harry separated in 1894. May reverted to her maiden name and continued to live in the Hammersmith house.

Teaching, lecturing and writing
In 1896, William Morris died and May left her job at Morris & Co. She started teaching embroidery at the Central School of Arts and Crafts and began writing. She contributed articles and essays on embroidery to books and magazines and in 1893 she published a book, ‘Decorative Needlework’ but also wrote some one-act plays.

May travelled round the country speaking to arts students. Ahead of a lecture at the Birmingham School of Art in October 1901 a nervous (male) reporter was dispatched by the Birmingham Daily Mail to interview her about embroidery. He admitted to ‘no little trepidation’ at facing ‘the lady who is regarded as perhaps the greatest living authority [on embroidery] in the country’ but found her sympathetic, humorous, passionate and forward-looking, not seeking to recall the traditions of the past yet not wanting to compromise on the standards and quality of work done today. She kept expanding her skills, taking up jewellery making.

Girdle, two pins and a pendant designed and made by May Morris c.1903-1906 (c) V&A Collections

Feminist causes
May was more interested in enacting socialist principles than supporting the single-issue campaign for women’s suffrage, but clearly there was an overlap between these two agendas. May was visible at women-led events in the late 1890s and early 1900s but remained on the fringes. In 1899, along with Mary Petherbridge, she was one of the speakers at the International Congress of Women, when hundreds of women travelled to London from around the world for two weeks packed with talks and evening parties. She designed the banner made by the women’s group of the Fabian Society for the Great March of June 1908 and was one of the signatories, alongside Emma Cons, Gertrude Jekyll and Millicent Garrett Fawcett, of a letter urging that David Lloyd George, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, be allowed to speak about women’s suffrage at the Royal Albert Hall in December 1908 when the WSPU was threatening to disrupt the event.

However, her most significant feminist act was the founding of the Women’s Guild of Arts in 1907. Fed up with the refusal of men to admit women to Art Workers Guild, May was moved to action. She wanted to ensure the work of women and men was regarded of being of equally high quality but also felt compelled to create an organisation where women could support one another. Part of its mission statement was ‘heartening up the weary….and generally of exuding an atmosphere of camaraderie without which one’s work would surely be as Dead Sea fruit.’ The first president was Gertrude Jekyll‘s neighbour, Mary Seton Watts. Evelyn de Morgan and Marie Stillman were both members. They gathered together to discuss ideas and share opinions on what was going on in the arts and in the world more broadly. At a lively lunch in 1910 views were shared on Roger Fry’s seminal exhibition of Post-Impressionism as well as new methods of teaching.

Preserving the Morris legacy
Like Ethel Wood, another daughter of a famous father, May felt it was her duty to ensure her father’s work and contribution was fully recognised and properly valued. She supported many of the organisations in which he had been involved, such as the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings and the Arts and Crafts Society.

In 1909 she set off for a lecture tour in the United States and while ostensibly talking about embroidery, she was also trying to raise funds for projects in Kelmscott that would keep the William Morris name alive.

In 1871, when May was nine, the Morris family had found a country retreat in Gloucestershire, Kelmscott Manor.

Kelmscott Manor
Kelmscott Manor, on a rather rainy October day

It had always been an important place for May: growing up she had played in the attics, made illicit roof-top escapades and posed for paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. As she grew older, one room was converted into a workspace and she undertook a number of embroidery projects for the house including translating one of her father’s poems into an embroidered bed canopy.

Clockwise from top: May’s bed canopy embroidery; a watch given to May by Rossetti; detail of a cot quilt designed by May and embroidered by her mother, Jane Morris c.1890; May’s letterhead; May at work in Kelmscott Manor.

When May returned from the States, she started spending more time at Kelmscott Manor, where she spent five years editing ‘The Collected Works of William Morris’, which ran to 24 volumes. In 1915 she commissioned designs for cottages and a new village hall and in 1928 began fund-raising in earnest for what would be the William Morris Memorial Hall. George Bernard Shaw conducted the opening ceremony in 1934, the centenary of William Morris’s birth, and the Prime Minister, Ramsay McDonald, put in a surprise appearance. In 1936 May published a two volume book, ‘William Morris: Artist, Writer, Socialist’.

May’s companion for the last twenty years of her life was Mary Lobb. The women met in 1917 when Mary was working as a Land Girl in Kelmscott. Sixteen years younger than May, she had short hair and wore men’s clothes and many of the descriptions of her were less than complimentary. The exact relationship between the two women is not known but at the very least there was clearly a deep and committed friendship. They lived together and holidayed together. In 1924, they made the first of three trips to Iceland, following in the steps of William Morris, who had travelled there between 1871 and 1873 and documented his travels. In preparation, they went camping in the Lake District and took language lessons. May maintained the link begun by her father, sending books for the country’s libraries and awarded its highest honour, The Order of the Falcon, in 1930.

In 1929 May made a new will leaving Mary a large amount of money as well as all her personal effects and embroidery materials barring some specific bequests. After May died in 1938, Mary continued to live in Kelmscott Manor until her own death a year later.

While May carried on with her embroidery into the 1930s – in 1932 her ‘charming old-fashioned quilt’ was displayed in an exhibition of modern embroidery at the Victoria & Albert Museum alongside an ‘ultra-modern design’ by Marion Dorn – she became increasingly associated with her work to preserve her father’s legacy. In May 1936, May wrote in a letter to George Bernard Shaw: ‘I’m a remarkable woman – always was, though none of you seemed to think so.’ Finally, thanks to the work of curators and historians around the country, her work and career is finally getting the recognition it deserves.

Kelmscott Manor in the Cotsworlds has recently re-opened to the public after a major capital project. The Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey has an exhibition celebrating 150 Years of the Royal School of Needlework that runs until 22nd September 2022.

Sources include:

Pall Mall Gazette 13/7/1888; Evening Telegraph and Star 18/9/1888; The Globe 6/12/1899; Votes for Women 11/6/1908; The Mid-Sussex Times 26/7/1932; The Times 18/10/1938

‘Decorative Needlework’ by May Morris (1893)

‘Jane and May Morris: a biographical story 1829-1938’ by Jan Marsh (1986); ‘May Morris: Arts & Crafts Designer’ by Anna Mason, Jan Marsh, Jenny Lister, Rowan Bain and Hanne Faurby (2017)

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