How a Father-Daughter Duo Changed the Course of Textile Art

On a bright, sunny day in Victorian England, a little curly-haired May Morris gleefully handed a ball of wriggling worms to her father, William. The legendary textile and wallpaper designer smiled: He was both glad to have fresh bait for his favorite pastime of fishing and proud to see his daughter happily playing in the dirt, a freedom afforded to few girls of their social class. 

There’s plenty to admire about artist William Morris, from his timeless ornamental wallpaper designs to his late-in-life turn to socialist politics, where he imperfectly but tirelessly fought for workers rights and against British imperialism. Less well known is that by all accounts, William was a pretty great dad, who encouraged his two daughters, Jenny and May, to grow into incredibly talented designers themselves. 

As a child, the sisters soaked up their father’s aesthetic brilliance as they carefully observed him experiment with drawing, calligraphy, and textile dying; William even provided them with their own dying kits for messy, colorful play. May enrolled in what is today the Royal College of Art in 1878, where she studied embroidery. This was in no way preparing her for a life of a housewife with an under-appreciated textile skill. Rather, her father had been slowly training her to take over the reins at his historic company’s embroidery department at only 23 years old — a business decision typically reserved for the sons of the era, not its daughters.

There, she began designing patterns for Morris & Co. that became mainstays of the company, some of which, unfortunately, were later misattributed to her father. She supervised a team of embroiderers as they produced all manners of textiles, from bedspreads to book covers to alter cloths. Soon, she was a leading artist of the progressive Arts and Crafts Movement.

Before long, the two were close comrades in the small but mighty English socialist movement: May stood close on blustery London sidewalks as William became a kind of socialist street preacher. Together, they broke from the Social Democratic Federation in 1885 and took part in founding the Socialist League, where May took charge of the group’s library and became close friends with Karl Marx’s daughter, Eleanor, another one of the league’s founders. Father and daughter were constantly engaged in lively discussions of politics, design, and often, a combination of the two, as Morris Sr. viewed an increase of respect for artisanal craft workers as a key part of his socialism.

Scholars have noted that William Morris was certainly a flawed crusader for women’s rights, once proclaiming that “it would be poor economy setting women to do men’s work” in the same breath that he called for “absolute equality of condition between men and women.” A powerful feminist, May greatly improved upon his political legacy by co-founding the Women’s Guild of Arts for the crafters who were not allowed into the Arts and Crafts Movement’s foundational Art Worker’s Guild. 

It’s quite likely that no one knew William Morris better than May did. After his death, while caring for her older sister who struggled with epilepsy, she edited a whopping 24 volumes of her father’s writing, each with introductions so studied and lengthy that they were later published as their own two volume set. Biographer Fiona MacCarthy wrote that their relationship was “partly suffocating, in the intensity of its demands, but in another sense a kind of freedom … It released her latent talents and brought her into contact with ideas and activities far beyond the reach of most young women of her period and class.” 

Even so, May was undervalued in her time, and she knew it. “I’m a remarkable woman – always was,” she wrote to playwright George Bernard Shaw in 1924. “Though none of you seemed to think so.”

William, on the other hand, seemed to be well aware of his daughter’s talents. Their fascinating, complicated, and beautiful relationship made her into the “remarkable” woman that she was, and deserves to be studied in its own right.

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