I’ve spent the last few years researching May Morris: best known as daughter to William Morris, but a wonderful artist, creative person and ‘doer’ in her own right.
Born in 1862, the second daughter of Jane and William Morris, May Morris was not a typical Victorian woman. Though she was brought up in a middle class household (to a mother who’d been born in a poor area of Oxford, and lived there until she was spotted as a muse by Morris and Rossetti), May did not ascribe to societal norms for a woman of the time, opting for loose fitting clothes (‘artistic dress’) rather than corsets, and having a tendency to have pockets full of stones and nature finds.
She described herself as a “great tomboy”, spent time ‘roof riding’ (climbing on to the roof at Kelmscott Manor) as a child, loved nature, was close to her family, and explored almost as many different arts as her father, including embroidery (learned at her mother’s knee, with the help of her aunt, Bessie Burden), jewellery-making, dress design, painting, drawing, writing (initially for sister Jenny’s juvenile magazine, The Scribbler, before Jenny became ill and abandoned it) and editing.
She knew her worth. In a letter to George Bernard Shaw, she wrote, “I’m a remarkable woman – always was, though none of you seemed to think so.”
However, this didn’t stop her from developing a “mystical betrothal” with George Bernard Shaw, who was far from an ideal beau. Though she initially married Henry Sparling, who she knew through attending Socialist League meetings, the seed of a relationship with Shaw had already been sown when they’d acted together in a play.
Shaw was known for both his flirtations and his disdain towards marriage. This didn’t stop him from marrying a rich older woman – but only after he’d spent an extensive stay with May and her husband, triggering their divorce (and raising May’s hopes of romance).
While she was not particularly lucky in love (though some believe the final relationship of her life, with lady gardener Mary Lobb, may have been the most satisfying of her life), May certainly made the most of the time she had.
At 23, May was made head of the Morris and Co embroidery department, and she subsequently became an embroidery lecturer, writing books and articles on the subject. She toured America talking about the arts and, when women weren’t allowed to join the crafting guilds, she helped create the Women’s Guild of Arts. She stitched many pieces of embroidery, as well as helping promote the work of artists including Evelyn de Morgan and Georgia Gaskin.
I love May Morris’s art. She has a lightness of touch that makes her designs less florid than her father’s, and also had a sense of humour, best shown in her beautiful Homestead and the Forest Quilt, designed by May and stitched by her mother.
It’s also arguable that we know much more about William Morris thanks to May Morris’s hard work. She spent mamy years collating and editing his collected works, and writing introductions to give context to his words.
If you’re interested in learning more about May Morris, there’s currently an exhibition at Dovecot Studios, featuring her embroidery, jewellery and more.
There’s also a research day focusing on May Morris at Marchmont House in February 2020, with an incredible line-up of speakers. Find out more here.