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27 Apr 2015

Volunteer research into William Morris fabric chair

Hi my name is Carol a sixty something happily retired and having a great time volunteering for Birmingham Museums Trust. This is my second year as a volunteer helping out at Blakesley Hall, a little black and white gem a short walk from the number eleven bus route. Amazingly it was here that I had the chance to design and make a Tudor jacket, it was during the hot Summer when I became Teddy Nurse for the day, the story of which turned into my first blog.

Carol Hague

This year I am adding to my list of exciting volunteer opportunities. Recently I worked with professionals and other volunteers archiving textiles at the Museum Collection Centre (MCC). I even went on a course to see how it's done. I shall shortly be back at Blakesley Hall doing my bit, but I am thrilled to say I have just been appointed to the position of Art Librarian at Birmingham Museum Art Gallery, how cool is that. Being a volunteer is the best the very best thing to do with that empty corner of your life, you'll love it.

I was curious to know more about the William Morris fabric covered chair from the MCC that I so much admired so I thought I would investigate the chairs origins, this curiosity has led to the following and I thought you might be interested in my findings.

William Morris fabric covered chair

Recently as a volunteer I was lucky enough to visit the MCC which is wonderfully eclectic and well worth a visit. During the visit I came across a chair upholstered in what appeared to me to be a William Morris design. Emily (Collections Support Officer) and I stood in front of it speculating if it might be a William Morris copy as it had some of the same elements as William Morris’s 'Strawberry Thief' dated 1883(1) but different. Emily very kindly asked the curator Sylvia on my behalf about the chair, I was very grateful to receive the following information with many thanks to Emily and Sylvia for their kindness. The following from Emily:

‘Sylvia has told me all about the lovely chair you asked about, the chair was originally brought to go in The Grove in Harborne in 1870 when the house was built. The chair is upholstered in the original William Morris ‘Bird’ tapestry design. I believe there are more examples of this from The Grove in the V&A museum.'

Panelled room of the Grove, acquired by the V&A
A panelled room of The Grove (an ante-room to the drawing room). It was acquired by the Victoria & Albert Museum prior to the demolition. Image from the V&A website.

The following consists of my own research and commentary about the chair, its original owner and indeed the Grove in Harbourne.

The upholstered chair is covered in an early William Morris design named ‘Bird’ it predates the famous ‘Strawberry Thief’ although clearly related in its elemental design. The fabric appears to suggest to have been produced by Morris during the time he was under the instruction of Thomas Wardle of Staffordshire who tutored him on how to produce natural dyes for his fabric. The bird fabric is a wonderfully even colour which suggests natural dye which fades evenly and ages beautifully. However it is possible that it was produced after the acquisition of Merton Abbey Mills as he was then able to start dyeing and printing his own fabric.

William Morris Bird fabric

The ‘Bird’ pattern was first designed by William Morris for the walls of the drawing room of 'Kelmscott' House his home in Hammersmith London, in which he lived from 1878 to 1896. This pattern appears to have been registered by Morris & Company in 1878 and was produced commercially in three colour ways, by Morris & Company, Merton Abbey from 1881. The chair appears to be in red/burgundy tones with little fading. Morris himself referred to this heavy wool fabric as a ‘woven wool tapestry’. However it was not technically a tapestry but a complicated reversible double cloth constructed from two warps and two wefts (2).

Without hands on close examination of the ‘bird’ design there is no means of establishing if the material used on the chair is indeed the heavy weight double cloth, ‘woven wool tapestry’ however the date indicates it could be. But examined from a few feet away it does appear to be a sturdy worsted like wool cloth with the woven appearance of tapestry. 

In designing the covering for the upholstered chair it is interesting to note that to create a more decorative artistic effect the material has been used in a particularly extravagant manner. To explain, the fabric if laid out for examination before the first cut would show the birds standing in horizontal rows exactly as shown in the back panel, that is almost breast to breast with heads turned looking backwards.

William Morris Bird fabric

For the seat panel the upholsterer has reversed the design, that is the birds stand almost tail to tail. To achieve this effect the upholsterer has cut one bird from each of two adjacent ‘back panel’ pairs; this would have necessitated very skilful cutting but was wasteful of material. This reverses the birds, they now look forwards and it also widens the design needed for the wider seat panel. This ‘bird panel’ for the seat is not wide enough, so the upholsterer has carefully matched in side cloths to extend the seat cover.

Seat of the chair with William Morris fabric

I could not examine the rear of the chair so cannot comment on the treatment of the same or indeed the age of the chair itself. It is possible that the covering and the chair were commissioned at the same time, given that this is a possibility it may have been designed by Philip Webb. Philip Webb designs were incorporated into the firm Morris & Co. from 1866. 

Other William Morris designs can currently be seen in the exhibition Love is Enough: William Morris and Andy Warhol (25 April - 6 Sept) at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

Further information:
(1) http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O78889/strawberry-thief-furnishing-fabric-morris-william/
(2) http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/23.163.15