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Limitations placed on women therefore also set the parameters for the creation and reception of ‘women’s art’. Integral to the devoted homemaker idealised as the ‘Angel in the House’ was an aptitude in needlecrafts. Berlin wool work, with its bright, rigid designs of wreaths and garden flowers, was a typical pursuit, yet it was regarded as a feminine duty rather than skilled female creativity. Morris, who later became an embroiderer, designer, editor and artisan, had some advantage over her female artist peers, however.

Her family were central to the more liberal world of the Arts and Crafts movement, which enabled her self-expression to flourish through embroidery skills passed on by her mother Jane, and design work taught by her much-celebrated father William. The movement’s emphasis on a close human relationship to production and traditional domestic skills, which opened a cultural door for female artisans, combined with a socialist, humanitarian perspective and a reverence for the past and Nature, were all embraced by the Morris clan.

Above: Maids of Honour. Designed and worked by May Morris c. 1890s Below: Detail of Embroidered cloak. Design by May Morris c. 1897 Both images © William Morris Gallery, London Borough of Waltham Forest and courtesy of Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh

The exhibition May Morris: Art & Life runs until 14 March 2020 at Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh.

Resurgence & Ecologist


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