Vanessa Barragão at work in the studio
Notes and sketches from May Morris’s time teaching embroidery c. 1899-1902
© William Morris Gallery, London Borough of Waltham Forest
52 Resurgence & Ecologist
Watercolour studies of the flora and fauna of rural Oxfordshire, where the family spent their summers, were the origins of May Morris’s creativity. Regarded as a respectable female hobby, highly accomplished scientific botanical study became a specialism of many women artists, who, denied professional acclaim, often published their work under male pseudonyms. In turn, Morris’s own observations and knowledge of local meadows and hedgerows became integral to her influential embroidery designs.
The use of intricate freehand stitching with silk threads to depict honeysuckle or wild roses in works such as ‘Maids of Honour’ in muted, naturalistic colours earned Morris’s work the title ‘art needlework’. Informed by such inspirations as medieval tapestries, her simple shapes and semi-stylised arrangements not only rendered her embroidery an art form released from gendered invisibility, but also signified the hopes and anxieties of an era with a nostalgic yearning for pre-industrial harmony.
Over a century later the work of Portuguese artist Vanessa Barragão also embodies the concept of natural beauty combined with contemporary socio-environmental values. Born in the Algarve, in the coastal town of Albufeira, the young artist, like Morris, was profoundly inspired by her natural surroundings. Like many of her compatriots who summer by the often wild Atlantic and whose ancestry of maritime adventure runs deep in their veins, Barragão is drawn to subjects