William Morris Wallpapers
©2016 Stuart Stark Heritage Consultant
A History of Design Development
William Morris started designing wallpapers in the early 1860’s, at a period when most wallpapers were generally formal in design, in a repeating pattern.
Though naturally-inspired patterns have always been found in fabric and wallpaper design, William Morris introduced a new version of naturalistic patterns to wallpaper and fabric. Some of Morris’ designs were inspired – or copied – from historic designs he found in the Victoria and Albert Museum. But mostly, Morris designed from nature, using as a basis the plants and flowers found in his own gardens or in the woods and fields close to his homes.
The individual wallpaper names speak to these naturalistic designs: Pink & Rose; Marigold; Rose; Wild Tulip; Daisy; Fruit; Michaelmas Daisy; and others. Other designs were named after nearby rivers: the Wandle; Medway, Evenlode and Cray – all with meandering, diagonal designs.
Morris primarily had his wallpapers printed by hand, using carved pear-wood blocks. Jeffrey & Co. was the printer for many of Morris & Co.’s wallpapers, and they continued printing Morris papers until 1940, when Morris’ firm went into liquidation.
Though Morris primarily had his wallpapers hand-printed using pear-wood blocks, he occasionally used a surface print machine. Today, almost all Morris-designed wallpapers are printed using these machines, which came into popularity c1884, and are not widely used today. Surface print machines give an unparalleled texture and finish to historic wallpapers.
The main distinction of Morris’ designs was the flat, stylized nature of his patterns. Other wallpaper and fabric of the Victorian period would have tried to imitate the full-blown roundness of a rose for example, with careful shading and colouring. Morris dispensed with all that, and drew patterns that were more like Japanese wood-block designs, with a certain formality in structure, but with an informal subject matter and overall design. Morris’ designs were also carefully worked out to make a visually pleasing repeats when covering a wall.