‘I’m a remarkable woman – always was, though none of you seemed to think so,’ wrote May Morris to former lover George Bernard Shaw in 1936, just a few years before her death. This uncharacteristic assessment of her life nevertheless captures the frustration of many modern scholars and enthusiasts of her work: overshadowed by her famous father and other well-known male contemporaries, May’s extraordinary oeuvre, and life, has been neglected, until quite recently.
May was born in 1862, to Jane and William Morris. Both of her parents were intensely creative: by the time of his daughter’s birth, William Morris had already established himself as the father of the British Arts and Crafts movement, and was about to set up Morris & Co., a small-scale business specialising in design and decoration; May’s mother Jane was a talented embroiderer. Together with her older sister Jenny and a close-knit group of friends, family and outworkers, May was surrounded by artistic circles practising craft work and skills that would inspire and influence her own work, including paintings, sketches and embroidery, as well as designs for wallpapers, book covers, dress, costume and metalwork.
Following an unconventional Victorian childhood, which combined formal school studies with a strong emphasis on exploring the great outdoors, May developed a love of nature, and in particular, wildlife and flowers, which would inform her work as an embroiderer and a designer in later years. After studying at the National Art Training School (which would later become the Royal College of Art), May joined the family firm, as head of the embroidery department at Morris & Co., aged just 23. Her work became synonymous with the designs of the era: Honeysuckle, often assumed to have been designed by her father, is one of the most popular wallpapers produced by Morris & Co., and can still be bought today.