pages 26-27 pages 30-31 

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English, designed in 1884

During a prolific career spanning the period in which nineteenth-century England was overtaken by industrialization, William Morris (1834-1896) promoted an alternate vision of life and art. The textiles Morris designed at his workshops possess an exuberant aesthetic poised, at the time of their creation, between earlier textile traditions and a modern sensibility.

Cray, a furnishing fabric requiring thirty-four wood blocks to print, was designed by Morris in 1884 and the successful pattern was continually produced over a period of decades in numerous colorways. With its combination of sinuous lines, delicate vines and robust blossoms, Cray fulfills Morris’s dictum that:

… in all patterns which are meant to fill the eye and satisfy the mind, there should be a certain mystery. We should not be able to read the whole thing at once, nor desire to do so, nor be impelled by that desire to go on tracing line after line to find out how the pattern is made, and I think that the obvious presence of a geometrical order, if it be, as it should be, beautiful, tends towards this end, and prevents our feeling restless over a pattern. (William Morris, Hopes and Fears for Art, 1882)

In 1881, when Morris began manufacturing textiles at Merton Abbey in Surrey, his desire was a return to centuries-old methods of dyeing and printing on fabric. The invention of the first aniline dye in 1856 was soon followed by many other colors. While the English textile industry quickly adopted this technological development, Morris preferred to use natural dyes—indigo, madder, woad—and carved wooden blocks for his handcrafted prints. A page from the Merton Abbey Dye book, 1882-91, provides the formulas for the dyes used to produce the coloration of Cray seen here (William Morris by himself, ed. Gillian Naylor (1996), p. 128). The printing blocks for Cray are at the William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow, England.

Printed on the selvedge of this example of Cray is the address of William Morris’s London showroom, “Morris & Company 449 Oxford Street London W.” Originally numbered 264 when the shop opened in 1877, the address was changed in 1882 to number 449. Thus, this panel can be dated between 1884 when Morris introduced the pattern, and 1917 when the showroom moved to another London location.

Morris’s intensive studies of methods for dyeing with natural pigments resulted in the rich colors achieved by his craftsmen at Merton Abbey. As seen here, the colors of the fabric survive in the saturated and vibrant hues produced when it was originally printed. This large example of Cray, with two full selvedge widths joined together, was probably part of a suite of furnishings for an Arts and Crafts interior. Morris’s artisanal choices, his rejection of industrially made furnishings and his determined, hands-on approach to changing the aesthetics, and the intellectual processes, of design influenced the decoration of late nineteenth-century English houses.

See: William Morris, ed. Linda Parry (1996), p. 268. A matching curtain of Cray is in the collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

150” H x 70” W (detail shown)

Cray printed cotton by William Morris
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