The Art of Wallpaper—Morris & Co. at Dovecot Studios | Review

Dovecot explores and celebrates the Victorian pioneer of the paper



On what was a snowy Thursday morning in Edinburgh, I headed indoors to Dovecot Studios for their latest exhibition: The Art of WallpaperMorris & Co, which showcases the legacy of William Morris (1834-1896), one of the most influential pattern designers in British history.


Morris, who has become a household name since the Victorian period, is a figure whose patterns have always interested me. His intricate and bountiful displays of foliage, influenced by the medieval period, breathe such character that transcend historical constraints, reaching into the modern day.


Curator Mary Schoeser ensures visitors understand the legacy of these designs which continue to be a part of homes after nearly two centuries of their introduction. This can be seen via the displays of furniture decorated with Morris patterns.


While Dovecot excellently conveys Morris’ unique style, a merit to the exhibition is that it encompasses the various styles from periods that influenced Morris. As visitors make their way around the framed patterns, they are part of an evolution from the ornate French style of wallpaper to the gothic reform movement in designers such as Pugin, who advocated: ‘Honesty and propriety’.


Arguably, most importantly, in terms of Morris’ main influence is that of the Japanese leather paper style of ‘kin-karakami’, which Schoeser introduces right before the main focus of the exhibition, clearly citing Morris’s distinct inspiration from it.


As visitors turn the corner of the display panels, reaching the Morris & Co section, the palette completely changes as visitors are met with the green tones of Morris’ portrayal of nature. Morris’ affluent upbringing was instrumental in his passion for forests, gardens and flowers, which ‘soon combined with an interest in medievalism.’


His renowned layering technique, where he creates depth without three-dimensional imagery within his patterning, dominates his sense of style and thus propelled him to widespread acclaim, decorating homes of the ‘nouveau riche’ across the country.


Though Morris’ patterning of foliage can prove rather intimidating, particularly with the abundance of the colour green, it is not a strain to notice the labour that went into these complex patterns, witnessed via the large woodblocks for his Chrysanthemum design. These large blocks are crucial to understanding the uniqueness of Morris as visitors stare into the crevices of the block and then turn to the pattern displayed, noticing the intricacy that derives from manual work.


A standout within the collection is the 1877 pattern entitled Rose which features bright orange roses juxtaposed by a white background covered with thorns. It depicts Morris’ interpretation of the medieval rose, symbolising ‘earthly love and beauty’.


If anything Dovecot’s latest exhibition proves that wallpaper is art. An important attribute to this exhibition is that we are not made to view it as simply a collection of historical patterns or Victorian tastes, but under an angle that also recognises its contemporary influence today.


As you leave these Victorian patterns which hold such a legacy, Schoeser depicts the lasting impact of Morris upon the British arts and culture scene, noting: ‘just as old tales can be brought alive through new interpretations, his designs flourish when seen in a new light.’


The exhibition is tremendous in collating Morris’ countless patterns amongst that of his inspirations, which overall contribute to an ode to one of our most influential designers.


The Art of WallpaperMorris & Co at Dovecot Studios, 10 Infirmary Street, Edinburgh runs until the 11th June 2022.


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