Exploring William Morris in Tweets – Reflections on an Online Outreach Adventure

 

Dr. Sarah Mead Leonard recently completed her PhD in art history at the University of Delaware. Her dissertation, “’The beauty of the bough-hung banks’: William Morris in the Thames Landscape,” considers Morris’s inspiratory and industrial relationships with the River Thames and its tributaries. Her research focuses on Victorian and Edwardian landscapes, including designers’ and artists’ interactions with rural and urban spaces, garden history, and the intersections of material culture and ecology.

Twitter: @SMeadLeonard [https://twitter.com/smeadleonard]

 

A little over a year ago, in early spring 2019, I started a new Twitter account. Dubbed Every Morris (@EveryMorris [https://twitter.com/EveryMorris]), it is an ongoing attempt to post a brief thread about every printed fabric and wallpaper pattern produced by Morris & Co. between their founding as Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. in 1861 and their closure in 1940.

The project was an outgrowth of my PhD dissertation research and writing, and like my PhD, it is now nearing its completion – from a list of over 160 patterns, I’m down to the last 15. And with the end in sight, I thought it might be interesting to reflect on both the origins of the project and what I have learned along the way.

Strawberry Thief

[Image: William Morris, Strawberry Thief. Indigo discharge and surface printing on cotton, 1883. Victoria and Albert Museum, T.586-1919]

 

William Morris is one of the most well-known and well-loved figures of the Victorian art world. Enduringly popular, his patterns and those of his fellow designers at Morris & Co. seem to be everywhere these days – printed on fast fashion, hanging on TV and movie set walls, reinterpreted in contemporary art.[1]

Yet, studying Morris & Co. patterns can be surprisingly difficult. Despite their ubiquity and fame, the vast majority of the designs produced by the Firm are under-recorded and under-researched, and even the published information about them can be unclear.[2] This is because – as with most things – the subject is far more complicated than it seems at first glance. Although the name ‘Morris & Co.’ is usually associated directly with William Morris, he was only one of several designers who worked for the Firm. Sometime around 1885 he ceded the role of head designer to John Henry Dearle, who went on to create many of the Firm’s most enduring designs, including Seaweed and Blackthorn – and Leicester, which ornaments the background of the BAVS blog.[3] However, the exact date of transfer is unclear, and on top of that, many Dearle patterns are often misattributed to Morris. (I also believe that this happens with Kate Faulkner’s work for the Firm – but that’s a topic for another time.) And while some patterns are easily dated, some are only identifiable within a vague range. Some don’t even have clear titles, or their names have become confused over time.

Leicester

[Image: J.H. Dearle, Leicester. Wallpaper (distemper colour on paper), early twentieth century. Brooklyn Museum, 71.151.1]

 

Because my dissertation work focused on Morris’s patterns, I found myself building my own database of titles, dates, attributions, and myriad other details. I then began accumulating images of those patterns. At the same time, I was working to mold my training in art historical close looking and ekphrasis to types of objects rarely subjected to those methodologies. I wanted to figure out clear and succinct ways to describe, classify, and interpret Morris & Co. patterns.

My leap from object lists and descriptive writing exercises to Twitter happened on a whim, but once I had thought of it, it seemed so obvious: I had an accumulation of information about 160-odd patterns. I was already collecting images of them all. And I had a desire to look closely at all of them and communicate about them briefly and clearly. Plus, people like Morris & Co., and I like talking about Morris & Co.

I thought working non-chronologically would be more interesting for me and for my audience, so I randomized the list and began. The goal was to post every weekday. That has varied a lot because of outside pressures, but I try to be somewhat consistent, and I have a group of loyal followers that always seem primed to like and retweet my posts.

Each Morris thread always follows a general outline. The first tweet is the tombstone information and an image. It is followed by any clarifications I might need to make about attribution, date, or easily confused patterns. I try to show all the colorway variations I can find. If anything else catches my eye, I will delve into details like botanical motifs depicted, printing methods used, or comparisons with other works from the Firm. I credit all images to their holding institutions and provide links to object pages within their online databases. I also index all of the posts on my website [https://smeadleonard.wordpress.com/everymorris-index/].

thumbnail_Pimpernel

[Image: William Morris, Pimpernel. Wallpaper (distemper colour on paper), 1876. Victoria and Albert Museum, E.499-1919]

 

Going into this project, I knew that Twitter was a useful tool for connecting with fellow academics and museum professionals and sharing the joys of working with objects. I now believe it can also be a useful tool for honing research skills and adapting scholarship for general audiences.

The Every Morris project benefitted my scholarly work almost immediately. I had wanted to improve the precision of my descriptive language and the acuity of my Morrisian eye. My dissertation work of course contributed to both, but not in a directed way. Committing to the Twitter project meant that I was devoting at least a few hours a week to looking at and describing Morris & Co. works. Working in Twitter’s necessarily short form meanwhile forced me to tighten my writing, adapting it for form and audience.

Writing on individual patterns, however briefly, forced me to study each carefully, revealing all sorts of new details. I’m now much more familiar with the breadth of the Firm’s designs and able to name and place most patterns in a date range at a glance. My interpretation of the Firm’s output has also improved as a result of the project – for example, I now recognize how the various Firm-affiliated designers worked within the same general idiom but wielded design elements and botanical motifs in different ways. The work I have done for my Twitter threads has also led me to new research projects, including one about Kathleen Kersey, a little-known twentieth-century Morris & Co. designer.

I’ve gotten so enthusiastic about sharing objects and research on Twitter that I run several side accounts – not just @EveryMorris but also @ScreenMorris [https://twitter.com/ScreenMorris], which focuses on the use of Morris & Co. patterns in set design, and @NiceObjects [https://twitter.com/niceobjects], which is a place to share interesting things I find in the course of my work. With Every Morris winding down, I also have another project in the works which will likely debut in the autumn.

thumbnail_Peony

[Image: Kate Faulkner, Peony. Surface print on cotton, 1877 (printed later). Victoria and Albert Museum, T.587-1919]

 

I know that many scholars feel reluctant to share their research on Twitter. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with feeling protective about some forms of scholarly output – despite years of tweeting about William Morris, I have shared very little about my dissertation or other work I may seek to publish. But Twitter can also be a wonderful venue for other output and outreach.  Even if it’s just writing a brief thread about an interesting object you’ve come across or a particularly enlightening passage of a manuscript, people want to see it – and communicating about it can help us improve our research and our voices as public scholars.

[1] For example, Kehinde Wiley’s use of Morris & Co. patterns as backgrounds to his portraits. His recent series “The Yellow Wallpaper,” depicting women he encountered in Dalston, London, premiered at the William Morris Gallery in January 2020. https://www.wmgallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions-43/kehinde-wiley

[2] The fabrics are much more well-documented than the wallpapers, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Linda Parry at the V&A – see her William Morris Textiles (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2013). In contrast, a large number of the wallpapers remained almost entirely undated and unattributed.

[3] Here’s the Every Morris thread for Leicester: https://twitter.com/EveryMorris/status/1228370750467387393