Oscar Wilde – Mr. Morris or Tapestry

(Pall Mall Gazette, November 2, 1888.)

Yesterday evening Mr. William Morris delivered a most interesting and fascinating lecture on Carpet and Tapestry Weaving at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition now held at the New Gallery.  Mr. Morris had small practical models of the two looms used, the carpet loom where the weaver sits in front of his work; the more elaborate tapestry loom where the weaver sits behind, at the back of the stuff, has his design outlined on the upright threads and sees in a mirror the shadow of the pattern and picture as it grows gradually to perfection.  He spoke at much length on the question of dyes—praising madder and kermes for reds, precipitate of iron or ochre for yellows, and for blue either indigo or woad.  At the back of the platform hung a lovely Flemish tapestry of the fourteenth century, and a superb Persian carpet about two hundred and fifty years old.  Mr. Morris pointed out the loveliness of the carpet—its delicate suggestion of hawthorn blossom, iris and rose, its rejection of imitation and shading; and showed how it combined the great quality of decorative design—being at once clear and well defined in form: each outline exquisitely traced, each line deliberate in its intention and its beauty, and the whole effect being one of unity, of harmony, almost of mystery, the colours being so perfectly harmonised together and the little bright notes of colour being so cunningly placed either for tone or brilliancy.

Tapestries, he said, were to the North of Europe what fresco was to the South—our climate, amongst other reasons, guiding us in our choice of material for wall-covering.  England, France, and Flanders were the three great tapestry countries—Flanders with its great wool trade being the first in splendid colours and superb Gothic design.  The keynote of tapestry, the secret of its loveliness, was, he told the audience, the complete filling up of every corner and square inch of surface with lovely and fanciful and suggestive design.  Hence the wonder of those great Gothic tapestries where the forest trees rise in different places, one over the other, each leaf perfect in its shape and colour and decorative value, while in simple raiment of beautiful design knights and ladies wandered in rich flower gardens, and rode with hawk on wrist through long green arcades, and sat listening to lute and viol in blossom-starred bowers or by cool gracious water springs.  Upon the other hand, when the Gothic feeling died away, and Boucher and others began to design, they gave us wide expanses of waste sky, elaborate perspective, posing nymphs and shallow artificial treatment.  Indeed, Boucher met with scant mercy at Mr. Morris’s vigorous hands and was roundly abused, and modern Gobelins, with M. Bougereau’s cartoons, fared no better.

Mr. Morris told some delightful stories about old tapestry work from the days when in the Egyptian tombs the dead were laid wrapped in picture cloths, some of which are now in the South Kensington Museum, to the time of the great Turk Bajazet who, having captured some Christian knights, would accept nothing for their ransom but the ‘storied tapestries of France’ and gerfalcons.  As regards the use of tapestry in modern days, he pointed out that we were richer than the middle ages, and so should be better able to afford this form of lovely wall-covering, which for artistic tone is absolutely without rival.  He said that the very limitation of material and form forced the imaginative designer into giving us something really beautiful and decorative.  ‘What is the use of setting an artist in a twelve-acre field and telling him to design a house?  Give him a limited space and he is forced by its limitation to concentrate, and to fill with pure loveliness the narrow surface at his disposal.’  The worker also gives to the original design a very perfect richness of detail, and the threads with their varying colours and delicate reflections convey into the work a new source of delight.  Here, he said, we found perfect unity between the imaginative artist and the handicraftsman.  The one was not too free, the other was not a slave.  The eye of the artist saw, his brain conceived, his imagination created, but the hand of the weaver had also its opportunity for wonderful work, and did not copy what was already made, but re-created and put into a new and delightful form a design that for its perfection needed the loom to aid, and had to pass into a fresh and marvellous material before its beauty came to its real flower and blossom of absolutely right expression and artistic effect.  But, said Mr. Morris in conclusion, to have great work we must be worthy of it.  Commercialism, with its vile god cheapness, its callous indifference to the worker, its innate vulgarity of temper, is our enemy.  To gain anything good we must sacrifice something of our luxury—must think more of others, more of the State, the commonweal: ‘We cannot have riches and wealth both,’ he said; we must choose between them.

The lecture was listened to with great attention by a very large and distinguished audience, and Mr. Morris was loudly applauded.

The next lecture will be on Sculpture by Mr. George Simonds, and if it is half so good as Mr. Morris it will well repay a visit to the lecture-room.  Mr. Crane deserves great credit for his exertions in making this exhibition what it should be, and there is no doubt but that it will exercise an important and a good influence on all the handicrafts of our country.

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