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Honeysuckle wallpaper (designed 1883)

During her first three years working for Morris & Co, May Morris designed three wallpapers. ‘Honeysuckle’ was her most popular and enduring pattern and its light and uplifting design proved very successful for the firm. The design is based on a net structure of untamed woody stems, small curling leaves in two tones and honeysuckle flowers set against a plain background and was printed in four colourways.

Questions surround who originally designed ‘Honeysuckle’, with some arguing that May’s father, William Morris was in fact the chief designer of the wallpaper. This is based on its earliest known attribution from 1890 by the writer of an article in The Woman’s World where it was credited to William Morris.However it was not unusual at this time for the designs of both May and Henry Dearle, Morris & Co.’s chief designer, to be credited to the firm’s more famous owner: the association tended to make the products more commercially viable. The first time the design is attributed to May appeared twenty years after The Womans World article in the Morris & Co. wallpaper catalogue from about 1909.

The original design, now in the collection of the William Morris Society provides few clues to help clear up this issue. The paper is watermarked ‘J Whatman 1879’ and shows soft pencil outlines filed with watercolour. Annotated instructions reveal eight woodblocks were required to achieve the finished pattern, which was numbered 6575. On the reverse is written ‘Mr. Morris Esq’ and the address of Merton Abbey. The design is heavily worked over in parts, suggesting that if May was the main designer, as a novice she may have sought extra help, possibly from her father to complete it.

 

Although May was no longer involved with the company by the time of the attribution in the Morris & Co. wallpaper catalogue, given her role in fortifying William Morris’s legacy it would seem unlikely that if indeed her father was the designer, she would have tolerated such a public misattribution. Moreover, given the popularity of the pattern it is notable by its absence from May’s 1936 book William Morris. Artist, Writer, Socialist in which she lists her father’s forty most successful wallpaper designs, adding further weight to the argument that May was indeed the main designer.