I was blown away by the charm and beauty of the May Morris exhibition at the Willliam Morris Gallery in Walthamstow back in 2017/18, so when I heard there was a chance of it coming up to Edinburgh’s wonderful Dovecot Studios for 2019/20 I was hopeful that we might be able to have a celebratory event at Marchmont, that piggybacked on this remarkable opportunity – exploring May Morris’s hidden talents and the broader inspiration to be found in arts & crafts Textiles. I have to pinch myself that this event is now over and to bathe in the memories of a gathering that left me with a warm glow, filled with inspirations and new friends in a fascinating industry.
I’m writing this article for Arts & Crafts Tours, because Elaine and the team have not only been a great supporter of Marchmont, coming to stay with guests, but were also a kind sponsor of this event that was extremely special to me, so it feels appropriate to have a little summary of the event to share and encourage us to do more events in future (we have an Inspiring Women Artists event on 25th April, which is also being kindly supported).
What I found gripping about May Morrris’s work were the themes of taking inspiration from nature, reveling in charming beauty and on the way the work helped build community – like in so much of the arts and crafts movement, albeit this seemed to be an area of under-told stories that really personified the very best of this tradition.
At Marchmont, it’s our goal to make a home to makers and creators, celebrating the power of creativity to inspire us today. So, the format of the event really drew on the story of May Morris and some historic context with remarkable speakers that we were privileged to have, but also share stories of people in the industry today, where parallels could be drawn with the best of the values of the arts and crafts movement.
It’s hard to summarize the day, as there was so much to digest, learn and share, but here goes some personal highlights. Firstly, it was clear from Dr Margaretta Frederick – Chief Curator of the Delaware Arts Museum and all that we can see at Dovecot, that May Morris was even more of a hero than we could imagine – a remarkable designer and an accomplished embroiderer (something neither her Father or Mother could do both of), a loyal daughter responsible for carrying the flame of her more famous father, a campaigner, teacher, lecturer, writer and social entrepreneur of the first order. A polymath and powerhouse, singularly responsible for the Morris and a broader arts and crafts legacy today. Her use of nature for inspiration exceeded that of her father, typified by the realism of her Honeysuckle design, whilst her work is undeniably heart-warming beautiful and her sense of community purpose absolutely clear. She provided an inspiring anchor for our themes of nature, beauty and community at the heart of our event.
We were further stimulated with historic context by experts Dr Lynn Hulse, Mary Schoeser and Joseph Sharples, bringing alive a stunning and often overlooked tradition.
We were thankful for the partnership with Dovecot Studios, whose story and links to Morris & Co was relayed by Kate Grenyer, the Curator of the May Morris exhibition and we were treated to a film and demonstration which captured the beauty of tapestry making today.
There was an opportunity to drink in, not only the permanent collection at Marchmont with expert eyes and knowledge, including works by May Morris herself, Robert Lorimer, Alexander Mortin & Co, but also temporary displays by Morag Macpherson, who showed her arts and crafts kimono, Ernest Gimson’s rare embroidery – courtesy of Barley Roscoe, local but internationally known quilt maker Pauline Burbidge as well as the stunning capes made by Lou Gardiner.
We were treated to an enchanting and stunning visual journey of embroidery, design and a fair sprinkling of musical celebrity with Paul Reeves. A lot of “oohs” and “ahhs”, as Paul shared his fabulous creations and collections that have spanned a remarkable career in this industry.
Our gatherings have been growing in popularity with a special mix of collectors, enthusiasts, academics, curators, auctioneers and makers, but one special element for me is hearing today’s stories that continue the traditions of the past. We were spoiled with a range of inspiring stories that all seem to embrace elements of re-creating an arts and crafts movement today.
Local award winning social entrepreneur Hazel Smith of re-tweed, brought us down to earth with the realities of using craft to support those in need, showing how making can be good for you and society. Often the arts and crafts movement can be criticized for being hypocritical – originally espousing the values of socialism but making things for rich folk, so this was a welcome perspective on the value work of textiles at the heart of a social enterprise. Similarly, Lou Gardiner told of her remarkable story in making the Cape of Empowerment and then the Cape of Clouds, seeing how her work could embrace the hopes and dreams of those who could wear her items, contribute to its creation and the visual impact it had on bringing inspiration to people.
In a different but equally inspiring way Andrew Crummy, the designer of The Great Tapestry of Scotland, told of how he embraced the power of community to help make works in a way that has started an unimaginable movement of creation and bringing together, that it is hard to keep pace with. His awe and humility at the building of the new building for the Great Tapestry of Scotland was a special moment to behold. And it was also very special to have local Pauline Burbidge share her patient quilt making journey and works at Allabank Mill Steading, which is inspired by nature, experimentation and by a growing community that comes back each year for their internationally renown open Studios. It was literally a joy, to have remarkable stories that seem to epitomize the values of the arts and crafts movement – creating real beauty through community and nature. It was hard not to have goose-bumps, energized and feel inspired.
A theme we have been exploring at Marchmont is the need for a new arts and crafts movement today, to balance a rapidly changing word of technology – in a similar way to during the industrial revolution – and that movement felt very much alive at this event. Textiles, like the story of May Morris are under-celebrated and often over-looked, but there are stories to persuade us that we should pay more attention to them and embrace their magic, their beauty and their potential for new legacies.
A huge thanks to the support of our attendees, speakers, partners – Dovecot Studios and The William Morris Gallery and our sponsors – Arts and Crafts Tours and Lyon & Turnbull for helping make this event happen.
We’d love to welcome you to Marchmont House in the future to explore how creativity, especially in the arts and crafts mold, can help inspire design, society and our aspirations.