Bringing the garden indoors: how nature inspired William Morris

Jacq Barber, Assistant Editor, Curatorial Content Online Jacq Barber Assistant Editor, Curatorial Content Online

A new exhibition at Standen house and garden in West Sussex explores how nature inspired the work of William Morris (1834-1896).

More than any other British designer of the decorative arts, Morris brought the natural world indoors through the many wallpapers and textiles he produced during his lifetime. He drew on countryside and hedgerow plants to populate his patterns and he looked to old-fashioned flowers from the garden to inform his designs.

Discover how Morris helped transform interior decoration in late Victorian Britain and made a lasting impact on garden design into the 20th century.

Some of Morris’s favourite plants are on show in the Conservatory at Standen during the exhibition
The Conservatory at Standen, where some of Morris's favourite plants will be on show during the exhibition
Some of Morris’s favourite plants are on show in the Conservatory at Standen during the exhibition
Morris & Co. Inspired by Nature at Standen Exhibition details

Some of William Morris's designs

A childhood love of nature

A love of the natural world can be traced back to William Morris’s childhood. The son of a wealthy broker, he grew up exploring the large gardens at his family home, Woodford Hall in Essex and the nearby woods on the edge of Epping Forest. Along with his siblings, he was given his own garden plot. From a young age he enjoyed reading and the Morris family library was another source of inspiration. Among his favourite books was a copy of John Gerard's 'The Herball' or 'Generall Historie of Plantes', which was first published in 1597. It remained a much-loved reference book throughout his life.

Illustrated page showing balsam mint from John Gerard’s ‘The Herball’ or ‘Generall Historie of Plantes'. In the collection at Springhill, County Londonderry, Northern Ireland
Morris
Illustrated page showing balsam mint from John Gerard’s ‘The Herball’ or ‘Generall Historie of Plantes'. In the collection at Springhill, County Londonderry, Northern Ireland

Morris's experimental house and garden

In 1860, Morris moved into Red House in Bexleyheath with his new wife Jane Burden. The house was designed for him by his friend, the architect Philip Webb and became a creative centre for Morris’s circle of artist friends. Sited within an acre of orchard, the garden at Red House was as significant to Morris as the house and interior. Morris was drawn to native species and those that had been in cultivation for centuries, such as lilies, larkspur, tulips, irises and hollyhocks and chose fragrant climbers including roses, honeysuckle and jasmine.

Inspired by intimate medieval gardens or ‘herbers’, enclosed and filled with sweet-scented flowers and herbs, Morris created an astonishingly original garden at Red House. It included a large square garden, subdivided into four smaller squares, hedged with wild roses and wattle fence. 

There are no surviving images of how the garden at Red House, Bexleyheath, looked when the Morrises lived there. Contemporary accounts described a garden unlike any other of the period
There are no surviving images of how the garden at Red House looked when the Morrises lived there but contemporary accounts describe a garden unlike any other of the period.
There are no surviving images of how the garden at Red House, Bexleyheath, looked when the Morrises lived there. Contemporary accounts described a garden unlike any other of the period
" The house and its garden were designed as complementary parts of a world all of its own."
- Tessa Wild, ‘William Morris & his Palace of Art’ at Red House

Going against the fashion

In the mid-19th century, the fashion in British gardens was for tropical and tender plants, grown in new state-of-the-art glasshouses for the first time. Showy annuals such as begonias, lobelias, ageratum, coleus and petunias were sometimes tightly packed to make intricate patterns known as carpet bedding.

Morris's ideas were in stark contrast to these prevailing fashions. He believed in the unity of house and garden, using native and long established garden plants and natural materials, such as stone and wood. These became hallmarks of the Arts and Crafts gardens which followed at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

A new approach to garden design

Some of Morris's favourite plants

 

" It is impossible to imitate nature literally; the utmost realism of the most realistic painter falls a long way short of it. "

Designing with nature

Morris took a new approach in the way he used natural forms in his designs. He understood plants intimately but never copied them literally.  He didn’t think it was possible or desirable to imitate nature. He believed that patterns should have ‘beauty, imagination and order,’ using these principles across all his work. His first wallpapers were inspired by his own garden as well as depictions of plants in Renaissance paintings and wall hangings.

From plants to patterns


The origins of Morris & Co.


William Morris’s frustration at being unable to find furnishings to his taste led him to design his own. An exasperation with the state of British manufactured goods was another impetus for the establishment of an interior decoration business in 1861. His circle of friends, many already involved with Red House, contributed to the firm which eventually became Morris & Co.

By the 1870s, Morris's designs were being recommended in domestic advice manuals, the interior decoration magazines of their day. His wallpapers and textiles used hand-cut and printed woodblocks, and other fabrics were hand-embroidered or woven on traditional looms. This made them expensive to make and buy. Typical Morris & Co. clients were families like the Manders at Wightwick Manor and the Beales at Standen. Both were drawn from the prosperous middle classes, with an interest in the arts, who used Morris & Co. designs to furnish their often newly built, fashionable homes.

Artistic taste in home decoration

Early wallpapers

Woven with flowers


Morris had a life-long love of textiles. He began modestly, designing simple embroideries, but by the end of his life he was making complex tapestries. Pattern names, whether for wallpaper or fabrics, often reflect his love of plants.

Embroideries were his first foray into commercial production and proved popular with clients once Morris & Co. became established. Clients could buy embroidery kits, with the pattern printed on the fabric, for embroidering at home. These would then be made up into cushion covers, portières and fire screens.
 

Detail of a silk embroidered hanging in the intricate ‘Artichoke’ pattern, worked by Margaret Beale and her three eldest daughters in the 1890s at Standen
Detail of a silk embroidered hanging in the intricate ‘Artichoke’ pattern, worked by Margaret Beale and her three eldest daughters in the 1890s at Standen
Detail of a silk embroidered hanging in the intricate ‘Artichoke’ pattern, worked by Margaret Beale and her three eldest daughters in the 1890s at Standen

Colours to dye for

Morris not only drew plants, he also used them in dyes for his wallpapers and textiles. He rejected the recently introduced artificial colours made from coal tar, considering it ‘one of the most useless inventions of modern chemistry.’

Instead he chose to return to natural dyes derived from plants, such as madder (red) and weld (yellow), obtaining a 15th-century French dye book from his friend Dante Gabriel Rossetti. One of his biggest challenges was dyeing with indigo which he proclaimed to be ‘the only real blue dye.’ He wrote about his arms and hands being stained blue from his experiments with large vats of the colour. 

Blue birds

Still inspired by nature

By the early decades of the 20th century, William Morris’s designs seemed overly ornate and unfashionable to many consumers. Fortunately, his decorative schemes survived at places such as Standen, Speke Hall and Wightwick Manor, where they can still be appreciated in their original setting. 
 
Despite the fickleness of fashion, Morris’s celebration of nature and his skill at rendering it in pattern continue to resonate. Morris & Co. now produce his designs for 21st-century home owners, almost 160 years after he founded the original company.