May Morris: Art and Life (4 stars)

May Morris: Art and Life

credit: John Preece

Landmark exhibition exploring the life and work of one of the most significant artists of the British Arts and Crafts movement

May Morris was most commonly referred to as the daughter of William Morris, but the new exhibition at Dovecot demonstrates that she was an artist in her own right, with a practice that transcended her role as head of embroidery at the family business, Morris & Co.

Although embroidery is the most prominent medium in her oeuvre, designs for book covers, an altar covering, clothing, jewellery and accessories prove that she was adept in many aspects of design and art-making.

Nature was an integral source of inspiration for the Arts and Crafts movement she was part of, and indeed for Morris & Co., but Morris' personal affinity for the natural world is evident in her early watercolour paintings of the English countryside and places she visited further afield, which are displayed here alongside her travel journals and sketchbooks. The exhibition emphasises her later work, produced after she left the family business. It is here that her own artistic style really shines through. Nature remains the primary referent, but Morris also refers to Celtic, Persian and Ottoman decorative schemes, resulting in more intricate, busier compositions, with brighter colours than those of the muted Morris & Co. designs.

The inclusion of her designs, often alongside the fully-realised object, gives a sense of her process, which is especially useful for understanding the complexity of embroidery and textile design. Whilst many of her designs still had a functional purpose, her move away from Morris & Co. challenged the notion that embroidery was a purely decorative, domestic medium, and May's varied body of work demonstrates precisely why it should be viewed as a fine art.

Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh, until Sat 14 Mar.

May Morris: Art And Life

An overview of the work of May Morris (1862-1938), younger daughter of William Morris and one of the central figures of the Arts and Crafts movement.

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