Friday 10 May 2013

William's Daughter

Last year was 150th Anniversary of the birth of an important figure in Arts and Craft, yet there was no national celebration or exhibition of her work.  She worked tirelessly to promote skills and style, her work admired by millions every year in museums like the V&A, yet 75 years after her death, who can feel they know her?  Mind you, when your mother is Jane Morris, you are obviously blessed with elusive genes.

La Ghirlandata (1871-74) D G Rossetti (May posed for the angel)
Because my forthcoming novel (I love the term 'forthcoming', it sounds like I'm positive about its fate) is about Alexa Wilding, a portion of it is set at Kelmscott, so obviously I had to write about May Morris.  I immediately wrote her as a truculent and precocious child who believes she is an adult despite being trapped in a child's body. However, what we know of May seems to be conflicting and difficult.  She was dull, she was a tomboy, she had affairs with famous men, she was a secret lesbian, she was difficult and unpleasant, she was loved by many people.  So what do we know about May?

Jane and May Morris (c.1864)
Mary 'May' Morris was born on 25th March 1862 at the Red House in Bexleyheath, named 'Mary' as she was born on the Feast of the Annunciation, yet she seemed to always be called 'May'.  Her sister Jenny had been born 14 month beforehand, and for a while the home was described as a happy one.  Thinking about it, May's birth came so hard on the heels of Elizabeth Siddal's death, you wonder if the Morris' retreated into a little domestic cocoon to cope with the bereavement of their friend and the destruction of the 'domestic bliss' Morris' mentor had strived to maintain.  Just as Elizabeth and her baby left this world, then along came May.

May Morris (1870s) Robert Faulkner & Co
May and her sister was beautiful little girls, and they started a lifetime of 'posing' at an early age.  It actually astonished me when assembling the images for this piece just how many pictures of May there are.  What saddened me was how few there were of Jenny, brutally cut off after 1876, with scarce few after.  In a way, I expect the pictures of May and Jenny probably didn't seem odd as their mother was a model, so regularly recorded at this point, so their appearance on film and canvas possibly seemed part of normal life.

May Morris (1872) D G Rossetti
May Morris D G Rossetti
Rossetti started using Jane as a model again in 1865, when May was 3, but the relationship between the artist and the little girl really developed in 1871.  When Rossetti came to Kelmscott in the absence of their father, he took on a very complicated role for the two sisters.  See, there I go again, 'complicated'.  We know that the two years the odd 'family' lived together in the Cotswolds were happy for May, but became increasing difficult for Jane and Rossetti.  I have heard Rossetti's relationship with May described as a factor in Jane's eventual break with him in 1876, but I think it most likely that May loved Rossetti like everyone else seemed to.  I have never felt the hint of anything else, anything improper in their relationship.  The paintings he did of her from this time are so beautiful and reflect the sweet little girl from the Faulkner photograph of the same period.

May and Jenny Morris (1860s) George Howard
The Burne-Jones and Morris children (1874)
The girls started school in 1874 and both Jenny and May showed promise, as was expected.  Then in 1876 everything changed for the family. Jane broke ties with Rossetti and following a boating accident, Jenny developed epilepsy.  From their recording of the illness that befell their sweet girl, it's obvious that the whole family found Jenny's seizures to be terrifying and deeply depressing.  It affected Jane very much, had a terrible effect on William's health, so it can only be guessed at how much it devastated May.  That year she lost Rossetti, her sister (as she knew her) and the happiness of her mother and father.  If she changed, then I would think 1876 would have been a strong contributing factor.

May Morris (late 1870s) Unknown Photographer
May was taught to embroider by her mother and Aunt Bessie Burden (who had been taught by William).  She was excellent at it and applied herself with dedication worthy of her parents.  It would be easy to speculate that the time she spent embroidering was an escape the troubles at home, and the time she spent with her mother, sister and aunt over the embroidery frames helped both of all concentrate on something other than her sister's failing health.  In 1885, at the age of 23, May became the director of the embroidery department at Morris & Co.

Maids of Honour (1900) May Morris
In 1884, May joined the Social Democratic Federation in Hammersmith where her father was already a forthright member and by the end of the year, father and daughter broke from the Federation to form the Socialist League. It is believed that potential suitors for William Morris' intelligent daughter were put off by the spector of her sister's illness, and May herself worried that she would develop epilepsy (which her grandmother and, to an extent, her father showed traces of).  In the midst of all this came a potential lover for May, George Bernard Shaw...

Hello Ladies, it's George Bernard Phoar!
GBS declared a 'mystic betrothal' with 23 year old May but didn't get round to proposing and let May hang on, waiting for him to go through with his promise.  To many, it could have seemed that May was to remain as solitary as her sister, and it appears that May is even detached from the other bright young women descending the Golden Stairs to womanhood in Burne-Jones' 1880 painting...

May is on the right, full length, with the violin

In an act of defiance, May took up with Henry Halliday Sparling, an impoverished member of the Socialist League. Both her parents were against it, as Lily Yeats, an employee (and member of the poetic Yeats family) recorded in her Scrapbooks.  As she saw him, Sparling was 'the queerest looking young man, very tall, thin, chin and very large spectacles.'  In a flurry of doom-professising and opposition, May and Henry married in 1890.

May Morris, Henry Halliday Sparling, Emery Walker and GBS
Is it just me or is Sparling giving GBS the evils?  Anyway, the marriage was not a success, cemented by the fact that Shaw moved in with the couple in 1892 and allegedly had an affair with May.  The couple remained married until 1898, but Shaw's intervention ended it in all but name.  After the death of her father in 1896, May and Sparling divorced but Shaw did not marry his lover, instead marrying a wealthy woman, Charlotte Payne Townshend.

May Morris, 1897
The winter after her father's death, May joined her mother on a trip to Cairo with Wilfrid Blunt and his wife (living proof that Jane didn't have a leg to stand on when judging her daughter on her choice of men).  Possibly the death of her father, despite being a terrible blow, set May free.  She left Morris & Co and became a freelance designer, embroiderer and teacher, writing articles on historical embroidery and acting as an adviser for colleges setting up embroidery courses.  Her work was central to the Arts and Craft movement, she not only brought the legacy of her father, but also her own talent.  Without May, there would not be this iconic design...

Honeysuckle II (1883) May Morris

May and her mother and sister continued to live at Kelmscott Manor, her sister's condition not getting very much worse but no better, and as her mother aged it must have seemed to May that she was a little trapped by the invalids in her life.  It is hardly surprising that when May went on a lecture tour of the United States, she had an affair with the lawyer and art collector, John Quinn....

John Quinn (1913).  Get a look at his horse....
May worked tirelessly, editing her father's writings, which must have been a mammoth task both physically and intellectually.  The collection of these literary, artistic and political works amounted to 24 volumes, published by Longmans in 1915, a year after her mother's death.  Jane purchased Kelmscott Manor just before her death, possibly in an attempt to safeguard her daughter's home for them...

May, before 1921
The First World War brought a Land Girl to Kelmscott, who moved into the Manor as May's companion.  After the War ended, Miss Lobb remained at Kelmscott Manor with May.

May and Miss Lobb
I'll get to Miss Lobb in a minute, but the remaining 18 years of May's life were enthusiastically spent in village life.  May commissioned a pair of cottages in her mother's memory and later, a Village Hall which was completed in 1934 and opened by George Bernard Shaw.  Jenny died in 1935, only a couple of years before her sister.  Miss Lobb was not only May's companion but also a buffer between her and her sister's illness.  It would be nice to think that the three of them were finally content.  In the summer of 1924, May and Miss Lobb travelled in her father's footsteps to Iceland.

May Morris, 1924, Iceland

May and Miss Lobb lived together happily for the rest of May's life. Miss Lobb was something of a figure of fun, comedic in appearance and bluff in manner.  I am reminded somewhat of William Morris, rounded and jolly, and maybe that is what struck May too.  As to whether or not May and Miss Lobb were lovers, who cares?  At least she got to be happy.

The intimacy of this picture of May reading in bed
may have caused speculation over the women's relationship
May died in 1938, leaving Kelmscott Manor to Oxford University.  Miss Lobb died in the Spring of 1939.  There are stories involving brandy and a pistol, her dramatic suicide in despair over her lover's death, but Jan Marsh sensibly cites heart disease, rather than a grand cover up by Oxford University.  If you think about it, May's Will would have made her lover homeless which would have been quite heartless, unless Miss Lobb was not aware of her failing health.  I think possibly Miss Lobb was deeply affected by her friend's death and this may have contributed to her own death.  Mind you, the brandy and pistol story is rather exciting, but steady on, this is the Cotswolds...

May Morris (1886) Frederick Hollyer
May is a heroine of the Arts and Crafts movement who deserves more exposure than she gets.  It was great to see a celebration of her life at Kelmscott last year, and to see her work on a stamp in the Britons of Distinction series, but it still seems we know her first and foremost as William's Daughter.  Well, yes she is, and that's why she delivered so much.

Maybe one day William will be know as May Morris' Dad....


  1. Dear Kirsty
    This was a really fascinating post. I have become very interested in the children of the Pre-Raphaelites and have been collecting books about them recently. I really enjoyed the book 'Three Houses' by Burne-Jones' granddaughter and have also got the book on Jane and May Morris by Jan Marsh. I don't think I have seen all these photos though. Thank you for sharing.
    Best wishes

  2. What a wonderful and illuminating post! I've long been curious about May and Jenny.

  3. I've often thought that May was one of those women who are strong and who people naturally gravitate towards. Jane was as well. If you look at them and what they do you cannot always understand the attraction but when you meet them you find them fascinating. It has nothing to do with beauty or wealth or talent... just a charisma. I always thought her jaw was a bit too strong for me but she had very fine eyes. I love the photo of her and her husband with unknown gent and Shaw. look how strong she sits - she leans into the group of men - her posture is quite authoritative. She might have been somewhat unhappy but she grew from it rather than allowing it to overcome her. Thank you for the thoughts.

  4. Thank you, m'dears. For more images of May (and there are a lot!) take a look at the National Portrait Gallery's collection.

    I have to say that Shaw's 'mystic betrothal' makes me shake my head in despair...

  5. oh my goodness... "honeysuckle" at 21? she was so gifted. what other m&co patterns did she design?

  6. Can anyone add to May's personal life? Did she have any children?

  7. No, sadly she didn't have any children and neither did Jenny so the line died with them.

    The V&A would be a jolly fine place to look for further examples of May's work.

    Thanks for the comments.

  8. Many thanks for this wonderful post on our beloved May! I have just finished reviewing May Morris: Arts and Crafts Designer for the PRS Review.


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx