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Weaving Connections: British designer William Morris’s colonial inspirations

Shailaja Tripathi | Updated on August 11, 2021

Carving out the past: Master block carvers Sriram (foreground) with Ali Hussain block carving at Tharangini Studio in Bengaluru   -  Image courtesy: Studio Carrom

The handcrafted colourful textiles of South Asia appealed immensely to the celebrated 19th-century craftsperson and polymath. A new exhibition of his works highlights these influences

* Morris rejected mechanisation of labour and worked towards restoring dignity and respect to handmade crafts

* Trellis or what we know as (lattice screen) — a seminal feature of Mughal architecture, was one of the first wallpapers designed by Morris after setting up Morris and Co in 1861

* They see it as problematic the way in which South Asian design tends to be exhibited in British Museums as predominantly ‘traditional’ and ‘historic’

***

Even after two centuries, British textile designer William Morris’s art continues to resonate with contemporary audiences. ‘Larkspur’, ‘Willow’, ‘Little Chintz’, ‘Strawberry Thief’ and many more of his designs still embellish country homes and traditional cottages in Britain.

His designs, celebrated as quintessentially British, are in fact, interpretations of a whole gamut of influences absorbed during his lifetime. South Asia figures quite prominently in this spectrum. Distant Fellowship: Morris & South Asia is an ongoing exhibition which looks at his connections with South Asia.

The exhibition curated by a London-Bengaluru based Studio Carrom is on display at Morris’ family home, now known as William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow in London. Run by illustrator Priya Sundaram and graphic designer Nia Thandapani, Studio Carrom is a multi-disciplinary entity which spotlights culture, heritage and art through its work.

The exhibition has resulted from Sundaram and Thandapani’s residency at William Morris Gallery in 2019.

Living in imperialist Britain that had colonised several countries including India and Sri Lanka in South Asia, Morris naturally became aware of the textiles and dyeing traditions of this region.

George Birdwood was considered an authority on Indian art and Morris was deeply impressed with his writings on the subject. Morris also worked as an advisor to the South Kensington Museum (now V&A Museum) that began its innings in 1852 with pieces including Indian textiles shown in the Great exhibition of 1851. The Kashmir shawls, silks, indigo-dyed cottons, carpets and garments would have definitely had an impact on the designer.

“Morris never visited South Asia and his understanding of the region was mediated through the objects he interpreted and through the work and writings of other white men. In contrast, the William Morris Gallery — the setting for our exhibition and Morris’s former home — is today located in the heart of the multicultural borough of Walthamstow. So we were interested in the South Asian influences on Morris, but also very specifically how this particular gallery might bring this narrative into its collection and present it in a way which felt interesting and relevant to the local community,” says Thandapani, who is also a design historian.

The showcase has three parts — installation, contemporary works in dialogue with Morris’s designs, and literature on the subject.

The installation is a reading space that evokes a domestic interior with furnishings upholstered in a fabric called kolam. It is partly inspired by the geometric design of trellis and also draws from the traditional decorative art of kolams — drawn at the entrance of homes. The kolam fabric includes symbols from coriander seeds, symbols of food, parakeets, William Morris Gallery’s ground’s Lloyd park marigolds which were common to Morris’ work and South Asian celebrations.

Riot of colours: The ‘kolam’ fabric is partly inspired by the geometric design of trellis and draws from the traditional decorative art of ‘kolams’ — drawn at the entrance of homes   -  Image courtesy: Studio Carrom

 

The fabric has been designed by Studio Carrom and printed at contemporary block printing studio — Tharangini in Bengaluru.

Other highlights of the space include a planter’s chair with a sling seat in fabric, curtains, floor cushions, a large Ottoman produced by Chester’s — an artisanal furniture maker in Bengaluru, and a hand-woven dhurrie rug. The wood blocks that were used to print the pattern in Tharangini Studio and a short film of the process, are also on view here.

“The pattern which can be seen around the space is composed of elements which can be found in Walthamstow and South Asia, and was inspired by Morris’s trellis,” say the designers.

Trellis or what we know as jali (lattice screen) — a seminal feature of Mughal architecture, was one of the first wallpapers designed by Morris after setting up Morris and Co in 1861. But interestingly, Morris found inspiration for the design in rose trellis in the garden of Red house — his home in Kent. The roses growing on the lattice frames made it to one of his earliest design patterns.

Morris rejected mechanisation of labour and worked towards restoring dignity and respect to handmade crafts. Through his textiles and wallpapers which employed hand-cut woodblocks and natural dyes, Morris practised his beliefs.

The handcrafted textiles of South Asia appealed to his sensibilities. The design vocabulary, contrasting colours and use of natural dyes in Snakeshead, Little Chintz and Indian Diaper is a testimony to this engagement.

The Indian diaper was a cotton block printed with repeating diamond-shaped patterns all over. These geometrical shapes were defined by no straight lines but stems of flowers or leaves.

In Snakeshead, Morris stylised the bell-shaped flowers of Snake’s head plant and made them share space with dramatic motifs and dense foliage of leaves and intertwining vines. In Little Chintz, featuring pomegranates and other motifs — made in collaboration with a significant dyer of the times, Thomas Wardle — was an effort to understand Indian Indigo dyeing techniques.

The designer, who was a leading figure in the Arts and Crafts movement, was also impressed by Indigo dyeing in India. The Strawberry Thief, an iconic design for textiles that depict thrushes stealing strawberries, employed the Indigo discharge dyeing technique method, prevalent in South Asia.

The second part of the section has art works by eight designers, artistes and architects in a dialogue with Morris’ work across nine gallery rooms. The artists have considered an object from the collection and the connection it has for them with South Asia.

Artiste and curator Vasundhara Sellamuthu has done a contemporary take on kavad — hand-painted portable shrine that is part of the storytelling tradition in Rajasthan — which has been co-created with local residents.

Architect Shahed Saleem has come up with architectural maquettes that are in response to the ad-hoc architecture found across East London. A wallpaper design by designer and illustrator Shehzil Malik; a contemporary woodblock by Studio Carrom, a mass-produced textile made for IKEA by Kangan Arora; graphic designer Rathna Ramanathan’s book cover design featuring an ornate Tamil initial letter from a historic publication; riso printed publications by Sofia Niazi and Aleesha Nandhra and a hand-spun brass masala box by product designer brand Tiipoi.

In any case, Morris’s engagement with South Asia never received the attention it deserved and for Studio Carrom, the story is incomplete sans this aspect.

Thinking about the way Morris never interacted with South Asian artisans, the duo wanted to bring the artisans, their process, and their work back into the gallery with due acknowledgement. “This is what inspired the reading space, which also features the original blocks the pattern was made with and a film about the carving and printing process,” they say.

The third part of the exhibition are booklets that locate new works in the historical context of Morris’s engagement with South Asia; an alternative guide to the gallery featuring insights from nine artistes with connections to South Asia; and a small selection of reference books that influenced the project.

The designers also intend to address another issue through Distant Fellowship: Morris & South Asia. They see it as problematic the way in which South Asian design tends to be exhibited in British Museums as predominantly ‘traditional’ and ‘historic’. This is not so different to the prevailing view in Morris’s day. “It was important to us that we highlight that South Asian art and design is contemporary and to highlight contemporary voices connected with South Asia within the creative sector,” they add.

Shailaja Tripathi is a Bengaluru-based independent journalist

Published on August 11, 2021

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