When the artist Clare Twomey chose the chrysanthemum design, I looked at Morris’s copy of the Herball, a 1636 botany book with beautiful illustrations. The book is on display in the gallery, but there is no entry for chrysanthemum. According to the National Chrysanthemum Society, this is unsurprising. Their website reports that despite having been cultivated in China and Japan for over 3,000 years, the flower didn’t arrive in Britain until the late 18th century.
Chrysanthemums first became widely available in Morris’s lifetime and it is tempting to wonder if they grew in his garden. We know from his lectures and letters how important gardens were to him. In a paper titled Making the Best of It, he explained how gardens in great towns were ‘positive necessities if the citizens are to live reasonable and healthy lives in body and mind’.
In letters to his family, Morris writes enthusiastically about flowers: ‘Snowdrops are everywhere…there are a few violets out and here and there a coloured primrose… but how pretty it looks to see the promise of things pushing up through the clean un-sooty soil. I think we shall have a beautiful garden this year.’
Morris’s patterns were inspired by nature; daisies, roses, willow, irises, lilies, poppies and sunflowers. The chrysanthemums in this design are easily recognisable, but not direct copies. Morris could not see any sense in imitating nature in his design. What’s the point, he asks, you might as well put some cut flowers on the wall.
Instead he believed patterns should stimulate the imagination, and make you think of something beyond itself. Finally, he believed that a design should contain order. The chrysanthemums in this design are all equally sized, growing evenly along a curving line.
Morris didn’t just look at nature to inform his designs, he studied medieval manuscripts and viewed Indian and historical patterns in the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A). The chrysanthemum was a common theme in Japanese art and this may have also influenced the design.
In preparing for Clare’s exhibition we will delve deeper into the structure of the design and the way the design was translated for production.