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Morris and Donegal Carpets by Ian Grant

During the late 1800's, a select group of artists, philosophers, critics and businessmen, the majority of whom were from England, found themselves growing tired of the industrial revolution. They saw it as a great behemoth which single-handedly eliminated the public's need for the individually skilled artisans and craftsmen of ages past. Instead it brought to the world highly efficient (for the 1800s) dehumanizing factories which in turn produced mass quantities of one product or another without any variation in quality or design.  People like John Ruskin, a prominent philosopher and critic of the time, and a follower of his names William Morris, did not like this new era of mass production. They considered the new products of the industrial revolution to be of inferior quality and devoid of any individual or intrinsic value. Ruskin and Morris longed for the days of the Middle Ages when the skilled craftsmen and the guilds they formed were "modus operandi" for production. A time when much more superior products were made by hand. They wanted to return the emphasis of production to man rather than machine. Out of these disgruntlements came a new era that would soon take a firm hold of Europe and America from 1880 till the early 1900s; this was the beginning of the Arts and Crafts movement.

William MorrisAt the forefront of this new wave of arts and crafts was William Morris.   Like his mentor, John Ruskin, Morris was a critic and a self-proclaimed social philosopher, but more importantly, an artist and a pattern designer. Unfortunately Morris and his circle of friends had no one to look to for answers to their industrial revolution woes. The Middle Ages were long gone, and it would have been rather difficult to ask European society to revert to the days of the 800-1200s, as not too many people had such a favorable impression of that time as Morris and company did. Instead, Morris found his salvation in Asia; more specifically in Persian rugs.

"To us pattern designers, Persia became a Holy Land, for there in the process of time our art was perfected, sand thence it spread to cover for a while the world, east and west."   -WM (Bennett, p. 302)

The Persian rug industry incorporated all that Morris thought was lacking in the English industrial goods market. The hand craftsmanship that went into making a Persian rug was of exceptional quality. These rugs were far more durable than anything coming off of the British looms, and each one of these handmade carpets retained its own unique aesthetic attractiveness.Art & Crafts

When discussing Morris' practical role in the English carpet industry, we find he puts on a few different hats. What he was best known for, however, was his innovative pattern designing. Morris believed that a rug should lay "absolutely flat upon the ground" (Bennett, p. 304). To achieve this, Morris changed a few of the traditional styles of Persian pattern design. He stayed away from shading leaves, flowers and other objects with varying degrees of color as this gave the rug too much texture. Instead, he left his objects as one whole color and then outlined them with a line of white as a means of accentuating the true colors of his dyes. He reduced the number of sub-borders and concentrated on the intricate vine work in the fields of his rugs and would also continue these patterns into the borders. Traditional Persian rugs had many borders and sub-borders with varying base colors, each in complimenting contrast to the rug's field color. Morris would have none of this, as he thought it created visual distractions. At most, he would have one border with a different base color, but often times, he would leave the base color in the field and the border the same. By incorporating all of these new techniques, Morris had created a new product unto itself, while still retaining many of the traditional aspects of Persian rugs. Morris was exclusively a pattern designer at the beginning of his career. He created these patterns for carpets such as Wilton and Axminster weaves. Morris made them under mild protest as they were machine-made rugs lacking in his ideal of hand craftsmanship.

In 1878, he set off on his own in pursuit of the truly Persian handmade rugs. He soon had a small number of looms for handmade rugs, and in a short time Morris & Co. was in production. Soon after, his rugs became well known, and although they were quite expensive, they had a considerable following in the upper classes. Life was good.

Alexander Morton, and his soon-to-be partner named C.F.A. Voysey, brought new competition for Morris. Voysey was a famous architect and artist, and Morton was a prominent textile manufacturer, both of whom were from Ireland. Morton was approached by Liberty's of London who asked him to produce a less-expensive alternative to the rugs Morris & Co. were making Morton sought the help of Voysey for the pattern design. The two of them, together with the help of Liberty's and stipends given to them from the British government, began to produce the Irish Donegal carpets.

Voysey's patterns had many similarities to Morris's, such as outlining objects in white and not shading objects, but after that, they parted ways. Voysey thought that Morris's patterns were too "fussy". In a letter to James Morton in 1896, Voysey wrote:

"You will find in all my designs a clearly marked contrast between the small rich intricate or elaborate parts of design and the plain simple bare pieces. This is the quality which produces breadth -- breadth is on the side of simplicity and repose." (Hali, p. 111)

Voysey and Morton's Donegal rugs soon took the market share away from Morris & Co. and for very simple reasons. With the financial help Morton and Voysey received, their rugs were less than half the price per square foot of Morris's, which made them affordable to the middle classes. The only people that could afford Morris's rugs were the upper classes, which was ironic as Morris was somewhat of a socialist at heart.

In the past few years the Arts and Crafts style has seen a revival in the design industries. Today Arts and Crafts rugs of both Morris's and Voysey's style are being reproduced in Turkey, China, and India. You can find a number of such rugs at the Oriental Rug Company. Pay us a visit and see the new reproductions of the Arts and Crafts era.

Hali, issue 57, Vol. 13, No. 3: "Vigor of the Outer Air", by Halcom Haslam;
Hali Publications Ltd., London, 1991.

Bennett, Ian. "Complete Illustrated Rugs & Carpets of the World",
A & W Publishers, Inc., New York; 1977.


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