William Morris's textile work reflects many of the themes, stylistic preferences and devices that characterize his Arthurian poetry. The medium, by its nature, forces certain restrictions on the works produced in it. The textiles each rely on a limited color palette of a handful of distinct colors, which reflect the preference for the blue and red associated with knightly combat (as in "The Defence of Guenevere") and the green and gold associated with paradise and fair maidens (as in "Near Avalon"). The use of prominent colors is expected to the extent that its absence in "Shameful Death," "When neither sun nor moon was bright,/ And the trees were merely grey," signifies an absence of proper, chivalrous conduct and honor in the scene.
Textiles also push commonly used poetic symbols such as birds and flowers to the forefront of the design. In Morris's "Dove and Rose" textile, the symbols that typically accent the human action in Morris's poetry become the central focus of the design. The doves, which regularly appear in their white variety in typological Pre-Raphaelite paintings to represent the Holy Spirit or peace, are colored red and green in the textile. The birds' shape suggests a connection to the traditional significance of the white dove, but their color puts a twist to that type and makes them look more like mourning doves.
The weaving and thread-work involved in the textile medium of this period inescapably link textile works to "The Lady of Shallott" and all the derivative works and themes that stem from Tennyson's poem. The interpretation of Morris's textiles as the created world of an artist who views the world indirectly allows us to extend the allegory of the Lady of Shallott to Morris's Arthurian poetry. The artist's reliance on a semantically loaded color palette, a set of stock symbols and types, and the recreated Arthurian mythology produces works of art that describe the contemporary world indirectly and with a crucial mediating element — a mirror for the Lady of Shallott, poetic devices for Morris.
1. In the textile "Dove and Rose," the birds and flowers are colored and stylized in a way that makes them appear more subtle and blended than such symbols do in other media, such as stained glass and painting. Do the colors in this textile lend any significance to the images, or did they just make for an aesthetically pleasing pattern overall?
2. To a viewer or purchaser of Morris's textiles, especially at the time they were produced, would the symbolic and thematic undertones of the patterns be apparent and significant?
3. How does Morris's fascination with the recreation of Arthurian legend function as a means of expression for the artist's expression of contemporary themes and socialist politics?
4. "Dove and Rose" integrates some of the colors and symbols common to Morris's poetry but does not exhibit any clear connection to the plots and themes in that poetry. Do other works by Morris or the Pre-Raphaelites bridge the gap between textiles of the arts and crafts movement and Arthurian or Biblical scenes popular in paintings and stained glass?
Last modified 1 April 2009