Art Eyewitness Essay:
William Morris and Strawberry Thief
By Ed Voves
Original photos by Anne Lloyd
One June morning, nearly a century and a half ago, William Morris (1834-1896) walked out to the fruit and vegetable garden of his country home, Kelmscott Manor. Morris was greeted by a scene that would have enraged most Victorian property owners. "Rascally thrushes" had managed to get through protective netting and were greedily devouring his crop of strawberries.
Instead of anger, Morris was bemused by the winged marauders. When his gardener exclaimed in exasperation, "I'd like to wring their necks!", Morris told him not to harm the birds.
Morris' instructions must have seemed an act of lunacy to a bon-a-fide cultivator of the earth like his gardener. Many people did believe that Morris was a bit mad. But we know today that this was the moment of inspiration for one of his most celebrated fabric designs, Strawberry Thief.
A few days ago, I experienced a "strawberry thief" incident which set my mind to thinking about William Morris.
This time it was a "rascally" squirrel who supplied the dramatic effect. I had been rinsing a carton of strawberries and a few popped out of the strainer onto the floor. Without giving much thought to the matter, I placed the fugitive strawberries on the rail of our back deck.
There is a small grove of trees directly behind our house, which acts as a mini-nature preserve. This is home to American cousins of Morris' "rascally thrushes." they were sure to be interested in the strawberries. But a squirrel beat them to it.
My wife Anne spotted the squirrel as he tried to figure out how to devour all of the fruit. For him, the strawberries must have seemed "from heaven" as it was a dry spell and luscious berries provide liquid refreshment when water is scarce. Birds and animals often suffer acutely during drought.
The squirrel seemed unable to make up his mind which strawberry to eat first. His hesitation gave Anne the opportunity to grab a digital camera for a completely unplanned "decisive moment" of photography. The resulting sequence of quick snaps shows the squirrel reaching the sensible conclusion of eating a couple of berries now and saving one for latter.
There are local hawks who soar over the trees, occasionally landing on a branch for closer investigation - and the squirrels know it. No strawberry tastes that good to risk being caught in the open.
These photos, humorous and charming, set my mind to thinking. Little things shape our awareness. A brief moment's experience can, through reflection, heighten our appreciation of larger themes and issues.
"Fine art," John Ruskin wrote in 1870, "is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together."
That is exactly what occurred in the garden of Kelmscott Manor.
During the late 1870's, Morris was engaged in a determined, indeed quixotic, effort to preserve traditional hand crafts in the face of massed industrialism. His good intentions were costing him money. In 1861, Morris had entered into a partnership with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ford Maddox Brown, and Edward Burne-Jones. His partners were brilliant Pre-Raphaelite artists but not a very inspiring board of directors. With the firm floundering and his own capital draining away, Morris bought out the others and reorganized it under his sole direction in 1875.
One of the initiatives which preoccupied Morris was reviving the use of hand printing blocks for creating the designs on fabrics and wall-paper. Naturally, Morris wanted to use organic, plant-based dyes. He was especially enthusiastic about using indigo rather than the chemical dye, Prussian blue.
Walter Crane, the celebrated illustrator of children's books, recalled visiting Morris one day, while he was experimenting with indigo. When he asked an assistant for Morris' whereabouts, he head Morris shout from a back room, "I'm dyeing! I'm dyeing!"
Morris' words were much less alarming than they initially sounded. Crane found Morris, sleeves rolled, up to his elbows in dark blue dye.
Morris was experimenting on a dyeing process known as the indigo discharge method. Cotton fabric, usually chintz, was dipped into vats of indigo dye, dried and then bleached to allow for different shades of blue. A metallic substance called a mordant was applied which would allow a design image, made by a hand-held printing block, to adhere to the surface of the blue cloth.
Earlier efforts had produced the Brother Rabbit design. The name is a reference to the recently published Brer Rabbit stories, African-American folk tales recounted by Joel Chandler Harris. The recurrent motif, printed by hand is very similar to Strawberry Thief. There is one obvious difference - besides the rabbits. The printed design is only one color.
Morris was determined that Strawberry Thief would be multi-colored. This would require multiple printings to produce a color range worthy of the subtle hues of an English garden.
The effort involved was truly epic. Nothing was left to chance nor to slip-shod methods. Morris compiled detailed records that matched his indefatigable experimentation. His sketches, notes, dye recipe books and other memorandum, carefully preserved at the Huntingdon Library and Museum in California, testify to a work ethic that truly matched the grand scale of his vision.
Strawberry Thief was successfully printed after arduous efforts and patented in 1883. It was an amazing artistic triumph, but there was a catch. Strawberry Thief fabrics and, eventually, wall paper required several days to print by hand. This made then so expensive to produce that they were priced beyond the range of all but wealthy patrons, who readily bought them.
Strawberry Thief became the most popular of Morris' fabric designs and a money-maker for his firm. But Morris, a great-hearted humanitarian, aimed to produce objects of beauty and utility for all - especially the working class. Yet, the "deserving poor" of Victorian Britain could not afford the creations of Morris and Co. It was a dilemma Morris never resolved.
How did these reflections get started by watching a squirrel eating a couple of strawberries on my back deck? I wondered that myself.
Well, firstly, I've been thinking a lot about William Morris lately. This year marks the 125th anniversary of his death in 1896. Thames and Hudson is set to publish a lavishly illustrated book about his life and art in October. In anticipation of this new volume, I reached to my book shelf for Fiona MacCarthy's 1994 biography, William Morris, a Life for Our Times. This is one of the best "lives of the artists" I have ever read, a book which truly does justice to its protagonist.
Re-reading MacCarthy's bio, I realized that Morris spent much of his life trying to recapture the joys of his childhood, which for him had indeed been a basically happy experience. Most people hearken back to a real or imagined time of youthful bliss. However, Morris was too sensitive, too much a man of conscience, to limit his efforts to following his own, personal bliss.
The hopes of Morris for an English garden available toall never came close to fulfillment during his lifetime. Given the events of the last few years, such a Utopia is unlikely to be realized any time soon. Even in the terms that Morris envisioned it, an Epoch of Rest, such a state of widespread harmony will be difficult, almost impossible, to achieve.
Morris surely realized the challenges entailed in establishing an "Epoch of Rest." Yet he never stopped believing, dreaming, trying to bring a more equitable society into being, a world where there are enough strawberries for everyone, even for rascally thrushes and squirrels.
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved. Original photos by Anne Lloyd, all rights reserved.
Introductory Image: William Morris (British, 1834-1896) Strawberry Thief, printed, ca. 1936 (detail).Plain weave cotton, discharge printed: Overall: 88.3 x 99.1 cm (34 3/4 x 39 in.). Cleveland Museum of Art. Gift of Mrs. Henry Chisholm # 1937.696
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2021) "Strawberry Thief, 2021" photo sequence.
Elliott & Fry, British photographers. William Morris, 1877. Albumen cabinet card, 21 March 1877: 5 3/4 in. x 4 1/8 in. (146 mm x 104 mm) image size. Given by Wilfrid Jasper Walter Blunt, 1972 to the National Portrait Gallery, London, UK. Photographs Collection NPG x3724
William Morris (British, 1834-1896) Sample of Strawberry Thief furnishing textile, 1883. Furnishing fabric, block-printed cotton, designed by William Morris for Morris & Co. Strawberry Thief pattern with birds, strawberries and flowers: Height: 60.5 cm; Width: 95.2 cm. Given by Morris & Co. Victoria & Albert Museum collection (T.125 to W-1980)
William Morris (British, 1834-1896) Sample of Strawberry Thief furnishing textile. (Designed by William Morris) Block printed cotton: 18 5/8 x 38 1/2 in. (47.3 x 97.8 cm.) Collection of the Huntingdon Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California.
Hand printing block, used to produce Strawberry Thief fabrics. This block was possibly designed by William Morris and was used to print red dye. Pearwood and metal, with felt inlay: Length: 30 cm; Width: 23.5 cm; Height: 5.3 cm; Weight: 1.54kg. Given by Stead McAlpin & Co. to the Victoria and Albert Museum. # T.125-1980
Illustration showing a woodcut of Kelmscott Manor from News from Nowhere by William Morris, 1892. Kelmscott Press edition of News from Nowhere, published by Kelmscott Press, Hammersmith, London. Collection of the British Library, London, Shelfmark: C.43.e.9.