The MAY MORRIS CONFERENCE on 13/14 May was a landmark event - the first serious consideration of her life and career, exploring more aspects than most of us were aware of. And, one felt, nevertheless not covering all her achievements. It was quite exhilarating to listen to presentation after presentation [of what conference can that be said?!] featuring new information, steadily building a complex account.
In 1891 May described herself as ‘artist, designer, embroiderer and employer’.
Remarkable in itself, to this list can be added ‘socialist pioneer’, ‘jeweller’, ‘teacher’, ‘lecturer’, ‘conservationist, and ‘editor’, as well as founder of the Women’s Guild of Arts and (during WWI) of the WI in Kelmscott village. She was a leading figure in the Arts&Crafts Movement – okay we knew that – and largely responsible for the extensive memorialisation of William Morris that led in due course to the even greater heritage strand that now invokes his name all over the world.
Late in life, May made two striking self-assessments, writing to her old flame Bernard Shaw – whom she ought to have married (imagine the collective impact of such a partnership) had Shaw been less egotistical. In the first, she wrote: ‘but there it is: I made a mess of things then and always, and have only myself to blame for a waste of a life’. The second was more forgiving. Linking the present to past, she declared: ‘I’m a remarkable woman – always was, though none of you seemed to think so’.
In my introduction to the Conference, I questioned whether May ought today to be regarded as remarkable. Her reputation in her lifetime and in the 70-odd years since her death has not been notable or glorious. The reasons for this deserve examination, but as presentation followed presentation it became harder and harder to accept posterity’s lean judgment. Certainly the notion of a ‘wasted’ life is entirely wrong-headed; few careers encompassed as much, although May herself was entitled to feel disappointed, especially perhaps in comparison to the global success enjoyed by Shaw.
How remarkable remains to be assessed, however, when the fuller account of all her activities can be appraised. That process is now underway, to gather momentum and traction as it continues, until May Morris emerges properly from the shadow cast by her father and from the condescension of her contemporaries and successors.
Some of the topics revealed at the Conference:
- New information from Catherine White on the Board School girls recruited to be trained to work for Morris & Co
- Lynn Hulse's account of May's expertise and scholarship regarding medieval Opus Anglicanum
- A new narrative of the Women's Guild of Arts and its members by Helen Elletson
- More on May's role in and for the Kelmscott community from Kathy Haslam, noting that May's life at the Manor from 1923 will feature strongly in future presentation
- Anna Mason's rich summary of May's role in the Socialist League from newly available records
- Rowan Bain's account of Jenny Morris drawing on 500 letters now deposited at the WMG.
- A preliminary account of May's teching at Birmingham School of Art from Helen Bratt-Wyton
- Jenny Lister's analysis of the Morris & Co embroidery order book 1892-96 covering designs, prices and customers
- New information from Annette Carruthers on May's friendship with the Middlemores, including her visits to their Orcadian house Melsetter, and to the Western Isles.
- the first proper account of May's North American lecture tour 1909-10, including visits to Jane Adams, Annie Fields, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Michael Stillman and the Pearce family, from Margaretta Frederick
- Mary Greensted's detailed history of May's friendship with Ernest Gimson, and his designs for Kelmscott cottages and village hall.
- Julia Dudkievicz on May's actions to maintain and preserve both Kelmscott Manor and WM's legacy from 1900-1938.
Altogether almost too much to appreciate in one sitting, but a clear indication that future research will reveal a great deal more about May's life and career than has been suspected hitherto.