William Morris and Intricately Simple Decorative Design

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The Woodpecker Tapestry (detail)

Detail of The Woodpecker tapestry designed by William Morris.
Detail of The Woodpecker tapestry designed by William Morris. Photo courtesy Planet Art CD of royalty-free public domain images by William Morris, via Wikimedia Commons

"How are we to pay for decent houses?" asked the great 19th century designer William Morris (1834-1896). A good question back in 1880. A good question today. Morris' answer: "living a simple life."

Thick tapestries had provided good insulation for medieval castle walls, yet the heavy textiles became out of fashion in the increasingly modern 19th century. By the time Morris came of age, the Industrial Revolution had taken hold across the United Kingdom, with resultant mechanization and urbanization. Morris sought to turn back the clock to a simpler time.

Power looms had nearly replaced hand looms in England, but Morris was determined to keep the hand craft alive. Influenced by French textile techniques, and, no doubt, Laugier's back-to-nature ideas of The Primitive Hut, Morris taught himself how to weave on a vertical loom and embraced the simplicity of a natural world. By 1879 he had produced his first hand-woven tapestry and passed the art and craft on to a company of workmen at his studio.

This photo shows a reproduction detail of one of Morris' most famous works, The Woodpecker tapestry. The complete tapestry measures 121 inches long by 61 inches wide (307 x 156 cm). Its design is inspired by the Roman poet Ovid. In the long poem Metamorphoses, Ovid re-tells the myth of the handsome Picus being turned into a woodpecker by a scorned sorceress named Circe. Morris' romantic design makes us believe that Picus is much better off as a woodpecker in nature.

The Woodpecker Tapestry was woven in wool by William Knight and William Sleath. It was shown at the Arts & Crafts Society Exhibition in 1888 and today is owned and displayed by the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, London. The original Woodpecker tapestry seems to be dominated by bluish hues instead of the colors shown here.

William Morris—architect, painter, poet, and political activist—can't seem to keep his designs simple, yet he advocates a simple life. Perhaps it is a simplicity within the intricacy that appeals to today's consumer.

Sources: "The Beauty of Life," Hopes and Fears for Art, Project Gutenberg; Woodpecker Tapestry, William Morris Galleries,

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William Morris Designs for Today's Consumer

Three tapestry reproductions of The Woodpecker by William Morris
Three tapestry reproductions of The Woodpecker by William Morris. Images from Amazon.com

Look at the Woodpecker Tapestry detail to better understand the importance of Arts and Crafts designer William Morris. Famous for advocating simplicity, the Morris designs are intricate and fascinating.

The three reproduction tapestries shown here are similar in design to the original Woodpecker tapestry in London, yet modern manufacturers have taken liberties with coloring. And the overall sizes are smaller. And the textile material is cotton, not wool. And, oh, yes—they are created on mechanical Jacquard looms. The Arts and Crafts pioneer may be rolling in his grave at such mechanical production and crass commercialism.

Yet, the text inscription, describing the fate of King Picus, is from Morris' original design:

I once a king and chief, now am the tree bark's thief,
Ever twixt trunk and leaf, chasing the prey

Products purchased today may not be original William Morris colorations, but the simple, elegant, intricate patterns will be representative of what eventually would become the American Arts and Crafts Movement. William Morris' designs continue to be the popular choice, from tapestries to giftwrap.