52 Weeks of Fantastic Bindings, Week 35: a 20th century embroidered binding, possibly by May Morris
Embroidered bindings are no stranger to this binding thread, however, this week’s item has a very interesting connection to one of the most artistically influential families of England in the 19th century. This week’s binding gem was found by our reading room team, who were shelf-checking the Librarians Collection earlier this year. They found at classmark Lib Z232.M87N4 a green box which included two 20th century talks on William Morris and a copy of the 1919 Longman edition of News from Nowhere, or An epoch of rest being some chapters from a Utopian romance by William Morris. This copy, which had been wrapped in tissue and out of sight, turned out to have a very interesting embroidered silk slip-cover.
The embroidery work looks to be contemporary with the publishing of this edition, and a note found on the front fly-leaf made things even more tantalizing: “Possibly bound by Mrs Morris and her daughter May”. This inscription is not signed and looks to be a bookseller’s description, however this ignited some research which has turned up some interesting comparisons. Mary (May) Morris, daughter of William Morris, was an accomplished embroiderer and she managed Morris & Co.’s embroidery section from 1885-1896. Her mother, Jane Morris, was also a very accomplished needlewoman, but she died before this edition was printed.
This historical connection was interesting, but not definitive, so I began searching around for examples of May Morris’s work, especially on bindings. I finally found a great, hi-res image of an embroidered binding attributed to May Morris at the John Rylands Library (University of Manchester). In their collections is a copy of The Tale of King Florus and Fair Jehane, with an orange silk embroidered binding (see comparison below).
Although the cover on our book is much more simple than the Manchester Florus, the needlework is very similar. The work in the foliage of the Manchester Florus, and the colour palette are strikingly alike. St Andrews’ copy could be a later, more personal work by May Morris, or possibly done in an imitating style. This little book would make an interesting research project for someone working in textile history or on the Arts and Crafts movement.