Strawberry Thief

Fiona Rose

'Strawberry Thief' was one of Morris & Co's most successful and charming designs. It remains a personal favourite of mine and I was very excited last summer, upon walking down the street of the charming little town Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia, when I saw this sign hanging outside the public library. Thoughts raced through my mind: could Morris & Co. have had an agent in Nova Scotia? did William Morris spend time in Annapolis Royal? Alas, I was told the maker of the sign just liked the design...

The first printing of Strawberry Thief gave William Morris sleepless nights as he stretched the indigo discharge process to the limits with a criss cross of subtle colours: blue flowers, luscious red strawberries and the thrushes' flecked brown breasts. At his new Merton Abbey workshop he finally mastered the indigo discharge process which had evaded and frustrated him for some time. This technique was the reverse of conventional printing on the plain surface of the cloth. Instead, bolts of cloth were dyed a uniform blue and then more colours, mainly reds and yellows, were introduced by further dyeings. These were superimposed on the half indigo to produce delicate shades of green, purple and orange. It was a skilled and risky business but William Morris being a perfectionist was determined to master the technique and so he did.

His daughter, May Morris, gives the most vivid and endearing story behind the design, " You can picture my father going out (to the gardens at Kelmscott) and watching the rascally thrushes at work on the fruit beds and telling the gardener who growls, 'I'd like to wring their necks!' that no bird must be touched. There were certainly more birds than strawberries and the walls of the dining room are hung with the Little Lords of it."

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