William Morris and the South Kensington Museum

Fiona Rose

For forty years, until his death in 1896, Morris maintained a mutually beneficial relationship with the South Kensington Museum, as it was then known before a name change in 1899 to the Victoria and Albert Museum. Founded as aMuseum of Manufactures in 1852, its mission was to improve the standards of British industry by educating designers, manufacturers and consumers in art and science. Acquiring and displaying the best examples of art and design contributed to this mission, but the 'schoolroom' itself was also intended to demonstrate exemplary design and decoration. Indeed, Morris himself used the museum as a ‘school room’ and in his evidence to the Royal Commission on Technical Instruction in 1882, he stated that perhaps he had used the museum as much as any man living.

In 1865, the museum’s director Sir Henry Cole, engaged the fledging firm Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. to decorate what would become known as the Green Dining Room which is still enjoyed by visitors today. This prestigious commission enhanced the standing of the firm and helped lead to other commissions. Sir Henry’s confidence in the firm would be repaid by Morris most notably through the Committee of Art Referees of which he was a member from 1884 to 1896. The Committee were, ‘selected from the most competent authorities’ to advise on purchases for the museum. Morris’s personal advice was pursued on many occasions, particularly regarding the purchase of carpets and tapestries. The finest carpet bought on his advice was the magnificent Ardebil carpet, woven in 1540 and acquired by the museum in 1893 for £2000. Morris implored, “I think it would be a real misfortune if such a treasure of decorative art were not acquired for the public”.

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