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Embroidery of a group of colourful birds perching on a tree and branches.

2014 Archive: Rare May Morris embroideries saved for the nation

Wednesday 23 July, 2014

National Museums Scotland is delighted to announce that a pair of rare embroidered hangings by the Arts and Crafts designer, May Morris has been saved for the nation.

National Museums Scotland is delighted to announce that a pair of rare embroidered hangings by the Arts and Crafts designer, May Morris has been saved for the nation.

These cultural treasures had an export bar placed on them and their acquisition ensures that they will remain in the United Kingdom for display in Edinburgh. The acquisition has been made possible with generous funding from the Art Fund and the NMS Charitable Trust.

The hangings were worked around 1900 by May Morris, the daughter of the designer, William Morris, the father of the Arts and Crafts movement.

Stephen Jackson, Senior Curator, Art and Design, National Museums Scotland commented,

“These incredibly rare textiles are a significant addition to our outstanding collections of European art and design. We are delighted that they will be displayed in our new galleries of Art and Design, currently under development and opening to visitors in 2016.”

The hangings were subject to a temporary export bar, placed on them to provide time for a buyer to come forward and raise money to save them for the nation, after they had been sold at auction.  The deferral followed a recommendation from the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA), administered by the Arts Council of England. National Museums Scotland acquired the embroideries for the national collections in June 2014.

Both hangings are of the same design worked in different soft pastel colours and stitches, with a central tree between rosebushes and floral trails and birds against a square trellis background. The foreground of each panel includes a robin and rabbit. The embroideries are one of only two known examples of this design, the other also by May Morris dating from 1891 for a set of bed curtains for her father’s bed at Kelmscott Manor.

Chairman of the RCEWA, Sir Hayden Phillips said,

‘It is a great achievement of National Museums Scotland to have raised the necessary funds for these rare hangings following the export deferral that was placed on them. Now these significant pieces by May Morris, a leading light of the Arts and Crafts movement, will be secured for the nation and available for the general public to see.’

Stephen Deuchar, director of the Art Fund, said,

"Given their significance to the Arts & Crafts Movement in Scotland, we are delighted to support National Museums Scotland in acquiring these works. Their inventive designs will beautifully animate the new permanent gallery spaces."

The embroideries were created for Theodosia Mackay for her home, Melsetter House in Orkney. She and her husband were important patrons within the Arts and Crafts movement and Melsetter was built by the leading Arts and Crafts architect W. R. Lethaby. The house was one of the most important commissions of its day and was furnished with a combination of furniture designed by the architect and purchased from Morris & Company.

Theodosia was a close friend of May Morris and the hangings, designed by May, were worked jointly by May and Theodosia. Textiles actually worked by May Morris are extremely rare. Worked in natural dyed crewel wool on hand-spun and hand-woven linen, the wools are thought to be Orcadian as May and Theodosia are known to have spun and dyed local wool at Melsetter.

The hangings have only recently become known outside the family, having been passed down the generations until now.

Ten exciting new galleries of Science and Technology and Art and Design will open at the National Museum of Scotland in 2016.  May Morris’ embroideries will feature in one of the Art and Design galleries which will explore the development of design between 1850 and 1950. The embroideries will assist us in exploring links between English and Scottish arts and crafts movements. 

For further information and images please contact Susan Gray, Bruce Blacklaw or Louise McKenzie, Press Office, National Museums Scotland, tel 0131 247 4088

Notes to Editors

  1. May Morris (1862-1938), was an outstanding designer, embroiderer and jeweller. The younger daughter of the artist and designer William Morris, she took on the management of the Morris &Co. embroidery workroom at the age of 23. A leading authority on the subject of embroidery, she exhibited frequently at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. She taught at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, under the headship of William R. Lethaby, the architect of Melsetter House. May Morris also lectured at British art schools and in the United States, and did much to support the work of women artists and designers, founding the Women’s Guild of Art in 1907. May Morris played a key role in promoting embroidery as a profession and excelled both as a designer and maker. Her work undoubtedly influenced the development of the distinctive embroidery styles taught by Jessie Newbury at Glasgow School of Art from 1896.
  2. National Museums Scotland looks after museum collections of national and international importance and provides loans, partnerships, research and training in Scotland and internationally. Our individual museums are the National Museum of Scotland, the National Museum of Flight, the National Museum of Rural Life and the National War Museum.  The National Museums Collection Centre in Edinburgh houses conservation and research facilities as well as collections not currently on display.
  3. The National Museum of Scotland reopened in summer 2011 following a three-year, £50m redevelopment. With over 5.5 million visitors since reopening, the National Museum of Scotland is the most popular attraction in the country outside of London according to ALVA figures. It was also voted the number one museum in the UK, top ten in Europe and top twenty in the world in TripAdvisor’s inaugural Travellers’ Choice Awards.
  4. Arts Council England champions, develops and invests in artistic and cultural experiences that enrich people’s lives. We support a range of activities across the arts, museums and libraries – from theatre to digital art, reading to dance, music to literature, and crafts to collections. Great art and culture inspires us, brings us together and teaches us about ourselves and the world around us. In short, it makes life better. Between 2011 and 2015, we will invest £1.4 billion of public money from government and an estimated £1 billion from the National Lottery to help create these experiences for as many people as possible across the country.
  5. The Art Fund is the national fundraising charity for art, helping museums to buy and show great art.  Over the past 5 years we’ve given £26m to help museums and galleries acquire works of art for their collections, and placed hundreds of gifts and bequests, from ancient sculpture and treasure hoards to Old Master paintings and contemporary commissions. We are independently funded, the majority of our income coming from over 100,000 members who, through the National Art Pass, enjoy free entry to over 220 museums, galleries and historic houses across the UK, as well as 50% off entry to major exhibitions.
    Find out more about the Art Fund and the National Art Pass at
    Please contact Madeline Adeane, the Press Relations Manager, on 020 7225 4804 or

Photo © Neil Hannah Photography.

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