Morris & Co Merton Abbey tapestry designed by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Bt, ARA, RWS (British 1833-1898), with details by John Henry Dearle (British 1860-1932), woven for Mr. Charles S Goldman, October 1898.
Woven by John Martin, Robert Ellis and Merritt, tapestry weavers at Merton Abbey Works
tapestry in dyed wool and silk on undyed cotton warp, with cotton backing
232 x 202 cm. (91 1/2 x 79 1/2 in.)
Sold for £184,800 inclusive of Buyer's Premium
Major Charles Sydney Goldman, M.B.E. commissioned from Morris and Co.;
Commander Penryn Victor Monck, younger son of the above;
Rory Monck, son of the above.
Angeli Laudantes is a tour de force, a combination of William Morris (1834-96) and his friend Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833-98) working hand in hand and one of a group of supreme tapestries to be woven by Morris and Co at Merton Abbey, Wandsworth. The old handicraft of tapestry weaving was one of a number of crafts that Morris revived; technically it was his greatest triumph and a true testament to the Arts and Crafts Movement. Although the company wove several versions of Angeli Laudantes and its companion Angeli Ministrantes, this tapestry appears to be the only one remaining in private hands. Furthermore there are only two of this size and specific design;1 the first, woven in 1894, was purchased four years later by the Victoria and Albert Museum, where it remains today. H.C. Marillier’s hand written account of the Merton tapestries2 notes that Charles Sydney Goldman owned both tapestries although interestingly this information did not appear in Marillier’s published account of the History of the Merton Abbey Tapestry Works of 1927. Marillier also recorded that Goldman’s tapestry dated to October 1898. Given that Goldman was to marry the Hon Agnes Mary Peel in February the following year it is possible that his tapestry was intended as a wedding gift for his new bride. Certainly the subject of the harp-playing angels with their multi-layered wings and sumptuous millefleurs background would have been perfectly fitting for such an event.
Angeli Laudantes and Angeli Ministrantes were originally conceived as designs for a pair of stained-glass lancet windows in the South Choir at Salisbury Cathedral. Listed in Morris and Co’s account book between March and August 1878, the cartoons for each were described as “4 colossal and sublime figures of Angels £20 ea[ch] £80.”3 In a discussion concerning Burne-Jones’s decorative work, Malcolm Bell cited “his admirable use of wings and drapery alone to secure a rich decorative effect, we may refer to the two splendid windows in Salisbury Cathedral, executed in 1879, the “Angeli Laudantes” and “Angeli Ministrantes”. In each are two figures only, in the first [Angeli Laudantes] harping upon harps of gold, in the second, [Angeli Ministrantes] pausing in the paths of mercy to rest awhile their weary sandal-shod feet, and bearing the palmer’s cloak marked with the cockle-shell of St. Jago, the pilgrim’s staff and bottle and bag of meal, but so elaborate is the modelling of the garments, so skilful the arrangement of the wings, that the whole heavenly host could not produce a more complete effect of well-filled space, without confusion, in which each line and shadow is full of interest and importance.”4
In 1897 Aymer Vallance noted “The Morris window in Salisbury Cathedral, designed by Burne-Jones, and representing groups of ministering and praising angels, has been mentioned already. The identical figures have since been adapted, in subdued blues and reds, with a dull but rich-coloured background of foliage and flowers, with borders, etc, and worked out in two panels of arras tapestry by Messrs. Morris and Co., and that with results so fine that the disquieting question perforce suggests itself whether these cartoons are not more appropriate to the latter medium.”5 Burne-Jones’s cartoons, referred to by Vallance, were given by Charles Fairfax-Murray to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, where they remain today. Highly worked in coloured chalks, the pairs of angels are the same size as those in the finished tapestries. It is possible that that the cartoons were used for the stained-glass windows but more likely they were re-workings by Burne-Jones for the tapestries. Burne-Jones’s cartoons were then adapted by Morris’s chief assistant and manager John Henry Dearle who took out an upper layer of the angels’ wings and added the intricate millefleurs grounds and the orange and scrolling acanthus leaf border (and a matching pomegranate border for Angeli Ministrantes). With few exceptions, all of Morris’s tapestries were designed by Burne-Jones, either for a specific tapestry or in this case derived from one of his stained-glass windows. At first Morris arranged the accessories but later, as in this case, these were orchestrated by Dearle.
As noted Goldman’s tapestry was the second version of this particular tapestry, the first of 1894 was woven in wool, silk and mohair and was of an identical design and almost the same size (the V. & A. version measuring 237.5 x 202 cm). It was purchased by the South Kensington Museum on the suggestion of its assistant keeper John Hungerford Pollen and the Earl of Carlisle. Its companion Angeli Ministrantes (measuring 241.5 x 200 cm), also woven in 1894, was purchased by Edwin Waterhouse of Feldmore, Surrey. It was subsequently in the Handley-Read Collection and later in 1993 was purchased by the V. & A. Of significance 1898, the year of Burne-Jones’s death was the year that the first Angeli Laudantes was purchased and also the year that Goldman’s tapestry was woven.
A number of later variations of both tapestries are known. Angeli Laudantes was repeated in 1902 for Mr Jordan6 while another with a single angel with a harp inscribed 'Alleluia' of 1904, is now in the Harris Art Gallery, Preston. As befitting such a subject the designs were particularly suited for ecclesiastical use. In 1902 a tapestry with a pair of single angels with harps was woven for All Saints Church Brockhampton in Herefordshire, and once again that design was repeated in 1904 for a private memorial. The following year both panels were adapted for large tapestries to hang in Eton College Chapel as a memorial for those who died in the Boer War7 They included the same pairs of angels but the backgrounds were altered to include a lower verdure of shields. Interestingly the latter appear to be the first panels to bear the weavers’ initials. So taken with the design of Angeli Laudantes, Lady Catherine Milnes Gaskell (1856-1935) embroidered a copy with additional medieval figures, which is now in Much Wenlock parish church.
Angeli Laudantes and Angeli Ministrantes were the most popular of the seven Morris tapestries adapted from existing Burne-Jones stained-glass windows. The first St. Cecilia and St. Agnes, woven in 1887 were exhibited the same year at the Manchester Centenary Exhibition. The nineteenth century revived interest for church furnishings was a good opportunity for Morris to secure new commissions. To this effect he noted in his sales catalogues “Tapestry is by far the most appropriate and beautiful form of decoration for a reredos or a blank wall space and is less costly for its size than a printing by a good artist would be.”
William Morris, whose name has become synonymous with some of the greatest textiles, considered tapestry to be the noblest of such techniques. It was also the first type of textile to capture his imagination when as a child he visited Queen Elizabeth Lodge in Epping Forest and saw “a room hung with faded greenery”. Later in 1854 whilst studying at Oxford he took a trip to France, returning the following year with Burne-Jones, where they viewed the medieval tapestries in many of the French cathedrals. Despite his early enthusiasm, Morris did not try the technique until many years later, probably because he first had to gain the artistic and technical expertise necessary for so complicated an art.
Self-taught using a late eighteenth century French manual, Morris began his first tapestry panel in 1879 upon a loom set up in his bedroom at Kelmscott House. However his early explorations were not put into commercial practise until 1881 when he moved his business to new premises at Merton Abbey. Situated on the banks of the River Wandle, the soft water was well suited for dyeing the silks and wools, the lighting was good and the abundance of flowers, in addition to those from Morris’s own garden, were used as subjects for the millefleurs backgrounds that Morris so admired in early Flemish hangings. Like the Flemish weavers Morris used an upright or haute lisse loom rather than the horizontal base lisse model. In this manner the weavers wove facing the back of the tapestry and were guided by looking through the warp threads at a mirror hanging in front of the work. This technique was the same as employed by the Gobelins Works, which Morris had visited in 1854 and that used at the Royal Windsor Tapestry Works, opened in 1876. Though Morris approved of their technique he was keen to avoid their repetitive copying of old designs preferring the greater artistic expression achieved by the fifteenth and sixteenth century Flemish weavers. To this effect comparisons can be drawn between Angeli Laudantes and The Three Fates, a sixteenth century Flemish tapestry (V. & A. Museum), not only are the poses of each figure very similar but also the intricate floral backgrounds.8
Much of the weaving was done by young boys, since Morris considered their ‘small flexible fingers’ more suitable for such an intricate skill. John Henry Dearle however kept a strict control of the work in progress and only permitted the more experienced to work on significant areas such as faces and hands. Marillier noted the names of the three more senior weavers involved in the creation of Goldman’s tapestry, namely John Martin, Robert Ellis and Merritt (who Marillier only referred to by his surname). John Martin, who was the first weaver to be employed after the firm moved to Merton Abbey, was with William Haines and William Elliman responsible for weaving the first Angeli Laudantes. He also worked on the first tapestries designed by Burne-Jones, Flora and Pomona of 1884-5 and later became the first tapestry restorer at the V. & A. He and Robert Ellis were two of the most experienced craftsmen involved in the Arthurian tapestry series for William Knox D’Arcy at Stanmore Hall, Middlesex and also worked with Merritt on the same series for George McCulloch (Birmingham Art Gallery).
Morris, the leading light of the Arts and Crafts movement, was keen to promote independent creativity and thus encouraged a degree of freedom during the weaving process. Thus inevitably one tapestry differed from another even though the design was identical. A comparison between the present work and its earlier counterpart in the V. & A. reveals slight variations; the present tapestry appears to include slightly warmer tones, for instance on the title banner, on the linings of the angels’ robes and on their flaming headdresses. Their faces also slightly differ so that here their eyes look more directly toward the viewer. However both exhibit the same high degree of finish including for instance shimmering silk threads within the angels’ haloes as well as an indefinable subtlety of graduating tones and colour and together demonstrate a mastery of technique that none would ever rival.
Henry Currie Marillier, Notes on Tapestries, undated, unpublished, in the V.& A. textile department, p. 71, listing this work.
Henry Currie Marillier, History of the Merton Abbey Tapestry Works, 1927, p. 20 with reference to the example at the V & A and p. 33, listing this work.
Oliver Fairclough and Emmerline Leary, Textiles by William Morris & Co. 1861-1940, 1981, p. 108, with reference to this work.
Linda Parry, William Morris Textiles, 1983, p. 112 and 186, note 38 and p. 123, illustrating the first weaving of Angeli Laudantes of 1894 in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Linda Parry, editor, William Morris Exhibition Catalogue, 1996, p. 290, M. 125, with reference to this work.