Emery Walker’s House has one of the largest in situ collections of original Morris hand-blocked wallpapers in the world.
Almost all of the six wallpapers you can now see at Emery Walker's House are designs from William Morris’s most prolific creative period – the 1870s and 1880s.
Morris began designing wallpapers early on in the life of the original firm, established in 1861, and called Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. He was, initially, reluctant to consider wallpapers at all, preferring the idea of hand-made artefacts to cover walls, such as embroidered hangings, tapestries and frescoes. However, he quickly came to appreciate the huge expense of making such items and realised that something less expensive was called for if his fledgling business was to survive and make money.
Unwilling to compromise the principles which came to embody the Arts & Crafts Movement later on – handcrafted artefacts, made from good quality materials by skilled craftsmen and women - he rejected the idea of roller printing which had been increasingly used since the 1840s. Instead he insisted on hand-cut wallpaper blocks and hand-printing.
Although keen to learn all the techniques associated with printing wallpaper, Morris ran into difficulty when trying to cut his own blocks and print his own papers, so he was obliged to call in help from elsewhere.
For many years the blocks were cut from pear wood by Barretts, a firm in Bethnal Green. The hand printing, using distemper colours, was carried out by Jeffrey & Co. from Islington, who continued to do this until 1927, when they were taken over by Sandersons.
Inspired by his ramblings as a boy in Epping Forest and by his extensive study of his parents’ copy of the 16th century "Gerard’s Herball", Morris’ designs reflect his profound understanding of natural forms. He was also familiar with many medieval illuminated manuscripts, which he studied both in the Bodleian Library in Oxford when he was a student, as well as those in the British Museum. In particular, The British Museum’s copy of the 15th century Chronicles of Jehan Froissart provided inspiration for some of his very earliest papers.
Look out for
"Poppy" - 1880
This design would have been relatively inexpensive to produce, since it only required a single print block. It is seen here in brown and cream. Morris’s most expensive paper was the one created for the redecoration of St James’s Palace which took the grand total of 68 print blocks!
"Wallflower" - 1890
According to the recollections of Elizabeth de Haas, this design was created by Morris exclusively for Robert Bulwer-Lytton, the 1st Earl Lytton, who became British Ambassador to Paris after he had resigned as Viceroy of India. When the paper had been hung, several rolls were left over, and these were given to Emery Walker by Lytton’s artist son Neville. The design was not at the time available for general purchase.
"Willow' - 1874
The ground floor Dining Room features this design in an unusual colourway and seldom-seen version of Morris’s popular wallpaper. Behind the willow leaves is a background design of small circles, some with crosses which might be interpreted as flowers.
"Willow Bough" - 1887
This has been used to decorate the whole staircase, its shades complemented by the greens of the paint and the stair carpet. “Willow Bough” dates from much later than the “Willow” design and shows a different interpretation. The stems and small branches are brown or a darker green than the leaves, whose veins are marked with parallel lines rather than the more botanically accurate portrayal in the original.
"Apple" - 1877
This features the fruit among two different forms of foliage. This appears at Emery Walker’s House in two different colourways. In the former dressing room it is in brown, on the north side of the Drawing Room, in blue. The blue version can also be seen in the hall at Morris’s first home, Red House, in Bexleyheath.
"Daisy" - 1864
The first wallpaper published by Morris’s firm, but not the first he designed. This is found in the main bedroom and office, formerly Emery's bedroom. It was inspired by medieval illustrations in "Froissart’s Chronicles" and features a variety of plants in white, red, and yellow on a pale ground, flecked with streaks, suggestive of grass. It was a popular choice for bedrooms.
"Marigold" - 1875
Both “Marigold” and “Apple” can be seen in what was the North Side Dressing Room and is now an exhibition space. Despite being a monochrome paper and therefore relatively inexpensive, it is still a complex and rich design. The assorted flowers and willow-like foliage in white, twining against a darker coffee-brown ground colour. It was Morris’s conceit often to name his designs after a single flower, not always the one which is most immediately obvious.