The Art of Mathematics
William Morris (1834 - 1896)
William Morris was born in East London to a wealthy family, and is best known for his repeating patterned fabric and wallpaper designs, many of which were based on a close observation of nature. His vast range of skills also included his lesser-known writing of poetry and fantasy romance fiction.
In 1852, Morris attended Exeter College in Oxford, which is where he began to reject the industrial manufacturing of decorative arts in favour of hand-crafted designs and goods. After college, Morris became apprentice to architect G.E.Street, but after marrying Jane Burden, co-founded his own design firm, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. with several colleagues from his study days. Their wide repertoire of skills provided carvings, stained glass, metal work, paper hangings (wallpaper), printed fabric and carpet.
With the knowledge and skills of these friends he built and decorated ‘Red House’ in Bexleyheath, his wedding present to his wife. In the house, Morris painted his intricate designs on the ceilings, designed and worked on wall hangings, and painted the original hand-carved furniture. The Red House is now owned by the National Trust and is open to the public.
Throughout his life, he continued to work for himself, although company names changed often. Morris and Company is probably the best known of all. His designs are still sold today, under the licence given to Sanderson & Sons and Liberty of London. Original works by Morris can be seen at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, and the former ‘green dining room’ at the Victoria & Albert museum in London is now known as the ‘Morris Room’.
For further information on the life and works of William Morris see:
- The William Morris Gallery in Waltham Forest is the only public gallery devoted to the work of William Morris
- Artpassions is a website driven by the sheer passion of its authors for various worldwide artists. Some wonderful images and detail of the methods undertaken by Morris and his partners
- KidsNet is a bright encyclopedia aimed at children, with some useful weblinks
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Key Stage 1
Show the children an image of Morris’ tapestry The Woodpecker, as large as possible without distorting the image. The full tapestry is available on The Tapestry House website and, with the central detail only, on Wikimedia. Explain that this is one of very few created entirely by William Morris alone, and shows a woodpecker sitting in the branches of a fruit tree. The inspiration for the piece was the legend of Picus (‘woodpecker’ in Latin), an ancient Italian king who was turned into a woodpecker by the witch Circe. The inscription reads “I once a King and Chief: Now am the tree-bark’s thief: Ever ‘twixt trunk and leaf: Chasing the Prey”.
Ask the children to look closely at the image and tell you something about what they notice. Explain the story of the tapestry to them. Encourage them to count the number of ‘fruits’ in the tree. Can we find half of the number of fruit? If they have a total of 18, point out the partially hidden fruit at the top of the tapestry.
This image allows one to zoom in and ‘hover’ over various features. Can we find half of 19 fruit? Show pupils 19 pieces of fruits, e.g. oranges, apples, plums etc. and carry out the ‘halving’ action practically. Discuss the ‘odd’ fruit, and how we might halve it. Ask pupils how they might do this exactly. Give pupils balls of plasticine to represent the 19th fruit and allow them time to experiment with finding exactly one half. Discuss strategies as a group. Suggestions might include weighing or measuring the fruit before halving, ‘rolling’ the fruit into a ‘sausage’ or ‘worm’, before measuring its length and halving. When managing the discussion, encourage pupils to think about ‘exactness’ and what ‘half’ actually means. Even very young pupils arrive at school with their own understanding of ‘half’, even if there are sometimes more than two!
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Key Stage Two
Display the image of tiles designed by William Morris for Membland Hall. Click on the tiles and then press F11 for the image to fill the screen. Allow the pupils time to discuss what they can see. Can they see anything ‘mathematical’? Ask them to draw in a line of symmetry. Is the image exactly symmetrical? How can we check? Discuss how we might measure the distance of objects from the mirror line.
Now show an image of the Snakeshead Printed Textile. What do they notice about this piece? Is the symmetry the same? If necessary, point out the three vertical lines of symmetry. Ask the children to focus on the pairs of red and yellow ‘tulip-like’ flowers towards the corners of the image. How could the upper flowers match to those at the bottom? Is it a reflection? Discuss the idea of translation. Now focus on the trios of red and yellow ‘tulips’ in the centre of the tapestry. How can they be matched to each other? Is it reflection? Is it translation? Use this as a way of discussing rotation with the pupils. Where could the centre of rotation be? Why?
Pupils of any age will be intrigued by the spiral of a William Morris design created using an online fractal tool. Show them the image and let their (and your!) imaginations run riot!!!