Golden Lily | The Verdant Victorian Icon

From Victorian rebel to 1960s Bohemian icon

With petals reflexed and stamens perfectly poised for a bee to land, the golden lilies of this design are depicted within a haze of a bucolic English summer garden. Swirling tendrils, unfurling acanthus leaves, and swathes of flowers, sprangle and bloom.

These are some of the hallmarks that make Golden Lily an archetypal Morris & Co. design. Yet work is frequently misattributed to William Morris, when it was in fact designed by John Henry Dearle when he was Head Designer of Morris & Co. (the decorative arts firm William Morris founded in 1861). Golden Lily was designed in 1899, three years after William Morris’s death.

It's partly a result of a obscuring historiography, where only until recent decades, design historians have been critically re-assessing John Henry Dearle as a designer in his own right. Dearle’s own rise within Morris & Co. is a fascinating story of its own and serves as a testament to the firm’s ideals that were radical to Victorian England at the time.

Dearle started out as shop floor assistant at Morris & Co.’s Oxford Street showroom. It was 1878, he was 19 years old; ready to learn. It was here he first came into contact the Morris & Co.’s startling new visions. He would have learnt about the collective’s preference for communal guilds over Victorian factories with poor working conditions. Dearle would have also learnt about the Morris & Co.’s emphasis on apprenticeships, and how they could be cross-disciplinary covering a broad swathe of the decorative arts - answering Morris & Co’s vision of creating a ‘total interior’ of a space - where wallpaper, architecture, and fabric could come together to make a home, beautiful. These principles lay the fertile ground from which Dearle’s exceptional artistic abilities were able to flourish.

From Morris & Co.’s shop floor, Dearle quickly moved to the glass painters’ workshop. Dearle then became the firm’s first apprentice tapestry weaver. His talent was obvious, so it didn’t take long before he was training the next generation of weavers himself. Keeping that interdisciplinary vein, Dearle during this time was also known to also add some foliage details to works by the Pre-Raphaelite painter, and close friend of William Morris, Sir Edward Burne-Jones.

The Golden Lily since has seen various iterations across history, most famously with its darker colourway in 1960s British counterculture, where musicians like George Harrison and fashion designers Ossie Clark were photographed wearing the Golden Lily as a jacket.

Very few jackets were made, since it was designed by a boutique on London’s King’s Road, Granny Takes a Trip. But from then on, Golden Lily was writ large in the public imagination, and more fabrics and wallpapers were subsequently printed, and it still holds this 1960s nostalgic association today.

This aggregation of skills: weaving, stained-glass construction, oil painting, were all part of the wider ambition at Morris & Co.: to create a kind of a medievalist utopia, that honoured the dignity of the craftmanship, where the maker had an unbroken link to the finished object; a concept William Morris set into motion at Morris & Co., that was heavily influenced by art critic and philosopher, John Ruskin.

You can specifically see this romanticism of the Medieval age here in Golden Lily. The British stems are inspired by the millefleur style, where large swathes of flowers and plants are depicted on a flat plane with no sense of perspective, a style originating with Medieval tapestries. The original design came in two colourways. The first, a cream toned background, with golden flowers and light green stems, the second is its nocturnal counterpart with a darker blue background.

Golden Lily’s story is testament to how Morris & Co. designs are constantly reinterpreted with every generation of new creatives, looking into the designs for the ideals many of us look for in society. With continued interest and research into John Henry Dearle, we can now attribute the right designer whose designs continues to inspire us today.


posted on 09 Jul 2024 in Interiors

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