Two Original Designs for a Border. William Morris (1834-1896). 1894. Pen and ink on wc paper with pencilled outline visible and touches of blue pencil colouring. Both 103 x 181 mm [L shape, 25 mm (1 inch) wide] (4 1/16 x 7 1/8 inches); 26 x 200 mm (1 x 7 7/8 inches). Provenance: bought along with a printer's proof of the design, and a facsimile of a note from S.C.C. Cockerell authenticating the designs. Lot 234, Dominic Winters, Cirencester, 9th April 2014. Both borders depicting vine leaves, grapes, and entwining tendrils. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Commentary by Paul Crowther

Morris's Kelmscott Press published its first book—The Story of the Glittering Plain which has been also called the Land of Living Men or the Acre of the Undying in May 1891. The story is a fantasy/romance by Morris himself. It tells of Hallblithe, a young man (living in some imaginary northern European past) who undertakes an epic adventure to rescue the love of his life, who has been kidnapped by pirates and taken to a strange foreign land. In 1894, The Story of the Glittering Plain was republished, this time with 23 woodcut illustrations by Walter Crane. It was the only Kelmscott work ever to be published in a second edition.

The present work consists of Morris's hand-made designs for three-quarters of the framing border that surrounds Crane's image of Hallblithe laying down and sleeping beneath a tree. The "missing" quarter of the design is not actually missing at all, because it did not need to be done. A. Leverett—who did the woodcuts—seems to have been instructed to create the short border on the right, by mirror reversing Morris's design for the short border on the left. The design, and the image it surrounds, can be found on p. 92, at the start of Chapter 14—entitled "Hallblithe has speech with the King again." The description of the represented scene occurs a few pages later on p. 95. The King says he will neither help nor hinder Hallblithe's search—but is clearly angry. After departing, Hallblithe walks after midnight until "mere weariness laid him down under a tree, not knowing where he was."


A page from: W. Morris, The Story of the Glittering Plain, illustration by Walter Crane. [Click upon image to enlarge it.]

Originally both design fragments were part of the same sheet. Indeed, included in the same lot were a printer's proof of the sheet in question, and a photocopied ms. note reading "Morris’s designs for borders to Crane's illustration in the illustrated edn. of the Glittering Plain & engraver's proofs S.C.C." and beneath this (in another hand) "Given to me by S.C. Cockerell July 1920." Sir Sydney Carlisle Cockerell (1867–1962) was private secretary to Morris in the 1890s and a great champion of the Kelmscott Press and its legacy. He wrote an important summary entitled "An Annotated List of All the Books Printed at the Kelmscott Press in the Order in which They Were Issued" (Sparling 148-172).

In this summary, Cockerell says of The Glittering Plain, that "Neither the borders in this book nor six out of the seven frames round the illustrations appear in any other book." The present frame designs are among the six that were used only in The Glittering Plain. These designs obviously passed into Cockerell's ownership after Morris's death. (Another such work with Cockerell provenance was also sold by Dominic Winters as Lot 269 in their auction of 10th April 2013.)

Morris invested a great deal of creative energy in his ornamental designs. Of special interest for the present works are the following recollections by the distinguished architect William Lethaby:

I have watched Mr. Morris designing the black and white borders for his books. He would have two saucers, one with India ink, the other of Chinese white. Then, making the slightest indications of the main stems of the pattern he had in mind, with pencil, he would begin at once his finished final ornament by covering a length of ground with one brush and painted the pattern with the other. If a part did not satisfy him, the other brush covered it up again, and again he set to put in his finished ornament. This procedure opens up another idea of his, that a given piece of work was best done once for all, and that all making of elaborate cartoons, and accurately copying into clear finished drawing, was a mistake. . . . The actual drawing with the brush was an agreeable sensation to him; the forms were led along and bent over and rounded at the edge with definitive pleasure; they were stroked into place, as it were, with a sensation like that of smoothing a cat. . . thus he kept alive every part of his work by growing the pattern, as I have said, bit by bit, solving the turns and twists as he came to them. (quoted in Sparling 67)

In the present designs, the original pencil work is visible at points. Morris then rendered the basic structure in black ink, adding white to give a more three-dimensional emphasis to areas of the design involving grapes or vine-tendrils. In The Story of the Glittering Plain, there are twenty-three illustrations, but this optical effect is used only in the present designs and in one other border.

You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the Crowther-Oblak Collection of Victorian Art and and the National Gallery of Slovenia and the Moore Institute, National University of Ireland, Galway (2) and link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.


Crowther, Paul. Awakening Beauty: The Crowther-Oblak Collection of Victorian Art. Exhibition catalogue. Ljubljana: National Gallery of Slovenia; Galway: Moore Institute, National University of Ireland, 2014. No. 83.

Sparling, H. Halliday. The Kelmscott Press and William Morris Master Craftsman. London: Macmillan and Co., 1924.

Last modified 15 December 2014