Tavistock Heritage Festival

Morris' Trellis wallpaper design, 1864

Morris' Trellis wallpaper design, 1864 - Credit: Archant

How did William Morris, synonymous with wallpaper design, have links with a health scandal rooted in here Devon? Ahead of her key talk on the link as part of this month’s Tavistock Heritage Festival, Geri Parlby reveals the story

The copper port at Morwellham in about 1900 - part of the Devon Great Consols empire

The copper port at Morwellham in about 1900 - part of the Devon Great Consols empire - Credit: Archant

Victorian designer William Morris, whose impressively bearded visage may well end up gracing the new £20 note, was indeed a man of many faces. He is probably best known today as the creator of wallpaper, fabrics and stained glass windows, but he was also a poet, artist, philosopher, typographer and socialist. What is less well known about him is his involvement in one of the greatest health scandals of 19th century and his links to the richest copper and arsenic mine in Europe, the Devonshire Great Consolidated Copper Mining Company works in the Tamar Valley.

In the mid 19th century green was the colour of the moment: it appeared on everything from confectionery to clothing, curtains, paint and even wallpaper. One manufacturer of the time estimated that as many as 100 million square miles of green coloured paper were to be found on the walls of homes in Britain. Unfortunately, the wonderfully vivid pigment which had inspired a nation was created using copper arsenate and it was said to have been slowly sickening and sometimes even killing thousands of people up and down the country. In part because of the flakes of arsenic that could be rubbed off the paper, but also because fungi could grow in wallpaper paste and act upon the arsenic in the paper to release a poisonous vapour.

One of the leading producers of wallpaper at the height of this scandal was none other than William Morris who had made the colour green a key component in all his verdant designs. When Morris set up his first design company Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co in 1861 he did so thanks to his family’s profits from their investments in none other than the Devonshire Great Consolidated Copper Mining Company or Devon Great Consols as it became known. This was at a time when the mines were producing as much as half the arsenic utilised throughout the world.

Although he did ultimately sell his mining shares and remove arsenic pigments from his wallpaper, Morris remained one of the most vocal opponents of the campaign to ban arsenic in the production of wallpaper claiming that ‘it was hardly possible to imagine a ‘great folly’ than the arsenic scare: the doctors were bitten as people bitten by witch fever’. w

William Morris, creator of wallpaper, fabrics and stained glass windows, but also a poet, artist, ph

William Morris, creator of wallpaper, fabrics and stained glass windows, but also a poet, artist, philosopher, typographer and socialist - Credit: Archant

Arsenic and old Wallpapers – William Morris and the Devon Great Consols Mine by art historian Dr Geri Parlby will be one of the key talks at this year’s Tavistock Heritage Festival which will be running from 30 October to 2 November. For further information on the events at the Festival visit tavistockheritagefestival.co.uk

A DESIGN FOR LIFE

William Morris’ first wallpaper design in 1862 was called Trellis, inspired by the rose-trellis in the garden of his house in Bexleyheath.

A Devon Great Consols railway engine on the tack from its mine to Morwellham

A Devon Great Consols railway engine on the tack from its mine to Morwellham - Credit: Archant

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He designed over 50 wallpapers, and his firm produced a further 49 by other designers including George Gilbert Scott (usually credited with Indian), Kate Faulkner (Carnation), and J.H. Dearle (Compton).

Despite being one of the most prolific wallpaper designers Morris always regarded wallpaper as a ‘makeshift’ decoration and preferred woven textile hangings for his own home.

Morris remained a director and major shareholder of the Devon Great Consols Mine until 1876

Facts Courtesy of V&A: vam.ac.uk/content/articles/w/william-morris-and-wallpaper-design