Design for Oxford Union Ceiling (Curved Rib of Roof) by William Morris

Design for Curving Rib of Oxford Union Debating Hall. Acanthus leaves swirling around central pole, a design for a beam. The Oxford Union Debating Hall murals were painted between 1857 and 1859 by a team of young artists including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. The paintings depict scenes from the Arthurian legends. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, inspired by the additions to the Union Society buildings designed by his friend the architect Benjamin Woodward (1815-61), offered to decorate the interior of the Debating Chamber (now the Library) with tempera murals of scenes from the Morte d'Arthur. There was no charge other than for the cost of materials and subsistence for the group of artists he assembled to assist him, among whom were Morris and Burne-Jones. The ceiling design is by William Morris. It was painted in 1857 and subsequently restored by Morris in 1875 to a modified design. As Mackail so succinctly described the venture, 'The story of these paintings ... is one of work hastily undertaken, executed under impossible conditions, and finally abandoned after time and labour had been spent on it quite disproportionate to the original design.' Those paintings which were completed rapidly deteriorated were a subject of considerable concern within the Union until the mid 1870s. In 1869 a Committee of Enquiry considered the options of white-washing out what remained or covering them with Morris's Fruit wallpaper, a move opposed by Morris who wrote to Richard Thufsfield (1840-1923), the Committee chairman, in December 1869, that the murals, especially those by Arthur Hughes and Burne-Jones, were worth retaining (Kelvin, 1, 97). Five years later the report of the Fresco Committee, appointed on February 19,1874, recorded, 'Mr. Morris further called attention to the very unsatisfactory condition of the roof, in which he took a special interest as it was in great part his own work. He pointed out that restoration was impossible . .. but if it were thought desirable to repaint it, he suggested that a new and lighter design might be adopted, and he very kindly said that he would prepare such a design gratuitously if the Society cared to go to the expense of having it executed.' The Society agreed to Morris's generous offer and on the completion of the new design in May 1875 employed the firm of decorative painters Frederick R. Leach, first employed by Morris for the decoration of Jesus College Chapel, Cambridge, in 1866, to carry out the work, to be completed in two months for the sum of £75. The Committee's report of November 25th records that, 'The satisfactory result must be largely attributed to Mr. Morris's personal supervision of the work.' Thus the present design of the ceiling dates from Morris's maturity as a designer and not, as is sometimes supposed, from 1857. From contemporary reports the earlier design appears to have been far less sophisticated and more Ruskinian, incorporating a menagerie among its foliage. See Catalogue of the Original Designs by Morris and Company in the Collection of the William Morris Society by David Rodgers. (The Journal of the William Morris Society http://www.morrissociety.org/JWMS/13.1Autumn1998/AU98.13.1.Rodgers.pdf )

Record ID:D13
Measurement:61 x 98.6 cm
Inscription:Inscribed recto: Oxford (watercolour). 24 (pen). Curbed Rib of Roof Side Elevation (pencil).The property of William Morris (pen). Stencilled verso: 9c; Merton Abbey.
Classification:Original designs
Artist:Morris, William
Medium:Pencil and watercolour on paper
Date:1874 - 1875
References:D17 and D74 are other designs for this decoration. Similar motif to that found on this design can be found on WMG/A25, Tie Beam for Chancel design. See Catalogue of the Original Designs by Morris and Company in the Collection of the William Morris Society by David Rodgers. (The Journal of the William Morris Society http://www.morrissociety.org/JWMS/13.1Autumn1998/AU98.13.1.Rodgers.pdf )