Alastair Morton and Edinburgh Weavers: Visionary Textiles and Modern Art

This review first appeared in Textile History, 43 (2) Nov 2012: 272-3

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LESLEY JACKSON, Alastair Morton and Edinburgh Weavers: Visionary Textiles and Modern Art. V&A Publishing, London 2012, 352pp., ISBN 9781851776603 

A book dedicated to the work of Alastair Morton and Edinburgh Weavers is long-awaited. Previous publications, including Three Generation of a Family Textile Firm, written by a family member and the small exhibition catalogue Alastair Morton and Edinburgh Weavers are both over thirty years old and really only scratch the surface of the significance of Alastair Morton’s and Edinburgh Weavers’ contribution to artistically progressive printed and woven textiles. Morton was a lynchpin in the promotion of Modernism in Britain from the 1930s until his death in 1963. His prominence as an artist, designer, manufacturer and writer make him a highly suitable subject for a monograph.

The book reflects the trend in recent years for publications that uncover the role of design within a wider framework of textile manufacture. This volume represents the latest in a growing list of scholarly and accessible publications by Lesley Jackson that deal with twentieth century design. At the heart of all of them is meticulous and detailed research. Jackson’s stated aim is to examine ‘both the public face of Alastair Morton as a pioneer of Modernism, as well as his more private creative world’. Although not a traditional biography, Alastair Morton is at the centre of the celebratory narrative. She begins with a discussion of the family firm – Alexander Morton & Company (later Morton Sundour Fabrics) and the role of Alastair’s father James in establishing the firm’s reputation for high quality products with patterns by designers such as CFA Voysey and Lindsay Butterfield. It was this focus on design that lead to the establishment of a subsidiary in 1928, Edinburgh Weavers, with the intention of producing textiles of a ‘superior technical and artistic quality’. But the central story really begins in 1931 when Alastair Morton became actively involved in the operation of Edinburgh Weavers as its driving creative force. Jackson’s discussion of these early years reveals how the firm’s products became essential components of the Modernist interior, seen frequently on the pages of magazines such as Architectural Review and used in Modernist  interiors such as the BBC’s new 1933 Broadcasting House building.

A chapter is devoted to Edinburgh Weavers’ ‘Constructivist Fabrics’ range of 1937. Jackson acknowledges this as a ‘high point’ for the firm and describes Morton’s collaborative working methods with artists such as Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth. His talent of working closely with artists to translate their designs into cloth, leads Jackson to describe him as a ‘co-designer’. This discussion is followed by an analysis of Morton’s practice as a fine artist which was so crucial in terms of feeding his creativity as a designer and facilitating relationships with fine artists, many of whom went on to design for the firm.

The relationship between fine art and design is a theme that runs throughout the book. Jackson articulates clearly Morton’s view ‘that a good textile was the equal of a good painting’. He was a self-taught weaver, whose interest in pattern ‘grew out of the texture and weave of a cloth’, as he said himself ‘the cloth always comes first’. This principal is expertly articulated in chapter 5 which analyses Morton’s practice as a designer.

In the following two chapters the re-emergence of Edinburgh Weavers after its temporary war-time closure is discussed and its important role in nurturing talented new designers (e.g. Lucienne Day and Jacqueline Groag) and encouraging numerous fine artists to design for the company (e.g. William Gear, Keith Vaughan and William Scott). The final part of the book deals with developments at the company after Alastair Morton’s death.

Throughout Jackson emphasises the theme of cross fertilization, between art and textiles, hand and industrial production and between artists, designers and the manufacturer. The copious high quality visual material makes for an extremely attractive publication, most are in colour and many have never been published before, although the detailed formalist analysis of so many of the examples illustrated is probably superfluous.

One of the problems of researching Edinburgh Weavers is the disparate nature of the primary sources associated with Morton and the company. In this publication Jackson has managed to access and pull together a huge range of material into a coherent and thorough examination.  She provides extremely useful appendices that include a catalogue of Edinburgh Weavers’ textiles, an inventory of Morton’s paintings, drawings and designs, short biographies of the individuals who produced designs for the company and a glossary of textile terminology.

Jackson is unapologetic in focusing on a company whose output was ‘modest in industrial terms’, but significant artistically and her aim of resurrecting Morton’s reputation has certainly been realized. The book is a significant addition to the growing numbers of quality publications on twentieth century textile design history.