William Morris Sölvi Helgason

Did Jane Morris’s and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s affair have an influence on the Arts and Crafts Movement? … Affair of Ice and Arts … William Morris Sölvi Helgason

Was William Morris influenced by the Icelander Sölvi Helgason to enhance his designs? … Affair of Ice and Arts

Did Morris’s trips to Iceland uniquely enhance his designs and influence the Arts and Crafts Movement? … Affair of Ice and Arts

First of all the Players – a whistle-stop …

Sölvi Helgason (1820-1895)

A drifter, a folk artist, a philosopher, that was Sölvi Helgason. He was born on a farm called Fjall in Sléttuhliíð in the eastern part of Skagafjörður Iceland on August 16, 1820 (and lived to the age of 75 which wasn’t bad for those days in that locality).

He is known to have travelled extensively across the island but apparently without the then required legal permissions from the sheriff. Consequently, he was once arrested for drifting and sent to prison in Copenhagen Denmark (Iceland at that time was part of and administered by, Denmark).

Following his incarceration, he returned to Iceland and met Júlíana Sveinbjörnsdóttir, who is described as being both physically and mentally disabled, and who became his wife and travelling partner. Sölvi would carry Júlíana in a sack on his back while they travelled around, much to the mockery of the locals.

His works show a distinct and virtually unchanging floral design style. A little like Vincent Van Gogh, Sölvi used his works to pay for his accommodation and food during his travels.

Sölvi Helgason

A recent exhibition at the Art Museum Reykjavik Iceland displayed many of his works and it’s worth popping onto their website to find a good view of many of Sölvi’s works.

William Morris (1834-1896)

Jane Morris’s & Rossetti’s affair have an influence on the Arts and Crafts Movement?

William Morris visited Iceland twice: in August 1871 and 1873. This was primarily because he was interested in translating the Icelandic sagas as well as being fascinated by its culture and other literature. He perceived himself as a rugged man of the north rather than a gallic southerner and this reinforced his identification with the country. His trip was also allegedly to escape the tensions resulting from his wife Jane’s infatuation with the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Morris wished to use his absence to force the issue of the Jane-Rossetti relationship one way or another.

I’ve read through Morris’s journals of 1871 and 1873 and they are largely descriptions of his travels: the landscape’s sights and sounds, food he eats as well as the people he meets in his accommodations. He writes a great deal about the Icelandic sagas’ locations, but there is scant reference to any artwork or even artifacts. Certainly, there is very little if any mention of artists. However, this was of course not the point of his voyages. It was literature and the sagas that inspired him to go.

Jane Morris nee Burden (1839-1914)

Jane Morris’s & Rossetti’s affair have an influence on the Arts and Crafts Movement?
Jane Morris as Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1874

Jane’s father was a stable hand, and her mother was an illiterate laundress. Wikipedia has all the details but the important bit here is that whilst attending a theatre performance in London she was spotted by Dante Gabriele Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones, for her beauty and she became the iconic PRB model and muse for them. She also sat for William Morris who she later married but confessed never loved. Rossetti never left the scene and eventually they had an affair which was part reason why Morris travelled to Iceland. Morris ended Jane’s affair with Rossetti in 1876 owing to his schizophrenic-like psychotic episodes and his addiction to chloral and whiskey.

Dante Gabriel Rosetti (1828-1882)

Jane Morris’s & Rossetti’s affair have an influence on the Arts and Crafts Movement?
Dante Gabriel Rossetti by William Holman Hunt

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was an English poet and painter who helped found the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848. It was through the second generation of the PRB artists that Rossetti met William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones.

Rossetti became a great friend of Morris and Jane. Together they took out a tenancy on Kelmscott on the Gloucestershire Oxfordshire border and it was here whilst restoring and furnishing the house that Rossetti and Jane Morris were left alone whist Morris travelled to Iceland.

Jane Morris’s & Rossetti’s affair have an influence on the Arts and Crafts Movement?

Next-setting the scene: the Morris-Helgason design synergism or coincidence?

So, did William Morris and Sölvi Helgason ever meet? Perhaps somebody or an organisation knows but after extensive research I can find no evidence of such. So, did he see any work by Helgason? Did he meet him? The odds for either are are probable and I’d like to think that he did.

Morris and his companions travelled across Iceland on pony reaching as far as Akureyri and maybe even further from his landing port of Reykjavik. The country’s population would only have been around 60-70,000. Artists would have been few and far between and Sölvi was well known for his floral works that were used for payment and hence disseminated to those that could afford to and might have met or accommodated Morris. There is therefore a high level of probability that Morris met Helgason or at least saw examples of his works in 1871 or 73, given Sölvi’s fame for floral design and Morris’s growing infatuation with similar designs.

The possible influence

It was whilst visiting the poet Davíð Stefánsson’s house in Akureyri that I noticed on the wall a collage of Sölvi’s works together with what is presumably a self-portrait.

Sölvi Helgason at Davíð Stefánsson’s house in Akureyri

It was intriguing. Being an admirer of William Morris (1834-1896) and the Arts and Crafts Movement in the UK and USA, Sölvi’s floral design style seemed to have a most distinct resemblance to that of William Morris’s textile designs. Influences? Synergism? Coincidence?

Worth a thought.

If Morris met Helganson or indeed if he only saw the latter’s floral designs, did it make an impact on his future textile designs?

Sölvi Helgason
Sölvi Helgason
Sölvi Helgason

I can only speculate but perhaps there’s somebody out there who has evidence. Maybe the William Morris Society, or a source in Iceland where Morris is still highly regarded.

All I can do is compare the styles and the chronology of respective works and allow the reader to make their own minds up.

Look at his ‘Trellis’ of 1864…

Trellis 1864

…one of his first wallpaper designs. William Morris Sölvi Helgason

Compare this with ‘African Marigold’ 1876, ‘Tulip and Willow’ 1873, ‘Windrush’ 1881, ‘Strawberry Thief’ 1881, and ‘Cray’ 1884.

African Marigold 1876
Affair of Ice and Arts
Tulip and Willow 1873
Affair of Ice and Arts
Windrush 1881
Strawberry Thief 1883
Affair of Ice and Arts
Cray 1884
Jane Morris’s & Rossetti’s affair have an influence on the Arts and Crafts Movement?
William Morris Sölvi Helgason

Is there a development of style from 1864? Is there more flourish? Is there more domination of the floral motif? Was the Icelander Sölvi Helgason a significance influence on the burgeoning Arts and Craft movement? And Jane’s relationship with Rossetti being a factor in Morris’s decision to visit Iceland?

Footnote: such is the interest in the design relationship between these two artists that a touring exhibition of Helgason’s and Morris’s works was held in Copenhagen, Stockholm and Reykjavik recently. Such was deemed the exhibition’s importance that Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir spoke at the opening; she was known to have an interest in Morris and lectured about him to the WMS UK in 2013 when members toured Iceland.

Affair of Ice and Arts William Morris Sölvi Helgason