William Morris - Labors of the Months

The highest reward for a person's toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it. ~John Ruskin

Early Morris and Co. (Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, and Co.) Labors of the Months.  WilliamMorrisTile.com

Labors of March (Ford Maddox Brown), April (William Morris), May (Ford Maddox Brown), June (William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones)

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Labors Overview      Difference Between Morris Versions      Philip Webb Astrological Inset Additions

Undercabinet Backsplash      Queens' College Overmantel Tiles      Labors, Month by Month

Labors of the Months Tiles

The Labors of the Months tiles are based on tiles produced by Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. (Morris & Co.'s predecessor) in the 1860s-1870s. They in turn were based on earlier tiles made for the Queens' College Overmantel at Cambridge. (Queens' College Overmantel Tiles and Labors Overview)

Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. Labours of the Months, showing astrological insets added by Philip Webb.

Morris, Marshall, and Faulkner Labors of the Months tile panels

Differences Between the Morris Versions

The later Labors tiles produced by 'The Firm' differ from the Queens' College tiles in several ways beyond color choices.

Top: Queens' College Labors of the Months: January to June.  Bottom: Morris, Marshall and Faulkner Labors of the Month, January to June

Top: Queens' College Labors, January to June.
Bottom: Later tiles produced for sale by Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co.

  • The sequence of months has changed between April and May.

  • The man sharpening the scythe in June has been replaced by a man shearing sheep.

  • Later Labors of the Month tile sold by 'The Firm' included an an astrological glyph inset that was added to each tile by Philip Webb.

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There's some variation in the scenes assigned to the months, across various medieval manuscripts and even in ballads.

Medieval English Ballad (MS Oxford BL Digby 88, c. 1290 AD)

Januar By thys fyre I warme my handys;
Februar And with my spade I delfe my landys.
Marche Here I sette my thynge to sprynge;
Aprile And here I here the fowlis synge.
Maij I am as lyght as byrde in bowe;
Junij And I wede my corne well I-now.
Julij With my sythe my mede I mawe;
Auguste And here I shere my corne full lowe.
September With my flayll I erne my brede;
October And here I sawe my whete so rede.
November At Martynesmasse I kylle my swyne;
December And at Cristesmasse I drynke redde wyne.

See The Labours, Month by Month

Labors of the Month Undercabinet Backsplash Tiles

I decided to make the panels as an undercabinet backsplash. If the installation wall is not long enough, the sequences could wrap around to another wall. Each panel is 4.25 inches by 8.5 inches, for an overall length without field tile of 51 inches. Six-inch tiles are also available; this pushes the length out to 6 feet, without field tiles.

William Morris Tile: Photo of Labours of the Months tiles, complete.

Overall, I like prefer colors of the tiles produced by 'The Firm' and the way the sequence of months from the Queens' College set lays out. The shearing for the month of June is more clearly different than July's sickle, someless ominous than the scythe being sharpened in the Queens' College set (and I was already committed to the colors).

Philip Webb, Astrological Insets

The astrological insets added by Philip Webb can be confusing:

  • Webb put the astrological sign for Taurus on the Month of May, but his May tile is the April tile in the Queens' College set.

  • The astrological sign for Sagittarius (November in the months) is centaur, but Webb includes a different ram from the Aries ram.

  • Philip Webb assigns the astrological signs by the month in which they begin, so that Morris's birth month, March, is Aries. This was often the custom in earlier renderings of the Labors.

Left: Month of December from Wandalbert von Prum, Martyrologium. German, 9th c. Vatican Library in Rome.  Right: Philip Webb astrological inset for month of November

Left: Month of December from Wandalbert von Prum, Martyrologium. German, 9th c. Vatican Library in Rome. Right: Philip Webb astrological inset for month of November.

I chose not to go with Philip Webb's astrological insets, but this was not my initial choice. The panels sold by 'The Firm' were on 9-inch tiles, requiring 9 feet of wall space, without any field tiles, more than most Morris lovers would have in their manor houses, and the added insert seemed to break the line:

Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. Labours of the Months, showing astrological insets added by Philip Webb.

Pricing and Specifications

Title: Labors of the Months Undercabinet Backsplash

Tile: Ceramic

Size: 4.25 inch and 6 inch tiles

12 Labors of the Months Panels (4.25 inch):: $1310

12 Labors of the Months Panels (6 inch):: $1610

How to Order Tile

Common Scenes in Medieval Labors

The Labors chosen by the Pre-Raphaelites are consistent with earlier Labors and Books of Hours images.

Very Early Labors

Salzburg manuscript Labors of the Month, early 800s.

Common "labors" (Labors from the Salzburg manuscript, St. Peter's Abbey, Austria, c. 818 AD)

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The Labours, Month by Month

Top: Queens' College Labors of the Months: January to June.  Bottom: Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. Labors of the Month, January to June

January: The image for January is Janus, Roman god of beginnings and transitions, and time. This is the only panel that is not a proper labor. Common January scenes: The god Janus looking forward and back, feasting at table, warming at a fire.

February: A woman at work in a kitchen and her cat warm themelves before a fire. She is reading a valentine. Valentine's Day dates as early as the 5th century but gained popularity in the 1700s. Typical February scenes include people warming themselves before a fire and chopping wood.

Compare:

Labors of the Months of the Duc de Berry, 15th century: January and February

Labors of the Months of the Duc de Berry, 15th c.: January and February

March: Pruning of trees and vines. Note white owl. Up until the 18th century, farmers began their New Year on Lady Day, March 25 (Happy Birthday, May Morris).

April: The figures of May and April are interchanged in the later tiles, although May has no tell-tale inset. Webb's astrological inset for April is Taurus, which begins in April, consistent with his other insets. Common activities for April: Spring sowing and broadcasting of seeds. Common scienes: A figure holding greenery, vineyard workers.

May: Gaelic May Day (May 1st) marks he beginning of summer. Typical May scenes include falconry (as shown in the later tiles) and flowering branches (as shown in the Queens' College set). The later Morris tiles also include a dove.

June: Mowing and the shearing of sheep. 'The Firm' went with shearing for the later tiles. The scythe and sickle of the Queens' College tiles could be argued as being the same labor.

Top: Queens' College Labors of the Months: July to December.  Bottom: Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. Labors of the Month, July to December

July: Reaping grain on a hot day. Common July scenes: Cutting wheat or grass with a scythe, reaping grain with a sickle.

August: Threshing with a flail to separate out grain from plant. The next step is winnowing, separating the grain from chaff. Common August labors: Harvesting, Threshing.

September: Vintaging. Common September labors: grape harvest, flailing grain, sowing winter wheat and rye. Michaelmas, September 29, was tax day, the day that payments were added to the coffers of the lord of the manor (see Salzburg months).

October: A woman feeds pigs by shaking acorns from a tree. Common October labors: Sowing wheat and rye, gathering nuts and fruits, letting pigs forage in woodlands for mast crops (acorns, hazelnuts, beechnuts, hawes).

November: Sowing winter grains. Common November scenes: Gathering nuts for pigs, slaughtering hogs or cattle, collecting firewood.

December: Butchering a pig. Common December scenes: Yuletide feasting, butchering, gathering firewood.

Queens' College Labors of the Months

Pre-Raphaelite tiles, Queens College overmantel, Cambridge. January to June

From left: January (Morris / Burne-Jones), February (Burne-Jones), March (Ford Maddox Brown), April (Morris), May (Ford Maddox Brown), June (Morris, Burne-Jones)

Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. was conceived in an after-dinner conversation at William Morris's Red House and in 1862 set up business at 8 Red Lion Square. An early commission for 'The Firm' was the creation of tiles for the fireplace in the Old Hall in 1864. The original tiles consisted of the Labors of the Months, the Angels of Night and Day, and Saints Bernard and Margaret. Larger panels of Queen Margaret of Anjou and Queen Elizabeth Woodville were added in 1873; both were painted by Ford Maddox Brown.

Pre-Raphaelite tiles, Queens College overmantel, Cambridge. January to June

From left: July (Morris / Rossetti), August (Rossetti), September (Rossetti), October (Burne-Jones), November (Ford Maddox Brown), December (Ford Maddox Brown, Rossetti)

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Additional reading: The tile decoration by Morris & Co. for Queens' College, Cambridge, The inspiration of illuminated manuscripts

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