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

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  • The man sharpening the scythe in June has been replaced by a man shearing sheep.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

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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.

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

February: Probably William Morris with Edward Burne-Jones
March: Edward Burne-Jones
April: Ford Maddox Brown
May: Ford Maddox Brown
June: William Morris
July: Probably William Morris or Dante Gabriel Rossetti
August: Dante Gabriel Rossetti
September: Dante Gabriel Rossetti
October: Edward Burne-Jones
November: Ford Maddox Brown
December: Ford Maddox Brown or Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Not Shown

Margaret of Anjou: Ford Maddox Brown, added in 1873
Elizabeth Woodville as Queen: Ford Maddox Brown, added in 1873
St Bernard: Edard Burne-Jones
St Margeret: Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Angels of Night and Day: William Morris

Swan Field Tiles

Swan tiles surround both the labors and saints in the Queens' College overmantel. Several verified versions of the swans exist. See variations of William Morris swan tiles.

The tiles lining the fireplace are reminiscent of the swans in the surround but are more reminiscent of the early 1860's Leaves and Berries design taken from a Morris and Co. fireplace at 'The Hill'.

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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Later Labors

Typical February scenes include people warming themselves before a fire and chopping wood.

Compare to Morris's February:

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

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

Related Pages

Labors of the Month of the Duc de Berry's Book of Hours

Edward Burne-Jones Sleeping Beauty Firplace Tiles Panels

Edward Burne-Jones Beauty and the Beast Fireplace Tiles

Edward Burne-Jones Cinderella Fireplace Tiles

William Morris Swan Tiles

Legend of Good Wimmen Tiles