Who is the Strawberry Thief?

It sounds like the sort of person who’d snatch the fruit from your ice cream sundae when you’re looking the other way, doesn’t it?

But this thief isn’t a human. It’s a bird.

The British artist and textile designer William Morris came home one day to find a thrush — which is a small songbird — sitting contentedly on his kitchen counter.

William Morris' classic pattern shows pretty birds eagerly eying up some strawberries.

The crafty creature had flown in through an open window after stealing strawberries from a plant that was growing in a small fruit-and-vegetable patch he had outside.

More and more thrushes came and took his fruit between their beaks, and, whereas many proud gardeners would try to shoo the small animals away to protect their precious plants, he insisted that the birds should be left to their own devices.

He enjoyed watching them darting about as they tasted the sweet nectar-like juice of his strawberries, and he didn’t want to disturb their activity.

Morris was inspired by this everyday event to produce one of his most highly valued and greatly admired textile patterns.

In fact, he was often inspired by the natural world in his designs, because he thought that rural life could be a source of stimulation and stability for people in a sometimes difficult and confusing world.

Some people accused him of romanticising the past, but he wanted to bring beauty into people’s lives, when the Industrial Revolution seemed to be bringing only ugliness.

A disused steel mill.

Poor people were moving away from the countryside in order to find jobs in the factories, working long hours with noisy and dirty machines.

This produced great advances, allowing items to be produced more cheaply and at a faster rate, but it also made the workers more isolated from the beauty of the world.

It seemed as though things were becoming more uniform and regular and dreary and dismal, in a way that they hadn’t been when small craftsmen and women would produce custom-made items based on traditions and patterns that had been passed down and elaborated on over centuries.

William Morris wanted to combine the elegance and simplicity of the old world with the order and efficiency of the new.

He was fortunate to live in a large house with extensive gardens called Kelmscott Manor (which is now open to the public).

So he looked to the environment around him and took inspiration from his everyday life in the countryside of Oxfordshire when he was creating his designs — and that is why the strawberry-snatching bird became memorialized in one of his most famous works.

Whether you agree or disagree with his opinions about 19th-century industry or not, it’s hard to dispute the beauty of the artwork that he produced.

As you can see, this particular pattern shows a pair of thrushes facing away from each other with their tails touching.

Their beaks are just above a delicious strawberry that is hanging down from the plant, ready to be plucked, just like the fruit that was taken by the real-life birds.

There is a complex floral pattern in the background, using subdued shades of green and blue that pick out the intricate shapes of leaves and foliage.

Many of the designs created by William Morris incorporated complicated floral patterns, perhaps because the winding branches and blooming flowers that he used could fill otherwise empty spaces — but fewer of his designs contained images of animals.

In the small number of cases where animals were included, we tend to see small creatures like birds or squirrels, which are able to fit seamlessly into their horticultural surroundings, rather than big beasts that would take over the artwork and distract from the smaller motifs.

Everything was intended to work in harmony together, so that the viewer could gaze at the pattern and soak up some sense of the scene as a whole.

So the Strawberry Thief is unusual for placing so much emphasis on the central birds, but this may be because the story behind the design is so important.

The strawberries look so delicious that it’s hard to blame our feathered friends for taking them!

Everything is set against a navy-blue background, which makes the fruit-grabbing birds and the greenery seem bright and full of life.

Like so many of Morris’ designs, there is an elegant symmetry to the placement of the central elements: both sides mirror each other, and the pattern can be endlessly repeated.

So it is an idealised and stylised version of the natural world. It’s not just a simple representation of what he saw before his eyes. Of course, it would not have had the same effect, if that’s all it had been.

The original pattern was created in 1883, and it was printed on various kinds of furnishings and fabrics in the following decades, but its design is timeless — and, some would say, flawless.

It is still widely appreciated today by art-lovers and all kinds of ordinary people who simply want to see a little more beauty in their lives.

And with so many items available to choose from that incorporate this elegant design, it would, without doubt, make a great addition to your home.

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