A Morris and De Morgan Tile-Panel
The early commissions of Morris and Company for decorative work at St James Palace (1865-67), the Green Dining-Room in this Museum (1866) and at No. 1 Palace Green (1868) are well documented, as well as being for Morris and his still fairly new firm important milestones towards success. Some light can be thrown on another major commission, not previously discussed, of which almost nothing now remains but some tile-panels.
The commission was to decorate Membland Hall, which lay some miles north east of Plymouth. Originally the house was an 18th century one but in 1877 it was remodelled for the Baring family by George Devey. Before discussing the commission some words should be spared for Devey (1820-1886): at the time when this text was written he was rather forgotten, probably because he played little part (unlike most leading architects of his day) in the governance of the Royal Institute of British Architects or the Architectural Association; but, in his heyday, Devey was a prolific builder and adaptor of country houses, which he often constructed in a pastiche of the Jacobean and Queen Anne styles.
His patrons were usually landed gentry, and very often bankers. One such was Edward Charles Baring (1828-1897; created first Baron Revelstoke in 1885), for whom Devey had already worked about 1863 at Coombe Cottage, Surrey. In 1887 Baring bought Membland Hall and got Devey to enlarge it by adding wings and also outbuildings to serve as a laundry, stables, and so on. The work must have gone on speedily for the west wing was dated 1877, and Devey's account book shows that the payment of his fees stop after 1879.
Until this text was written, Devey has not been associated with Morris, whose usual architectural contacts were Philip Webb, Norman Shaw, A.H. Mackmurdo and others in touch with the Arts and Crafts movement. However, Baring was a perceptive patron and collector of the arts, as his son, Maurice Baring, noted in his reminiscences; here, he also tells us that Membland Hall became renowned as the place of fashionable house-parties, to which would be invited musicians like Charles Halle, founder of the famous orchestra, and the highly sociable Prince of Wales. For Morris almost the starting-point of this venture is recorded in a diary entry published in Mackail's 'Life of William Morris' (Oxford, 1950, p. 364), thus:
'18th May (1877) Mr. Morris slept last night in town and was up on the move when I arrived. He had been downstairs and set the new dye-pot at work, ready for him to set an indigo vat in the afternoon. Kirby's man came and finished fixing the ciphering tube. G.W. (George Wardle) and W.M. (William Morris) talked over Mrs. Baring's house in Devonshire; the work we have proposed to do will certainly take two or three years before all completed: we have to get our Lyons silk-weaver at work for one thing ...'
This extract is tantalising rather than informative, though it seems to suggest that silk-hangings were planned for Membland. Reading further in Mackail, we find (20 September 1877) that the silk-weaver, Bazin, has already arrived and has been set to work, on the loom, the 'willow silk' pattern. Now there is no Willow Silk in the canon of Morris' designs, although a Willow wallpaper was created in 1874.
Whether the silk was a version of this we do not gather from Mackail, but whatever pattern Bazin was set to produce was extremely difficult to make, Mackail says, and in the end we never learn what happened to it. This is all that can be gleaned about the Membland commission from Mackail. A little more can be gathered from the surviving Bedford Lemere photographs which were taken inside and around the house probably in the late 1880s.
One is interesting in that it shows a Morris Saville chair off the hall, otherwise untreated by Morris; another print is more informative, for it illustrates 'Chrysanthemum', the expensive embossed wallpaper which dated from 1877 and may well have been created for this house. The remainder of the photographs show the public rooms: dining-room, drawing room, hall; throughout the decor shows no trace of Morris work and is in an insipid rococo style. Final evidence of the extent of Morris' work is the sale catalogue of the house and land held on Lady Day 1916; each room is described and the following passage is most relevant:
... The 'Private Study'; Dec. with panelled dado and hand-painted walls; conveniently arranged in a recess is a bath, together with water-closet. Adjoining is the Morning Room having a 3 ft. (0.91 metres) white painted dado and marble chimney-piece and hearth, the walls being lined with silk... A suite of; principal bedroom with bay window, with 4 ft. (1.21 metres) painted dado, surmounted with silk-hangings, and ornamental plaster ceiling; Boudoir with bay window and oval parquet floor, communicating with a well-fitted bathroom, the walls being faced with a white dado, above which are hand-painted tiles, WC adjoining... '
We shall probably never learn more about the hand-painted walls and silk-hangings; but let's turn to the splendid tile-panel given to the Museum in 1972 by Charles and Lavinia Handley-Read. It is one of six identical panels from the Membland Hall commission and shows Morris and his collaborator, William De Morgan, at their best.
Lewis F. Day in his commemorative article on Morris in the Art Journal supplement for 1899, illustrated the tile-panel, dating its design and execution to 1876; thus, when the group of six came on the London market in 1972 (originally, they had been found in a cupboard at Membland before its destruction in 1928) their authorship was recognised at once.
One further fact corroborating the assumption that the tiles had been designed for the Membland bathroom was provided by the pencilled comment to that effect on the original sketch by Morris, which is in the William Morris Art Gallery, Walthamstow. The design is typical of Morris and yet is composed differently to his wallpapers of the same time, having larger motifs and more free space in contrast to the papers' smaller detail and denser patterning. The repeat design at the edges indicates that the panels were intended to be set close together so that the pattern could progress laterally.
William De Morgan, the artist-potter, who had set up his pottery in Chelsea in 1872, had long been a friend of Morris and for some years had fired tiles designed by him and his circle. De Morgan had already designed panels, and as many as 300 six inch (0.15 metres) tiles by 1877, but he had attempted nothing so large as the Membland commission. It is thus creditable to him that six, and probably more, large panels were produced in a small pottery. The writer has seen four and there is a remarkable consistency overall in the colour and finish. The painting was most likely done by the girls De Morgan employed at this date.
Tracings were probably made from the study, and pounced onto six inch tiles that bore the mark of the Architectural Pottery Company, Poole; the brick-coloured tiles were first given a white slip, at Poole or in London before the subdued enamel colours were painted on. The firings were, no doubt, conducted by De Morgan himself, on his own, for at this time he was intensely secretive about the chemistry of his glazes.
Tile-panels of the design used at Membland appeared in the Morris firm's stock-list as late as 1913, and it is unlikely that Morris designed anything so large again. Installed in the bathroom these panels must have been impressive, though, perhaps, a trifle dark; this may explain why it was that the six appearing on the market in 1972 were never mounted.
But we shall never be able to judge how they looked together for Membland Hall was pulled down in 1928 for the sake of its lead and fireplaces; another destroyed country house joined an increasing list. But something remains; two of the panels may be seen, one is in this Museum, another is in the William Morris Art Gallery Walthamstow; four others are in private ownership.
Written by Roger Pinkham, 1977, and published in the V&A Masterpieces series.