With their vibrant colours and captivating designs, the ceramics of William De Morgan (1839 – 1917) are among the most attractive, recognisable, and enduringly popular decorative arts of the late Victorian period.
De Morgan was a highly imaginative and innovative artist-potter, who produced thousands of designs for tiles, vases and dishes, as well as experimenting with the technical aspects of pottery production. A close friend and colleague of William Morris, De Morgan's work was rooted in the artistic ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement, which rejected industrial methods in favour of the handmade, and aimed to improve people's homes with wares that were both beautiful and functional. De Morgan is probably best known for his prolific production of tiles, which were a mainstay of his business and could be seen in many domestic interiors and public spaces throughout England. However his ambition as a designer saw him successfully adapt his distinctive style to three-dimensional ceramic vessels and dishes, drawing inspiration from the arts of the Middle East, Medieval motifs, Italian Renaissance patterns and the natural world.
Born in 1839 into a liberal household, De Morgan's artistic talents were encouraged by his parents. His father, Augustus De Morgan, was Professor of Mathematics at University College London, and his mother Sophia was an advocate for women's higher education and an early supporter of the suffragette movement. As a young man De Morgan attended evening art classes, and in 1859 won a place at the Royal Academy schools, where he met other emerging artists such as Henry Holiday and Simeon Solomon. Holiday was responsible for introducing De Morgan to William Morris in 1863, prompting De Morgan to leave the Academy schools in favour of working as a designer for his friend's recently established firm, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co.
Although he would become known for his ceramic designs, De Morgan's early work for Morris's firm was in the field of stained glass. From the 1860s onwards, stained glass enjoyed a major revival as Morris and his contemporaries re-popularised the arts of the Medieval period, providing stained glass windows for both church restorations and domestic buildings. It was the process of making stained glass which triggered De Morgan's move into tile-making, as he was struck by the iridescent beauty of the silver paint used to outline his designs, and wanted to achieve this lustrous effect on tiles.
De Morgan began to experiment with tile decoration in his studio at London's Fitzroy Square, and after an unfortunate kiln incident in which he accidentally set the roof on fire, he moved to new premises in Cheyne Row, Chelsea. Here he began producing art tiles in earnest, at first decorating onto blank ceramic tiles provided by other factories or imported from Holland. He was assisted by Frank Iles who managed the kiln (located in a small shed at the end of the garden) and employed a number of painters to translate his designs onto the tiles. The most notable were Fred and Charles Passenger, two talented brothers who together with Iles were employed by De Morgan for many years until the business closed in 1907. Hundreds of tile designs were produced in Chelsea, mostly featuring floral ornament or animals in striking poses, building on the principles of two-dimensional tile design used at Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co.
Inventive floral designs were applied in vivid colours, with De Morgan cleverly creating intricate repeating patterns which could be used to great effect. Some of his early designs from this period became hugely popular and were in production for almost 30 years, such as 'Bedford Park Daisy' and 'BBB' – so-called after the Norwich ironmonger Barnard, Bishop and Barnard, who sold the tiles as part of their cast-iron fireplaces.
Like other designers at the time, De Morgan was influenced by Middle Eastern art, and would visit the collections at the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A) for inspiration. His use of stylised leaves and flowers in a range of blues, greens, and turquoise became his signature style and was commonly referred to as 'Persian'. The influence of Islamic tilework is nowhere better seen than in the spectacular Arab Hall at Leighton House, Kensington, where De Morgan was asked by Frederic (later Lord) Leighton to provide additional tiles to match the 15th and 16th century originals that Leighton had collected in Damascus, in Syria.
De Morgan's growing success required the business to move to larger premises, and in 1882 he set up a pottery at Merton Abbey, Surrey, next to William Morris's textile workshops. With more space and resources, De Morgan was able to focus on making vessels and dishes, pushing his skills as a designer to these more challenging three dimensional objects and curved surfaces. De Morgan oversaw the running of the pottery and his role embodied the ingenious designer and ardent chemist – he left the practical aspects of throwing the pots and painting the wares to his employees, who often used innovative techniques to transfer his designs.
During this period De Morgan was given his first commission to supply tiles for the interior of a P&O ocean liner, the Sutlej. These large cruise ships were revolutionising international travel and reflected the height of fashionable design. Although the ships and interiors have not survived, we are fortunate to have De Morgan's original design drawing for the Sutlej and a section of the corresponding tile panel in the V&A's collection. De Morgan's Iznik-inspired style would have evoked a feeling of exotic luxury for the passengers, and he eventually provided schemes for 12 P&O ships, as well as for the Czar of Russia's palatial yacht the Livadia.
In 1888 ill-health prompted De Morgan to move the pottery closer to home. He set up in Sands End, Fulham, West London, with the financial support of his wife Evelyn, an accomplished painter, and his new business partner Halsey Ricardo. De Morgan designed his own impressive kilns for the Sands End factory, and the scale of production increased.
Much of De Morgan's work produced in the Fulham period was his most ambitious, with many pieces flamboyantly displaying his mastery of lustre decoration – a notoriously difficult technique due to the precise pigments and firing conditions required – which he worked tirelessly to perfect. One of the best-known portraits of De Morgan painted by his wife Evelyn, shows him holding a stunning lustre vase widely acknowledged to be his crowning triumph. In 1919 the vase was bequeathed by Evelyn to the V&A.
Financial difficulties were always a concern for the pottery, and after production ceased in 1907, De Morgan entered into a second career as a successful writer. His natural flair for designing imaginative yet elegant patterns in perfectly balanced compositions sets De Morgan apart as one of the most important and exciting artists of the 19th century. His work continues to inspire contemporary designers, most notably in a capsule collection designed by J.W. Anderson for the fashion house Loewe in 2019.