William De Morgan's tiles

A master of ceramic design, William De Morgan (1839 – 1917) is perhaps best known for his prolific production of painted tiles. The flat surface of tiles provided De Morgan with an ideal base for decoration, which he used to create bold yet intricate designs that were easily adapted into various domestic and public spaces.

Ornamental tile-making enjoyed a rapid revival in Britain in the 19th century, with tiles providing a practical, durable and attractive solution for keeping spaces clean, at a time when there were growing concerns around hygiene and public health. Tiles did not hold odours and could be easily wiped clean, and by the 1860s wall and floor tiles were being produced on an industrial scale by leading ceramics manufacturers such as Minton and Maw & Co. It was around this time that designer William Morris, along with William De Morgan, first started to experiment with tile design.

Panel, designed by William De Morgan, 1888 – 97, England. Museum no. 361-1905. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Inspired by historic decorative arts and tilework from the Middle East, De Morgan became the leading tile manufacturer of the Arts and Crafts movement. He was commissioned to design and supply tiles for 12 P&O ships from 1882 to 1900, as well as for the Czar of Russia's yacht, the Livadia, in 1880. Elsewhere De Morgan's tiles could be found in fireplaces, dados, bathrooms, kitchens, or even incorporated into furniture such as washstands.

Washstand, designed by Leonard F. Wyburd and William De Morgan, manufactured by Liberty & Co. Ltd. and William De Morgan, about 1894, England. Museum no. W.19-1984. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Despite never achieving financial success, tiles were key to De Morgan's business and were in continuous production from 1873 to 1907, encompassing a wide but recognisable range of themes and motifs. Inventive patterns of flowers and leaves, lively animals and birds, majestic ships and mythical creatures were all commonly found on De Morgan' s distinctive tiles. Excellent surviving examples of De Morgan's tiles in situ can be seen in the Arab Hall at Leighton House, Kensington, and across the interiors of the Tabard pub in Chiswick, built in 1879 – 80.

Manufacture

Despite his opposition to industrial processes, De Morgan's first venture into tile-making required him to buy industrially-produced blank tiles, which his team of assistants would decorate at his workshop. Like Morris, De Morgan initially used low-fired earthenware blanks from Holland, but went on to source white dust-pressed tiles from British firms such as Craven Dunnill, the Architectural Tile Pottery and Wedgwood. By 1876 De Morgan was producing his own hand-made tiles in-house, by slicing square blocks of clay with a multi-stringed instrument, then trimming and drying the resulting tiles between sheets of glass to prevent them from warping. However he didn't stop using the industrial blanks completely, as he recognised that they provided a good base for his designs featuring lustre (an iridescent metallic glaze), and some customers preferred the uniform shape of the factory tiles.

Tile design, by William De Morgan. Museum no. E.466-1917. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

De Morgan developed a unique method for transferring his designs onto tiles. The design was first painted in strong lines onto fine tissue or tracing paper, and then pasted onto a sheet of glass. This acted as a guide for the painter, who would fix another piece of tissue to the other side of the glass and proceed to paint the design. The painted design was then placed face-down onto the slip-coated surface of the tile and covered in transparent glaze. Once in the kiln the tissue would burn away during firing, and the design would be left on the surface. An alternative method was pouncing, which De Morgan only used occasionally for smaller production runs or one-offs. Here the outline of the design was pricked with a pin and sprinkled with charcoal dust, leaving a trace of the design on the tile surface.

Left to right: Design, by William De Morgan, 1872 – 1907, England E.1000-1917. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Design, by William De Morgan, 1880s, England. Museum no. E.971-1917. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

It is impossible to know for certain how many tile designs De Morgan created, and how many of these designs were actually made into tiles. The V&A collection alone holds 820 of his designs on paper for tiles and tile panels, bequeathed to the museum by his wife Evelyn De Morgan in 1917.

Enjoy highlights of the collection in the slideshow below:


Background image: Tile panel, designed by William De Morgan, 1876, England. Museum no. C.36-1972. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London