Classed as one of the most important pioneers of the Arts & Crafts movement, William De Morgan was a prolific potter, inventor, novelist and designer. His achievements in the world of design varied from stained glass to furniture painting, but he is probably most celebrated for the glorious Persian, Iznik, and figurial designs which he recreated onto tiles and ceramics. Instrumental in the revival of handicrafts and high decoration, today his work commands hundreds and thousands at auction making William De Morgan one of the most influential and talented designers of the 19th Century.
Born in Chester on 16th November 1839 to an intellectual family, De Morgan’s father, Augustus was a professor of Mathematics and his wife Sophia Elizabeth Freud was well known for campaigning with Elizabeth Fry to promote prison reform.
However, De Morgan had a yearning to become an artist, a passion which his family fully supported, so aged 20 he enrolled with the Royal Academy Schools to learn and progress his talent. Taught alongside other great artists such Simeon Soloman he had a natural flare for design but his career really took off after being introduced to William Morris, the founder of the Arts & Crafts Movement and a leading manufacturer in furniture. It was Morris who suggested de Morgan gave up his training to concentrate on designing stained glass and gave him the career break that was so well deserved.
Although many believe that Morris himself excelled in all aspects of design this was not entirely true as he was more of a visionary who recognised what needed to be created in order to improve the world aesthetically, rather than actually designing all the pieces himself. In order to do this he gathered a group of talented individuals who were known as “The Firm” and together this collaboration of artists implemented Morris’s design visions for him.
The company Morris & Co. Tiles was one that needed improvement as production was very amateurish. So in 1863 Morris handed over the production to De Morgan who instantly started to experiment and modify the designs. Throughout his career the range of designs created by De Morgan on tiles and ceramics vary from the Morris inspired imagery of simple flowers, through to the Iznik and Persian designs and finally the figurative work such as ships, animals and fantastical birds. He is also renowned for using lustre glazes which were discovered almost by accident. De Morgan realised that the silver outlines painted on his stained glass produced an iridescent effect when fired, so he experimented using this technique on tiles which resulted in the same desired effect.
In 1872 De Morgan decided he wanted more control over his work and so build a kiln in the basement of his home in London. It was here that his inventory skills allowed him to experiment more with the glazes and lustre. Unfortunately this experimenting led to a fire breaking out which destroyed the roof and in turn upset the landlord so, De Morgan decided to move his works to Chelsea, which was when the business started to expand and flourish.
By 1879 De Morgan’s work was getting reputable acclaim and it wasn’t long before he was being asked for commissions. One of which was for Lord Leighton who wanted tiles to match the Islamic ones used in the Arab Hall at Leighton House.
De Morgan moved the pottery works in 1882 to Merton Abbey on the River Waddle which was close to his dear friend, William Morris’s works and it was here that further commissions followed including a range of tiles for the Czar of Russia and many P&O Cruise Liner ships. Continuing with his experimenting of designs De Morgan also began to specialise in handmade tiles and ceramics. These were highly decorated with colourful vibrant glazes especially gold and red as his designs were inspired by the early 15th century Persian and Hispano-Moresque wares which had become popular with the artists of this time. De Morgan also liked to depict images of animals, fish, mythical creatures, birds and flowers on his wares, which today are amongst the most sought after by eager collectors, an example of the demand was proved at sale through Bonham’s when a ruby lustre De Morgan tile of a mountain goat reached £660.
In 1888 De Morgan founded another pottery works in Fulham with the architect Halsey Ricardo. Some say this is when he created his finest work such as the range of ceramics embellished with double and triple lustre but he also began to design tiles with different imagery. Many of the tiles from this period featured ships and these are amongst the most popular today with collectors. Recently one single Galleon tile dating to 1890 sold at Bonham’s in London for a hammer price of £1,440.
After just two years at the Fulham works De Morgan’s designs were starting to be considered as a little old fashioned, and although together with Ricardo the works remained open it had very little success. The decision was finally made in 1907 to close down the factory altogether.
Moving to Italy with his wife De Morgan supplied designs for the Cantagalli factory but he discovered that he possessed another gift which was to bring him financial security and a different sort of acclaim. Inherited from his mother he realised that he had a flare for writing, aged 65 De Morgan began his career as a novelist. He successfully wrote seven bestselling novels in an almost Dickensian manner before passing away in 1917 from trench fever, a disease which he caught from a visiting friend on leave from France. De Morgan’s wife Evelyn completed his eighth and final novel after his death and also bequeathed the bulk of 1,200 drawings to the Victoria and Albert museum.
Although today De Morgan is most recognised and celebrated for his phenomenal talent as a designer, there were many other sides to this man that are not as well known. An inventor at heart he designed ideas for grinding mills to be used in workshops and worked out a new gearing system for bicycles. He also created his own accounts system and had suggestions for the war effort on how to destroy U-Boats.
An intellectual and highly accomplished individual, William De Morgan has left behind a kaleidoscope of legacies, but it has been, and always will be his innovative creations on ceramics and tiles that he is remembered and admired for.