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William De Morgan

illiam Frend De Morgan (1839-1917) was the most important and innovative potter of the 19th century. His distinctive style and glorious lustres are instantly recognisable.He met William Morris in 1863 when he was 24 and they remained lifelong friends; both became central figures in the Arts & Crafts Movement, sharing a love of all things medieval, an eagerness to learn and a sense of humour.

It was at the suggestion of Morris that De Morgan gave up his training in fine art and started designing stained glass. Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co - known as the The Firm - had been established for two years and was very successful. The partners boasted a wealth of talent - Philip Webb, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, and, of course, Morris.

De Morgan designed stained glass, ceramic tiles and painted furniture for The Firm between 1863-1872. He wanted, however, more control over the finishing of his work and so built a kiln in the basement of his home at Fitzroy Square, London.

Here he used his knowledge of chemistry and his gift as an inventor to work on different lustres and glazes. Unfortunately, his enthusiasm for experimentation led to a fire which destroyed the roof, about which "the landlord did not seem at all amiable". De Morgan moved to Chelsea and expanded his business to include a showroom and several painters. His fame was spreading and in 1879 he received a commission to supply Lord Leighton with tiles to match the deep blue Islamic tiles used in the Arab Hall at Leighton House.

In 1882 De Morgan moved to Merton Abbey on the River Wandle, close to Morris’ works and the Liberty silk dyeing works. Other commissions followed, including tiles for the Czar of Russia’s yacht Lividia and many exotic P & O liners, as well as the exterior and interior of Lord Debenham’s home at 8 Addison Road, London.
 
De Morgan had an intellectually stimulating family life. His father was a professor of mathematics and held the chair at University College, London. His mother was a writer and a suffragette, campaigning for women’s rights and prison reform. His wife Evelyn was a reputable artist, influenced by the pre-Raphaelites. De Morgan gained a leaning for science from his father and was responsible for several inventions, including a gear system for bicycles. From his mother he inherited a gift for writing and completed seven successful novels. The bulk of his drawings was bequeathed by his widow to the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1917. The collection numbers over 1,200 items - an indication of the scale of his phenomenal talent.

Whereas some of De Morgan’s flowery designs are reminiscent of Morris, his animals are distinctly his own. They are partly drawn from his detailed knowledge of medieval illustrated manuscripts and partly from his vivid imagination. He and Burne-Jones used to amuse themselves by drawing fantastic imaginary creatures and it is thought that Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) commissioned him to design a set of tiles to illustrate his famous poem The Hunting of the Snark. It is in such designs that we are afforded a taste of his very special humour.