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.
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.
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.