William De Morgan

William was born in 1839 to parents Sophia Frend, a social reform campaigner and a professional medium, and Augustus De Morgan, professor of mathematics at UCL. He was the eldest of seven children, three of whom died young from TB. His brother George went on to be a mathematician and his sister Mary became an author of fairy stories.

He studied at the University College School before attending Thomas Carey's drawing school in 1858. In 1859, he enrolled at the Royal Academy Schools, but only studied for four out of the mandatory eight. During this formal art education he drew from life, classical sculpture and learned the fundamentals of drawing such as perspective and ratio. He made friends with artists such as Simeon Soloman and Henry Holiday. His small stature and high pitched voice earned him the nick-name 'mouse'. He met William Morris in 1863 and began working with Burne-Jones to design and make stained glass with Morris & Co. He remained friends with these two artists throughout his life. He noticed that silver nitrate stain fired at the wrong temperature would reduce to give an iridescent sheen on the glass and he began experimenting with lustre glazes on ceramics. In the 1870s, he was making his own ceramics at his home on Fitzroy Square and set fire to the building using a makeshift kiln.

He began making ceramics in earnest in 1872 in Chelsea. He bought blank tiles and small plates to decorate with ceramic designs featuring fantastical animals, flowers and medieval motifs. This was a typical Arts and Crafts business where local women (including Kate Faulkner, sister of Charles who founded Morris & Co. with William Morris) would paint De Morgan designs onto the blanks. He worked on Cheyne Row and had a salesroom at Orange House.

He moved to Merton Abbey near Wimbledon to have a larger pottery in 1882. William Morris had premises nearby and the two had previously joked about moving their businesses to the country, but not quite believing it, calling their factories 'the fictionary'. He had 13 staff working for him at the peak of production here and so had resource and space for the first time to design the shape of the hollowware and the surface design for it, which led to ambitious vases, bottles and bowls being produced. He remained very interested in the process and technique of glazing and designed and made his own kilns.

William's staff would decorate the ceramics to his exact designs and had some ingenious methods of transfer. For individual tiles and tile panels, staff would trace the design and paint the glazes on tracing paper which would burn in the heat of the kilns and reveal the design. If you look closely at the panels you can see thick lines running across the tiles where the tracing paper has butted up to the next sheet in firing and the glazed is thicker. Staff would also use 'pouncing' where they would prick holes along the lines of the designs and rub charcoal through to the ceramic surface. The dots would then be joined up in the coloured glaze and the painting completed by hand. The V&A hold around 1200 of William's designs in their collection and some of these have been pounced and the holes are still visible.

William won several important commissions over his career, which were usually for large-scale tile schemes to decorate interiors. He assembled Lord Leighton's collection of Persian tiles in the newly built Arab Hall of his Holland Park home (today, Leighton House Museum). This introduced him to Syrian and Iranian tiles and Middle Eastern and Islamic tiles and design motifs which he was inspired by throughout his career. Living and working in London meant that William was able to visit collections of Syrian and Iznik pottery at the British Museum and the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A). He studied lusterware, majolica and patterns and was inspired by these designs.

Between 1882 and 1900, William was asked to design schemes and provide tiles for twelve P&O liners. Correspondence between William De Morgan and his business partner Halsey Ricardo clearly demonstrates the importance of the P&O contract to the success of their business and it is obvious that P&O kept a tight control over the look and quality of the interiors of their liners: “We want to get into the big ships as well as these second class cargo boats – the Chairman has yet to be convinced that the tiles are good enough for these". The designs are both decorative schemes and picture panels that feature landscapes of places the ships visit. Sadly, none survive today.

A smaller, but very interesting commission William made was several red lustre tiles with fantastical animals on them for his friend Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) for his fireplace at Christ Church, Oxford. These are said to have inspired The Snark and other nonsense poetry.

The eight-mile journey from William's home in Chelsea to Merton Abbey eventually proved too much for William and he moved his business to Sands End in Fulham in 1888 and stayed there until it folded in 1907. De Morgan perfected his lustre glazes during this time and spoke about his reinvention of the lost art to the Egyptian Government in 1893.

There are two main reasons for the eventual closure of the pottery business. De Morgan had little interest in running a business and was much more concerned with inventing and designing. When asked, by his business manager Reginald Blunt, how his pots should be priced for sale, De Morgan wrote teasingly in his reply;

“re price of pots ... I know there is some way of doing it thus: multiply the height in inches by the largest diameter in centimetres and divide by the number of hours employed. Multiply this result by the logarithm of the number of shillings per week wages, and it will give the price of the pot in half pence." This of course is utter nonsense and shows William's ability to make fun of himself.

Additionally, De Morgan designs had become outdated by the turn of the century. He had focused his practice on the reinvention of lusterware and failed to update his patterns and motifs. In his words “All my life I have been trying to make beautiful things...and now that I can nobody wants them." His last major commission was tiles for Postman's Park, a memorial to ordinary heroes in central London, which was paid for and set up by G. F. Watts.

At the closure of the business, De Morgan began suffering with depression, but on the advice of his doctor and his wife, he started writing novels which seemed to alleviate his symptoms. He published Joseph Vance, his first novel of seven, in 1906 and went on to become a best-selling author. The Foundation have a letter from Janey Morris congratulating him on the success of his second novel, Alice for Short, in 1907. He was socially conscious and became the vice-president of the Men's League of Women's Suffrage in 1913.

Upcoming Events and Exhibitions

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Exhibition Tour: Christina Rossetti: Vision & Verse

18 Dec

De Morgan Collection Talks

18 Dec

Russell Jakubowski: Open Studio

19 Dec

Conservation Open Studio

20 Dec

Limnerslease Tours: The Artists' Home

18 Dec
23 Dec

Conservation Open Studio

27 Dec

Russell Jakubowski: Open Studio

2 Jan

Conservation Open Studio

3 Jan

In Print: Making Impressions

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6 Jan