Posted 15th January 2019
William De Morgan's novels
Sarah Hardy, Curator, De Morgan Foundation
Upon his death in 1917, William De Morgan was best remembered in his obituaries as 'a literary marvel', 'famous novelist' and 'well-known author', with only few, passing references to his work as a ceramic designer. Why? Well, according to De Morgan's once-business partner Reginald Blunt in his A Wonderful Village (1908), 'good fiction survives more housemaids than good pottery'; yet there are important reasons that 100 years after De Morgan's death, he is seldom celebrated as an author and best remembered instead for his beautiful ceramics, wondrous lustre glazes and intricate pattern designs.
De Morgan's ceramic career came to an end in 1907, after a decade-long battle to keep his beloved business afloat. It was no great secret that De Morgan & Co had suffered financially over the years at the hand of a managing director who was far more intent on invention than accounting. De Morgan once commented, 'I know a great many quarters that would believe in De Morgan and Co if De Morgan could be kept in a sort of aesthetic pound and not allowed to meddle with the ledgers'. He often turned to his artist wife, Evelyn, to keep his company in production from sales of her paintings.
De Morgan was inspired by Iznik, Persian and Medieval motifs and patterns to create crisp and clear arrangements of flora, fauna and landscape which look opulent and modern, and ooze Arts and Crafts sophistication to the modern connoisseur. By the end of the 19th century, however, the design-conscious middle-class consumer wanted only the crisp, clear lines and bright reds and oranges of Art Nouveau. By the time De Morgan could create truly beautiful ceramics and was credited with the reinvention of gleaming, iridescent lustre glazing in Europe, his pots were out of fashion: 'now that I can make them, nobody wants them', he once sadly commented.
After 30 years of struggling to meet orders and keep up with dying Arts and Crafts appetite, De Morgan lost his battle and the business folded in 1907. This caused De Morgan a good amount of grief, which did not go unnoticed by his wife who suggested he should turn to writing in order to release his creative spirit and alleviate his sadness.
De Morgan did turn from pottery to prose and soon found his way with it. He published his first novel, Joseph Vance, in 1906 and it was an instant hit for him and his publisher, William Heinmann, in the UK and the USA. The De Morgan Foundation archive contains a charming photograph of De Morgan and Heinmann posing as ringmaster and circus audience, demonstrating the good fortune they had found in William's writing and the friendship they forged because of it.
In total, De Morgan published seven best-selling novels that were greatly received by the public and two which were finished by Evelyn De Morgan and published posthumously. Whilst it seems incredible to our imagination the name William De Morgan might be remembered as anything but a designer, it is incredibly important to remember his novels and the fame he found through them in his own lifetime, as it is now his books which are considered outdated and old fashioned, whilst the ceramics still shine on.