Last updated on March 9th, 2019
He was the leading ceramic artist of the Victorian age, and his works still adorn Leighton House in Kensington, the Tabard Inn in Chiswick and Postman’s Park in the City of London. Fantastical beasts, parading peacocks, and gleaming flora make an appearance in some of the 80 works on display at the Guildhall Art Gallery, in an exhibition celebrating craft and precision in Sublime Symmetry: The Mathematics Behind William De Morgan’s Ceramic Designs.
William De Morgan
William De Morgan was born and grew up in Bloomsbury at 31 Gower Street. He came from an eclectic family and superior mathematical stock. His father was Augustus De Morgan, the first Professor of Mathematics at University College, London (he was only 25 when he took on the position). Morgan Senior tutored Countess Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron and famous for being the first computer programmer. William’s mother was Sophia Frend, a campaigner for women’s suffrage, the abolition of slavery and for prison reforms. William would go on to become vice-president of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage in 1913.
He entered the Royal Academy aged 20, but soon became disillusioned with the establishment. De Morgan met William Morris in 1863, and started designing stained glass and furniture for Morris and Co (the tiles were sold through Morris and Co on Oxford Street). He would go on to set up his own pottery and ceramics business in 1872, working with Persian-influenced designs and colours, and reinventing the technique of lusterware.
De Morgan moved to Fitzrovia and eventually to Cheyne Walk, an area popular with artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He was now close to the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Turkish and Persian tile collection which would provide so much inspiration for his tile designs.
Later in life, he became a popular Victorian novelist. His first novel, Joseph Vance, about the son of a mathematician, would become a bestseller in the United Kingdom and in the United States.
William Morris hired De Morgan to produce stained glass for his company, Morris & Co. His work here would lead to the discovery that certain stains would have a luminous finish if fired at certain temperatures. This would lead to his reinvention of lustre glazes. This drawing for a stained glass project is a rare example of his work from that period.
De Morgan designed tiles for the Bedford Park Arts and Crafts garden suburb of Chiswick, west London. These tiles were created for some of the newly-built interiors of these homes and were sold through Morris and Co to match the interiors.
De Morgan’s mathematical skills are on show here: he used perspective to give the illusion of depth and was inspired by the geometric principles of Islamic art.
De Morgan’s drawings for border designs are influenced by Islamic Art. The repeating circle designs represent the infinite nature of Allah.
Strutting his stuff: an example of “fractal” design (the whole being made up of the parts which are of the same shape). The peacock tail is the same shape as each feather that makes it up.
If you take a close look, you will see a pattern of fish tangled in a net in the vase on the left. On the right, the label on the reverse of the dish states this was the first plate made by De Morgan and gifted to his Uncle Henry Frend. But the quality of the lustre points to its creation later in De Morgan’s career.
De Morgan about town
Lord Frederic Leighton employed De Morgan to install the tiles in the magnificent Arab Hall of Leighton House in Kensington. De Morgan was tasked with re-creating missing and damaged tiles. Experts find it impossible to tell apart the real tiles from Syria, Persia and Turkey with the De Morgan facsimiles.
If you haven’t visited Postman’s Park, you’re missing out on a London treasure. The nineteenth century public garden is adjacent to St Paul’s Cathedral and includes a commemorative memorial, designed by artist George Frederick Watts, for ordinary men, women and children who sacrificed their lives to help others. It contains 53 tile plaques in memoriam of those who gave their lives, 13 of which were designed and installed by De Morgan between 1900 and 1904. It would be one of his last commissions.
You can also see William de Morgan tiles at the Tabard Inn in Turnham Green, Chiswick, and in the Emery Walker House in Hammersmith.
About the Exhibition
Sublime Symmetry: The Mathematics Behind W illiam De Morgan’s Ceramic Designs is on at the Guildhall Art Gallery until 28 October 2018. Entry is free.
To coincide with the exhibition, the Guildhall Gallery is hosting an exclusive De-Morgan themed evening viewing on 18th May. Events include a curator-led tour, themed face painting, clay-creature sculpting, acrylic painting and drawing workshops and the chance to handle live animals that feature in De Morgan’s designs with a zoo keeper. The evening will be rounded off with a special talk about De Morgan’s eminent mathematician father, Augustus De Morgan.
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