Introduction

Over the course of his life, William De Morgan (1839-1917) experimented in various artistic fields, settling into an accomplished career as a designer and overseer of the production of ceramic wares, only to quit these endeavors in 1907 to focus on literary pursuits. De Morgan's artistic career began at Cary's in Bloomsbury, followed by his entrance into the Royal Academy Schools in 1859, where he stayed just three years, bored and uninspired by the experience (Pinkham, 9). In the 1860s, he met William Morris, whose decorative movement and firm would have a huge effect on De Morgan's career. He began painting stained glass and furniture, and his work with stained glass, especially his experimentations with luster, would lead him to an enduring interest in the chemical aspects of ceramic production (Pinkham, 10). Roger Pinkham notes that the circumstances in the second half of the nineteenth century -- in particular the increasing prosperity of the British middle classes and their burgeoning concern with creating artistic homes, as touted in various advice manuals -- led to a desire to include a decorative focal point in rooms, such as a tile-surrounded fireplace or a piece of pottery on a pedestal. Such demands created a market for De Morgan when he began focusing on the production of ceramics, which he sold out of William Morris' store as well as out of his own showroom in his Cheyne Row house in Chelsea (Pinkham, 10-11).

Sites of Production and Associated Styles

De Morgan's ceramics career can be divided into several periods of time, based on the location of production. The Orange House, several doors down from the home in Chelsea, was the site of his first serious factory (Stirling, 85). Production there centered on the creation of tiles, and to a lesser extent dishes and vases, all purchased ready-made with only painting and firing required. De Morgan focused at this time on the techniques of luster and enamel, and his designs generally displayed strong simplicity. His factory remained at Chelsea until 1882, when he relocated to Merton Abbey, where the factory would stay until 1888. Control of the entire process of production had become extremely important to De Morgan, and for this factory he designed the kilns, chimneys and several machines. Because the entire production of his works now occurred in his studio, it became possible to create a wider variety of wares. Furthermore, his design style increased in complexity and intricacy at this time, including his successful production of two tone luster ware. In the late 1880s, after meeting Halsey Ralph Ricardo, the two joined in a partnership and built a factory at Sands End in Fulham, for which De Morgan designed much of the machinery including the gas kilns. His extensive technical knowledge at this point combined with his design experience, resulting in works of great and varied beauty. The partnership lasted until 1898, at which point De Morgan entered into a final partnership with his kilnmaster and two of his painters, finally retiring from production nine years later. During this final stage, De Morgan again used ready made pottery, and his designs returned to a somewhat simpler form (Pinkham, 11-13, 19).

Production Practices

De Morgan, like Morris, believed in overseeing the entire process of art production, and possessed extensive knowledge about the various processes involved in the creation of ceramics. Yet unlike Morris, De Morgan did not actually practice all of these processes; on the contrary, he never engaged in wheel throwing, either buying blank pottery or hiring others to throw for him, and he employed the brothers Charles and Fred Passenger as painters, beginning in 1879-80 and continuing for many years. His method was to create a design, begin to paint it onto the pottery, and then to leave its completion to one of the Passengers. Apparently he discouraged the Passengers from exerting their own artistic inclinations, instead urging them to carefully follow his designs. Despite this degree of removal from the actually physical creation of his ceramics, De Morgan's involvement at each stage of the process was nonetheless critical, particularly during kiln firings, since he was the only worker in his factory with the requisite chemical knowledge, and he kept his methods for this process to himself. His extremely high standards -- if a pot dissatisfied him, he would smash it -- certainly spurred his desire to supervise the entire production process (Pinkham, 15).

In spite of this commonality in how he and Morris viewed the significance of the involvement of a single hand in the entire production process, De Morgan did not share Morris' fervent socialism nor his contempt for the Rennaissance (Gaunt and Stamm, 17).

Design Aspects and Influences

At least some of the initiative for the types of designs on which De Morgan would concentrate came from the work of Owen Jones, whose 1856 Grammar of Ornament -- published with Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt, two decades after Jones' trips to the Middle East and Spain -- contained chapters dealing with Moorish and Persian styles. This illustrated text became a common guide for designers, and may have been helpful to De Morgan in formulating his style. Owen's own designs contained stylized patterns that displayed a significant departure from the common naturalistic design style of the period. (Hackford, The Great Exhibition and Moorish Architecture and Design in Great Britain, and Owen Jones). What De Morgan called his Persian style actually developed out of sixteenth-century Isnik motifs, which he had been able to view at the South Kensington (now the Victoria and Albert) Museum (The De Morgan Centre web site). His rediscovery of 9th century Persian luster techniques around 1873 -- later used in Egypt and Syria, in Spain in the fifteenth century, and in Italian Maiolica ware in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries before gradually dying out -- no doubt sparked his interest in Middle Eastern colors and designs. When working in this Persian style, De Morgan painted enamel colors on white. The colors tended to be various shades of turquoise and dark blue, sage green, red, purple and bright yellow. His subject matters ranged from floral patterns and animals to ships surrounded by sea creatures (Pinkham, 14 and 19, The De Morgan Centre web site and Hackford, William De Morgan: An Introduction).

Despite the suggested influence of Owen Jones' patterns on De Morgan, several comparisons between the work of the two men suggests the way De Morgan differed from Jones. Among Jones textiles, his "Sutherland" (c. 1872) textile contains a far more rigid, grid-like pattern than De Morgan's patterns, which usually contain a flowing repetition of motifs, with designs not easily contained within rectangular boxes, as in Jones. Rather, De Morgan's tile patterns, though in square units, depend on their relations to other tiles; to form a complete image within a rectangular space requires the presence of at least some repetitions of design along the borders. Similarly, Jones' "Nipon" (1873), with its squares and highly symmetrical, geometric flowers has a more schematized, mathematical appearance than most De Morgan representations of flowers. Jones' "Italian" (1870) comes closer to the style that De Morgan would later use, although the firm emphasis on strong horizontal and vertical lines and ordering differs from De Morgan's more idiosyncratic, diagonal and curvilinear patterns.

Specific Pieces

De Morgan's "Two-Handled Vase" from his Merton Abbey period provides an excellent example of his skills at the time. The colors crisply represent De Morgan's Persian style as he understood it, with bright turquoises, several shades of dark blue, purple highlights on the peacocks' feathers and on some of the flowers and green on the leaves. He has left much of the white ground visible, allowing the birds and foliage to stand out in sharp relief. The forms of the two peacock birds, who sit on the ledge of a brick wall, conform in interesting ways to the shape of the vase: their long, luscious tails with repeated, overlapping ovular lines representing stylized feathers curve smoothly, reinforcing the shape of the vase while they express the shape of birds; in addition, the arches of the birds' necks counter the handles of the vase, forming delicately stylized loops. Roger Pinkham notes that correspondences between shape and decoration became increasingly common in De Morgan's work over the course of his career (Pinkham, 21). Rather than a grid-like, rectilinear composition, the flowers and leaves surrounding the birds stem from a firm vertical, between the birds, outwards at various angles. Although the arrangement is symmetrical and the flowers highly stylized, the effect De Morgan produces almost seems to imitate nature's wild profusion. Both in the stylization of these plants and their arrangement, De Morgan's vase reflects a departure from the Pre-Raphaelite focus on precise visual description of nature. It is also noteworthy that the plants have a distinctly Middle Eastern quality to them, some almost reminiscent of ancient Egyptian art.

With the edges of flowers cut off by the sides of the tile, de Morgan's "Gillow Tile" from his early Fulham period suggests the importance, as in many of his tiles, of their juxtaposition with other tiles, as well as their infinite quality, constantly extending beyond the bounds of what people see and in that respect mimicking nature. At the same time, however, some of the leaves in this pattern do curve in a way that contains them within the bounds of the tile, therefore recognizing the shape of the surface. Scarcely any empty space is left on the surface except the areas behind the leaves and flowers that help delineate them. Though De Morgan focuses on just two shades of yellow and one green without any blues, the shades of the flowers and leaves nonetheless are the same yellows and greens that he used in his more overtly Persian style pieces.

De Morgan occasionally departed from his standard figureless motifs, but in some of these instances, the human forms take on many of the same qualities as the flowers in his images of nature. One of his Merton Abbey dishes molds human figures into the pattern of the plate without being strictly repetitive. The figures are putti in a variety of poses, their muscular, thick bodies forming a sharp contrast to the delicate leaves around them. They carry fruits and lean toward each other, interacting by means of intent gazes and strong gestures and poses reminiscent of Burne-Jones' techniques to draw the eye from one figure to another (photograph printed in Pinkham, 32).

De Morgan's "Ignis" plate from his late Fulham period contains in its center a Pre-Raphaelite style woman with long, flowing, wavy hair wearing a dress with emphasized folds, kneeling and tending to a fire. Around her, a ring of sea horses separates her from a border of putti. Yet unlike the more Rubens-esque putti in Burne-Jones poses discussed above, these figures have lost their rotund qualities and move even further in the direction of Burne-Jones' graceful figures (photograph printed in Gaunt and Clayton-Stamm, 138).

One of De Morgan panels of six tiles, painted in his common Persian colors, depicts a vase or long-necked bottle. This panel is particularly interesting in the way that it plays with illusions. On ceramic tiles, De Morgan has chosen to portray a ceramic object, much like many he created, with delicate turquoise flowers, leaves and stems adorning the outside of the dark blue vase. Surrounding this vase, purple flowers and green leaves swirl in numerous directions, becoming more vertical and almost entirely stems on the lowest two tiles. These flowers cascade downward outside the vase, but De Morgan only loosely establishes that the flowers pour out of the vase by means of some solid, dark green leaves that emerge from the vase and the stems that lead out of these. Although some of the leaves end gracefully at the sides of the tiles, many are cut off, suggesting that the image could continue infinitely (photograph printed in Pinkham, 72 and 92).

Questions

1. De Morgan's decorative designs draw heavily from nature but do not at maintain the precise, scientific renderings of the natural world contained in early Pre-Raphaelite works such as Charles Collins' Convent Thoughts or John Everett Millais' Ophelia. What accounts for this change?

2. Many designers throughout the nineteenth century had been creating furniture, rugs and other decorative pieces with naturalistic depictions of nature that had been highly criticized by reformers for their deceptive qualities, e.g. carpets pretending to be forest floors. Was a stylized approach to nature the only solution? What other reasons might explain De Morgan's focus on stylized flowers influenced by Middle Eastern designs?

3. Since his designs were mostly intended for ceramic objects and tiles, De Morgan clearly viewed his task as quite different from that of a painter. Yet painted furniture with scenes of people existed not only during the period, but within the Morris circle, such as a cabinet by Philip Webb, painted after a drawing by Edward Burne-Jones (Chu, 347) as well as another Webb cabinet and a Morris and Co. cabinet, both actually painted by De Morgan (Gaunt and Clayton-Stamm, 142 and 144). What effect do De Morgan's more common stylized designs, inspired but not drawn from nature, have on his ceramics that more figure-centered or naturalistic images would not have?

4. In what other ways, in addition to their implied extent out of confined spaces, do De Morgan's depictions of flowers and plants express the spirit of nature, if not its biological features?

5. How do De Morgan's floral patterns compare to those of other decorative artists from the period, for example, those of Morris or Dresser?

References

Chu, Petra ten-Doesschate. Nineteenth-Century European Art. New York: Prentice-Hall and Harry N. Abrams, 2003.

The De Morgan Centre web site.

Gaunt, William, and M. D. E. Clayton-Stamm. William De Morgan. Pre-Raphaelite Ceramics. New York Graphic Society, Ltd., Greenwich, Connecticut: 1971.

Hackford, Terry Reece. "The Great Exhibition and Moorish Architecture and Design in Great Britain." Victorian Web.

Hackford, Terry Reece. "William De Morgan: An Introduction." Victorian Web.

"Owen Jones." Victorian Web.

Pinkham, Roger. Catalogue of Pottery by William De Morgan. London: Victoria and Albert Museum and Staples Printers, 1973.

Stirling, A. M. W. William De Morgan and his Wife. London: Thornton Butterworth Limited, 1922.


Victorian Web sitemap Visual Arts Victorian Design W. De Morgan Discussion questions about Victorian Design

Last modified 23 November 2004