Vintage View: The works of William Frend de Morgan

From arabesque to Renaissance romance, Kya deLongchamps celebrates the reach and skill of Arts and Crafts visionary William Frend de Morgan

etreating Morris style wallpaper aside, it would be fair to say that Arts & Crafts era motifs are not something we would unleash all over the house today. Elaborate, ornate, with artwork swooning in pre-Raphaelite fantasy and Medieval (Victorian) imaginings, the look hit a reproductive high in the shabby chic flash of the 1870s home, jewellery and even fashion.

However, the central characters of this movement remain bold, artistic heroes who took a stand against the encroachment of the machine age on the traditions and skills of centuries of handwork.

Flanked by entrenched 19th century values of what comprised the beautiful and acceptable, these artisans exhibited a completely new globalism in their reach for the best of line, colour and subject. There’s a spirituality and searching in the most commercial of Arts & Crafts decorative art that’s still deeply moving.

Best known as an innovative ceramicist, William Frend De Morgan (1839-1917) was a brilliant and prolific contemporary of the great William Morris, the demigod of Arts & Crafts and a peer of Edward Burn Jones.

A restless graduate of the Royal Academy, the beauty and exoticism of the De Morgan ‘look’, wound in dragons, galleons, lilies and heraldic beasties, is instantly recognisable, even if you’re not quite sure exactly what you’re looking at. A single authenticated De Morgan designed tile starts in the area of €300.

William’s father was a maths professor at the newly established Royal College of London, and both parents appear to have nurtured and encouraged him to follow his heart and eye.

De Morgan would remain confident and grounded enough to change career just 10 years before his death, becoming a wildly successful author in his late 60s. He could turn his hand to stained glass, and was an avid inventor in his spare time. Nicknamed ‘Mouse’ for his high, nasal voice, De Morgan teamed up with William Morris in 1863, fulfilling important commissions for tiling — something Morris, by his own admission, had little success at.

Their most interesting client was fellow artist, Lord Frederic Leighton, who commissioned Morris to install a room for his collection of ancient Middle Eastern tiles for his Arab Hall at Leighton House, his ‘private palace of art’. This experience had a profound influence on William De Morgan’s ceramics.

Working from his Chelsea studio (est. 1872), de Morgan met and, after a four year courtship, married the brilliant artist Evelyn Pickering (1855-1919) who was busy in her own creative life, influenced by the best of the Renaissance in paintings that appear, even to our cynical eye, distilled straight through the soul.

If De Morgan had enlightened parents, Evelyn’s were incredible for the times — sending their young daughter off to the Slade school and on to Europe to study. The work is passionate and personal. Like her husband, she was a masterful technician. Evelyn’s earnings buoyed up the peaks and troughs of de Morgan’s.

The decorative arts, demanded materials that would stand up to the job of life. Pegged furniture was revived because those joints held as the timber swelled and retracted. Glazes and firing techniques have perplexed potters for millennia all over the world. Experimenting in bodies for his tile work, William worked towards a tough biscuit clay that repelled moisture and wouldn’t easily break during firing or use. Depending on the work, he would also buy in blank tiles, chargers and vases from Poole (red clay) and Wedgewood, decorating them up.

Tiles provided the perfect canvas to build a design out to any proportion. He worked on the finish for his wares, the glazes, tirelessly through the 1880s in particular (the Fulham period).

Where de Morgan’s touch survives (the Arts and Crafts flavour will be rolled over by Deco in a few short years) is in panels of botanical tiles to fire surrounds, still favoured for framing classic insets today. However, De Morgan was every inch an artist and his early years at Chelsea saw the production of fantastic bespoke ceramics with searing quality and detail. His most important work for serious collectors is said to date from 1872-81.

Introduced to a heady range of oriental styles by the work on Leighton House, the ancient motifs De Morgan borrowed, include fabulous intricate, geometric Persian/iznak designs of the Ottoman Empire and 15th century Hispano Moresque (from Muslim Spain). The medieval strap-work, fantastic birds and animals taken from early Western monastic annals, paintings, tapestry and carvings are some of his most beloved sketches in slip.

Producers of Italian tin glazed majolica had pillaged Islamic sources mashing up myth, history, religion and the supernatural. De Morgan worked to recover lustrous finishes with recipes forgotten for centuries — adding Renaissance flash to surfacing jewelled in Persian turquoise, yellows and purples.

Despite their antiquity, this inspirational stuff with its symmetry, rhythm and whip-lash line is far from stiffly ancient — retaining a humanity, wit and mystery. Comb over plates from the Books of Kells or pieces of Islamic pottery from the 1600s, they still vibrate, some as lively as cartoons. De Morgan and his circle picked up on these rich streams of invention.

He was asked to create decorative panels by P&O, the shipping line to ornate public areas with scenes of places visited by the company’s cruise ships. His work was used on the leaky, ill-fated imperial yacht of the equally doomed Romanovs of Russia, the Livadia, launched in 1880.

You can find plenty of examples of William De Morgan’s genius in museums and galleries across the world and illustrated online by top-flight antique dealers. When in London, try to get to the V&A for all it has to offer (spend the day). The Wandsworth Museum has a dedicated de Morgan Centre, which includes examples of Evelyn’s work too.

Leighton House, designed by George Aitcheson in Kensington & Chelsea, is open to the public and full of fabulous things, leightonhouse.co.uk. Wrightwick Manor in Warwick has a long-term showing of the rescued collection of the work of William and Evelyn in their new Malthouse Gallery (The de Morgan Foundation) demorgan.org.uk.



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