Born in 1839 in Chester, the son of a mathematician and his highly educated wife, De Morgan was always supported in his desire to become an artist. At the age of twenty he entered the Royal Academy however became swiftly disillusioned with the establishment and sought to follow a more ’Bohemian’ path of creative discovery.
William De Morgan became a close friend of William Morris which placed him at the heart of the Arts and Crafts movement in the 1860's. Having initially designed stained glass for Morris & Co he moved onto ceramics becoming wholly consumed with the manufacture of breathtaking pieces which would epitomise the style and ethics of the Arts and Crafts period. Although William Morris designed and produced tiles, this was not his forte, and by 1872 William De Morgan set up his own works in Chelsea and became the principal supplier of ceramic tiles and decorative wares to William Morris and his West End shops.
The Arts and Crafts ideology he was exposed to through his friendship with Morris and his own insistent curiosity led De Morgan to explore every technical aspect of his craft. He initially established a kiln and production works at his Chelsea home, not the most ideal location as proven when a fire broke out! His early efforts at making his own tiles during his Chelsea period were of variable technical quality often amateurish with firing defects and irregularities; as such he made extensive use of blank commercial tiles. Biscuit tiles of red clay were obtained from the Architectural Pottery Co. in Poole as these were hard and very durable. Dust pressed tiles of white earthenware were bought from Wedgwood, Minton’s and other manufacturers but De Morgan believed these would not stand frost. Eventually he developed a high quality biscuit tile of his own, which he admired for its irregularities and better resistance to moisture.
One of the first tile designs produced by De Morgan in the late 1870s was called 'Bedford Park Daisy' which proved to be of the most successful designs made by the De Morgan Company. Commercial tile manufacturers usually relied on some form of printed transfer sheets all exactly the same to guarantee uniformity. De Morgan, rejecting the 19th Century passion for formal repetition experimented until he found a means of duplicating a pattern while maintaining the individuality of each tile. Although the tiles were 'hand-painted', the paint was not applied directly onto the tiles. Using the 'painted paper' technique, the design was copied from a master drawing onto a thin piece of paper. This was then placed onto the tile and brushed with a liquid or powdered glaze. When the tile was fired, the paper was burnt away and the painted design became part of the glaze. This allowed decoration on the tiles to be done with precision but also gave the look of hand-painting. The process also ensured that the same design could be repeatedly reproduced and also made using different colours.
Most of De Morgan’s tile designs feature images derived from nature including flowers, plants, birds and animals. One series of tiles called Fantastical Creatures, also known as Beast tiles feature mythological creatures including dragons and griffins whilst other tiles depict real animals from the natural world such as boars, snakes, eagles and peacocks. Today these remain the most affectionately appreciated and the most keenly sought after.
While his work is pure Arts and Crafts De Morgan was influenced by many external sources, in particular the colour and style of the Middle East seen his use of glaze techniques and colour palette. Around 1873 he made a striking breakthrough by rediscovering the technique of lustre ware found in hispano-moresque pottery and Italian majolica. By 1875, he began to work in earnest with a Persian palette using dark blue, turquoise, manganese purple, green, Indian red, and lemon yellow to create flamboyant floral studies and exotic fantastic creatures.
De Morgan’s signature style of decoration was not restricted too just ceramic tiles but actually covered a myriad of wares including chargers, vases, jugs and rice dishes. Some of these were made on site in his own works but many were bought as biscuit ware (undecorated blanks) from Wedgwood and others then decorated by De Morgan’s collective of in house artists which included the high talented brothers Charles & Fred Passenger together with Joe Juster and a Miss Babb
The pottery works was always beset by financial problems, despite repeated cash injections from his wife, the pre-Raphaelite painter Evelyn Pickering de Morgan and a partnership with the architect Halsey Ricardo. This partnership was associated with a move for the factory from Merton abbey to Fulham in 1888. During the Fulham period de Morgan mastered many of the technical aspects of his work that had previously been elusive, including complex lustres and deep, intense underglaze painting that did not run during firing. However, this did not guarantee financial success, and in 1907 William de Morgan left the pottery, which continued under the passenger brothers, the leading painters at the works. "All my life I have been trying to make beautiful things," he said at the time, "and now that I can make them nobody wants them."
Today however countless people do want his work and its popularity has become a worldwide phenomenon with pieces in countless museum and private collections including Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber. Collecting De Morgan is not for the faint hearted with average prices comfortably in four figure sums! That said you can start for a few hundred pounds and as your confidence grows so can your collection. De Morgans work is not only beautiful but also fun providing a splash of colour and a dash of humor to any collection.
Included in our forthcoming Decades of Design auction is lot 97- A monumental vase, attributed to William De Morgan, decorated in the Anglo-Persian style with hand painted mythical beasts.
Posted on 6 October 2021