Growing-up in a 1903 Arts & Crafts house I was lucky enough to know the glazed tiles of William de Morgan at first hand. Imprinted into my child’s eye, his charming azure blue and emerald green Peacocks were some of the very first images I can remember, adorning chimney breasts and open firesides throughout the house.
Born on London’s Gower Street, son of a distinguished mathematician at University College, De Morgan was encouraged to attend – as it happened only briefly – the Royal Academy Schools. His parents were Victorian progressives; his mother Sofia an early prison reformer, suffragette and ‘spiritualist’. The young De Morgan’s early introduction to William Morris began a deep and lifelong friendship, no doubt encouraging De Morgan to begin designing stained-glass and ceramics.
For De Morgan, like most Arts & Crafts designers, natural forms and motifs always provided artistic inspiration and through his pottery works in London he provided beautiful tiles for private clients as well as Morris & Co. As a ceramicist faithful to the vernacular technique, De Morgan also sought to better the old ways – inventing a new biscuit tile and investigating new ways to glaze. Deeply English and echoing the Medieval past, his ceramic designs also found inspiration in the vibrant colours and intricate detailing of traditional Italian, Spanish and “Persian” design too. It therefore becomes difficult to neatly classify De Morgan. His mission was, ultimately, to re-enchant the world and reveal the exotic and the mystical in the seemingly prosaic. Less well known as a ‘suburban’ novelist, De Morgan took to writing when he wrongly felt demand for his designs had waned. Yet examples of his glorious ceramic work can be found in museum collections around Britain as well as in situ at, for example, Leighton House in London and Standen in East Sussex. To really explore De Morgan’s life, work and legacy though one must visit the rather wonderfully little-known De Morgan Foundation on Wandsworth’s West Hill.