Unusual and early De Morgan tile panel

This William De Morgan tile panel recently surfaced at auction in Buckinghamshire. It shows a snake below two doves in a fruit tree. The design is in De Morgan's archive at the Victoria and Albert Museum (see Greenwood book, page 154, V&A ref no 452), and the quality of execution leaves no real doubt as to the attribution.

The panel is interesting for several reasons. It is painted onto unmarked Dutch blank tiles, each 5.25 inches (13.5 cm) square. Dutch blank tiles were used early in De Morgan's career but examples on 5 inch tiles are rarely seen, usually he used 6 inch square blanks. The V&A archive shows that this design was drawn for 5 inch tiles and there are about a dozen single tiles and half a dozen small panels also in the V&A archive also drawn for 5 inch tiles.

One design for two such tiles shows an antelope below birds in a tree and, apart from being smaller, has similarities to this panel (Greenwood page 147, V&A ref no 480). The tiles in this panel are tin glazed, so do not have the crazing seen universally on De Morgan's lead glazed tiles. The colour flows well in the denser areas of painting on the fruit, but it looks to have been painted using the traditional Dutch 'in glaze' technique. This technique was not able to generate the range and depth of colour that De Morgan wanted and he developed his characteristic underglaze colours and lustres, moving away from Dutch tiles to either his own blank tiles or ones bought in from Shropshire, or from Poole, and later from Wedgwood.

The tiles in this panel have 'pin holes' in their corners which were made by nails in the wooden templates used for cutting the tiles from larger sheets of clay. In the 1860s many Dutch tile makers stopped using these nails. Pin holes are seldom, if ever, seen in the 6 inch Dutch blanks used by De Morgan so it is possible that this tile panel dates from the early Chelsea period, in other words the early 1870s.

Rob Higgins, author of William De Morgan: Arts and Crafts Potter

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