"De Morgan has a progressive and resourceful mind, accepting the ancient and simple traditions of the crafts, but not content to rest there" - May Morris
William De Morgan was the most important ceramic artist of the Arts and Crafts Movement. He was born on 16th November 1839 into an intellectual family of French Huguenot descent. William's father, Augustus De Morgan, was the first Professor of Mathematics at the newly founded University College London and he is an important figure in the history of the subject. His mother, Sofia Elizabeth Frend, campaigned alongside Elizabeth Fry in the early 19th century to promote prison reform and held strong views on religious liberty and women's suffrage.
In 1859 De Morgan was admitted to the Royal Academy Schools and studied alongside Frederick Walker and Simeon Solomon, who remarked on this "entirely uncommon place young man; tall, thin, high forehead, aquiline nose and high squeaky voice" - which earned him the nickname "Mouse". Henry Holiday was also in his circle and introduced De Morgan to William Morris. Two years later De Morgan turned his attention to the decorative arts and began his experimentation with stained glass.
Collaboration with William Morris
In 1863 De Morgan had his first real career break when he met William Morris and the painter Edward Burne-Jones. As Morris had not been very successful with ceramics, De Morgan took over the tile production side of the business and soon began designing his own tiles. He collaborated with William Morris for many years.
Victorian artist Frederic, Lord Leighton was an avid collector of ancient Turkish, Persian and Syrian tiles. Near the beginning of his career De Morgan was commissioned to install these tiles in the Arab Hall of Leighton's house, designed by architect George Aitchison. De Morgan was able to make up deficiencies in many of the panels and completely tiled the entrance hall and staircase with tiles of an intense Turkish turquoise. This early introduction to the rich and varied patterns of the Middle East was to influence De Morgan throughout his career.
Between 1882 and 1900, William De Morgan was commissioned by P&O to provide tile decorations for twelve new liners. The tile panels depicted fanciful landscapes representing cities and countries visited by P&O liners on their journey to the Middle East. De Morgan designed panels for several other ships, including the Royal Steam Yacht Livadia, built for Czar Alexander II of Russia.
Towards the end
By 1900 his designs were two generations old and considered a little old-fashioned. De Morgan, alongside his partner, the architect Halsey Ricardo, continued work until 1904 but with dwindling success and ill-health, he spent much of the year in Florence, Italy with his wife. His work, although highly prized by the avant-garde of the day, had never provided a large income for De Morgan. His greatest success was as a novelist. He only began writing when he was 65 but his best-sellers ensured a financially secure old age for him and his wife.
There were many other sides to De Morgan's talents: he designed and made pottery kilns and equipment; sketched ideas for grinding mills and sieves to be used in his workshops; was a knowledgeable chemist; worked on a new gearing system for bicycles; developed telegraph codes and evolved his own system of accounts. He even wrote to the Admiralty during the First World War with his suggestions of how they might destroy U-boats. However, his lasting legacy is his ceramics and the De Morgan Foundation is fortunate in owning a large collection of the finest examples of his work.