William deMorgan, 1839-1917: arts and crafts movement, potter and writer, william Morris
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William De Morgan - 1839 - 1917

Ceramic Artist and Novelist

At the Morgan Society AGM 1998 in Dudley, a group of Morgan's chanced to visit the Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery and found there a collection of Arts and Crafts Tiles designed by William De Morgan. They were exquisite. Today, the tiles made by William De Morgan are much sought after reminders of the Arts and Crafts Movement founded by William Morris. His colours are vibrant and his humour shines brightly through his designs. His achievements as an artist/potter/inventor date between 1869 and 1904. His novels, written between 1905 and 1917 were compared to Dickens and he was cited as one of the greatest living novelists in 1914 along with Thomas Hardy, H.G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling and others.

De Morgan's parents were both highly intelligent and strong-minded. His father, Augustus, descended from a long line of Indian Army officers, was born in 1807 in India where his mathematical talent was identified when he was a young child. He matriculated at Trinity College, Cambridge but did not take up a career there because he refused to subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church. In 1828, the new University College in Gower Street (later to be part of London University) invited Augustus to fill the post of Professor or Pure Mathematics. Augustus, or Gussy as he was known was deemed to have, "great sweetness of temper but a formidable mind. His pupils sometimes found themselves left far behind in his classes." He was a man of lofty principles and resigned from his post twice during his career due to a conflict between his principles and the actions of the College management.

De Morgan was one of seven children born to Augustus and Sophia Frend Morgan. Four of these children died of TB. George, the oldest son, a mathematician died aged twenty-six of TB of the throat. Williams older brother, Edward survived to marry and have children but died at the age of thirty-seven after a fall from a horse in South Africa where he had gone for his health. The second daughter Anna Isabella married Dr. Reginald Thompson, had four children and lived to the age of fifty-nine. Of the remaining two sisters, Helen died unmarried in 1870 and Mary, also unmarried, died in Egypt in 1907.

William De Morgan trained at King's College and the Royal Academy but soon discovered that he was not suited to become an artist. Instead he became interested in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and met William Morris who began the arts and crafts movement. De Morgan began to make stained glass and later designed pottery and tiles in the genre of the Arts and Crafts movement. Examples of early stained/glass work survive in five different churches, such as the David window in Layer Marney, Essex, and the east window and St Michael window in Rocester, Staffordshire.

In the 1860's De Morgan began experimenting with glazes and designs for tiles which he marketed through the Morris firm. He rediscovered lustreware. First developed in the Near East, lustreware was a speciality of De Morgan and is particularly sought after. De Morgan was first and foremost an inventor. According to his biographer, Mark Hamilton, there is hardly anything that he was not prepared to improve upon, from a fire grate to cycle gear to an aeroplane or submarine. His ingenuity was amazing.(p87)

Although a brilliant designer, De Morgan was not a good business man and his firm finally closed in 1904. He then began a second career at the age of 68 as a best selling writer. Today his novels are out-of-print and unknown but his nine novels beginning with, Joseph Vance, were highly successful in their day. Sir William Haley, 1954, commented, "It is a squalid, splendid, hopeful, scuffling, unrancorous world. It is the world before Marx, or Spengler, or Freud. It is a world in which good and bad are seen for what they are. De Morgan was a naively simple man by modern literary standards, an early primitive, his only vision was human nature as he saw it; his only aim to give enjoyment" (p110)

During World War I, William De Morgan found that he could not concentrate on his novels but his thoughts turned to experiments to help the war effort. He worked on inventions which he though might contribute to aeroplane and submarine defence. He sent many schemes to the War Office and Admiralty, but they disappeared without a trace.

William De Morgan died in January 1917 from Influenza. On Friday evening, December 29 1916, William feeling strangely tired put down his pen as he was writing, The Old Madhouse and went to bed. He became delirious and for the next seventeen days he believed he was a wounded soldier in a hospital in France. He never recovered sufficiently to recognise his wife, Evelyn who was at his bedside. He died without children but his work, especially his tiles live brilliantly on.

Where William De Morgan pottery is to be seen:

Source: Hamilton, Mark, Rare Spirit: A Life of William De Morgan. Constable Pub. London, 1997

Internet links on William De Morgan

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created by Cheryl L. Morgan, last modified: 3 January 2000