Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Object of the week: Ceramic Tiles by William Frend De Morgan

An owl catches a mouse on this tile c.1895.
 This week's Object of the Week looks at some of the tiles in the collection by William Frend de Morgan (1839-1917) who produced some of the most imaginative ceramic work of the late 19th century.

De Morgan trained at the Royal Academy Schools at he same time as the painter Simeon Solomon, and through his friendship with another  painter, Henry Holiday (who also painted furniture for Williams Burges and William Morris) was introduced to Morris, later designing ceramics, furniture and stained glass for Morris & Co.  In 1887 he married the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Evelyn Pickering.

A typical De Morgan motif - a
galleon with fish, c.1895.
 De Morgan was a keen inventor and the technical process of glazing was fascinating to him. He rediscovered lost methods such as the metallic finish lustre, and would make his own blanks, preferring the uneven surface and lower absorbtion of his own tiles to manufactured ones. It seems that emphasis on beautiful decorative effects was far greater for De Morgan than the commercial success of the business, which was continually beset by difficulties. In 1907 he retired from the pottery he had established in 1872, which continued without him, finding that despite continued technical advances and discoveries in the techniques of glazing his designs were now seen as old fashioned.

The tiles in the collection feature De Morgan's classic themes of fantastical creatures and galleons. His early work shows an influence or awareness of the ideas of the Arts and Crafts Movement but his style develops away from the medieval motifs of his peers as De Morgan becomes enamoured with Persian ceramics (today what would be known as fifteenth-and-sixteenth century Iznik Ware).

The striking tile below uses a two tone pattern in lustred red and a muted pink. The background is made of plant forms stylised to a geometric decorative extreme providing a back-drop of pure pattern for the fanciful scene. In the foreground an eagle rampant and a curious coil-tailed, bird-beaked creature face each other in profile. A similar tile, with the motif in reverse was used with others in Arnold Mitchell's 1900 designed house, The Orchard, in Harrow, London.

Lustre glazed tile, c.1900
Other pieces in the collection include two large jars designed for the Tsar of Russia's in 1894. They were intended for a new Summer palace in Livadia, near the black Sea, but were never delivered.

Kristian Purcell, Curatorial Assistant

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