Anything but Staffordshire

Rosemary Hill

  • Rare Spirit: A Life of William De Morgan 1839-1917 by Mark Hamilton
    Constable, 236 pp, £22.50, September 1997, ISBN 0 09 474670 2

William De Morgan’s Life, death and reputation form a curious episode in the history of taste. He died, in 1917, a famous Edwardian novelist, and was almost forgotten. Nearly half a century later he was rediscovered as a great Victorian ceramist. Appropriately, the technique in which he excelled as a potter, lustre, is one that has itself been several times lost, rediscovered and discarded again by different civilisations. It requires a mixture of artistry and chemistry for which De Morgan was ideally suited.

He was born in 1839, one of the seven delicate children of the logician Augustus De Morgan, whose refusal to subscribe to the 39 Articles had brought him from Cambridge to ‘godless’ University College London. There, at 21, he became professor of pure mathematics. His wife Sophia, who read Greek and Hebrew, campaigned for prison reform and women’s education. From this tolerant, rational household nothing was missing but romance, for which the young De Morgan accordingly pined.

In a novel written decades later, he was still hankering after the ‘great silent libraries’, and the ‘intoxicating traditions of ancient learning’, which in the early 1850s fired the imaginations of the Oxford undergraduates William Morris and Edward Burne Jones. But De Morgan was enrolled at University College, where there was no scope for picturesque medievalism. The spirit of place did not haunt Gower Street.

Having failed to get a degree, De Morgan decided to become a painter. He made friends among the second generation Pre-Raphaelites, now settled in London. In the course of his first visit to William Morris at Red Lion Square, Morris put on vestments and played a portable medieval organ, which striking contrast to his own home life enchanted the visitor. They remained friends all their lives and associates in the enterprise that became the Arts and Crafts Movement.

This attempt to revive the spirit of the Middle Ages by recovering the minor arts – the secular arm of the Gothic Revival – was undertaken with boisterous Victorian confidence and fraught with productive contradiction. To assert the value of the – supposedly – anonymous medieval craftsman against the increasingly dominant gentleman architect, required force of personality. To re-create the colours and textures of the medieval world required all the practical know-how and dedication of the railway age. The composition and fixing of dyes, the technical complexities of encaustic, stained glass and lustreware, were elusive to an extent that was at first a surprise, then a challenge to 19th-century revivalists.

De Morgan had inherited from his parents a methodical, scientific turn of mind which he now found a means of expressing in art. He gave up painting for stained glass. The iridescence of silver stain, when over-fired, gave him ‘the clue’ for the lustre glaze which he had seen on a 15th-century Persian tile and now proceeded to rediscover, entirely by experiment Despite an interruption ‘occasioned by setting the house on fire and burning the roof off’, after which he was asked to leave his rooms in Fitzroy Square, it wasn’t long before the process was fully developed at new premises in Chelsea. He was always modest about this extraordinary achievement, pointing out that lustre had been rediscovered many times.

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