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.

In 1918, when C.R. Ashbee went to Jerusalem as a ‘civic adviser’ on the revival of local crafts, he took plans of De Morgan’s kilns with him. Armenian potters who saw them explained that what De Morgan had ‘discovered’ was a medieval type of kiln, superseded, from their point of view, in the 16th century. Nevertheless they used some of the materials Ashbee had brought. The influence of De Morgan on the tiles still in place on the Dome of the Rock is one of the more surprising reverberations of English medievalism.

For thirty years De Morgan was a potter. Beginning with tiles, he developed a range of decorative ware – bowls, jugs and vases; he moved the works from Chelsea to Merton Abbey, near Morris’s tapestry studio, then finally to Fulham, where it remained from 1888 until its closure in 1907. It was only after this that he began writing the novels which brought him popular acclaim and financial success beyond anything the ceramics ever achieved.

These last ten years of De Morgan’s life occupy almost half Mark Hamilton’s book, which has been written in the hope that ‘perhaps the wheel has turned full circle’ and we are ready to appreciate De Morgan again as a writer. Unfortunately this is most unlikely. In any case, the first biography since that of his sister-in-law, A.M.W. Stirling, in 1922, should add more than this one does to our knowledge of De Morgan’s first 68 years. It should say more, too, about the work for which, like it or not, he is best-known. There is also disappointingly little about the context in which such highly-wrought objects came into existence, or the taste and the milieu that sustained them.

De Morgan was a determined man who took his own peculiar course through the artistic debates of the later 19th century. Humorous, with a weakness for weak puns, intellectually cool and physically slight, he had a high-pitched voice and large eyes dominating a delicate face: a foil for Morris’s beefy enthusiasm. He supplied ceramics for many Morris interiors, but was never a partner in ‘the firm’ of Morris, Marshall and Faulkner. Politically, too, he kept aloof, regarding socialism with some of the ‘happy combination of inattention and respect’ with which he once sat through a Roman Catholic mass.

In the same way, and as discreetly, he seceded from some of the doctrines of the Arts and Crafts Movement. For him the Renaissance was not the disastrous sundering of the fine from the applied arts. Fifteenth-century Italy represented an aesthetic ideal. He did believe in truth to materials: Morris’s appeal for the ‘plastic and easily worked nature of clay’ to remain visible in the finished object found an eloquent response in the flowing lines of De Morgan’s pots, but ‘the mark of the maker’s hand’ was smoothed away. Improvisation among the workmen, as advocated by Ruskin, was strenuously discouraged. De Morgan probably did not tell Morris what he told his sometime partner, the architect Halsey Ricardo: that he hoped his pots would ‘murmur Persia rather than Staffordshire’ – in fact, ‘Greek, Sicilian, Etruscan, Moorish ... anything but Staffordshire’. This dislike of roughness, the refusal to let his pots wobble, always counted against De Morgan with the craft purists. May Morris thought it his only fault. Bernard Leach – himself much less technically skilled – was dismissive.

De Morgan’s achievement was the balance in his work between the conflicting elements in the Arts and Crafts ethos, in which individuals attempted to re-create the quality of anonymous craftwork. He found originality through tradition, resolving, for ceramics, the dilemma of Late Victorian architecture and design – the search for a style. In a paper on lustre he set out the ‘universally accepted truth’ that underlay revivalism: that the 19th century was an age for which originality seemed impossible. To study earlier art, eventually thereby to catch ‘the secret of the spirit’ which animated it, was the only hope. As he said, declining to object when someone copied his designs: ‘imitation is the sincerest form of pottery.’

His own style was achieved in just this way, by submission to formal and technical constraints. He used flat pattern abstracted from traditional motifs, arranged to please his mathematical mind. The nature of his designs being ‘to have no nature’, he came as close as any 19th-century designer to that essential quality of medieval art: particularity without individualism. In his best work the motifs of Italian or Iznik pottery – he was careful not to mix the repertoires – are turned to effect, often literally rotated, until they fit the space. Ships have sails tilted to counterpoint the steady curve of a rim: a peacock’s tail fans out around a bowl with the same modest completeness as an angel’s wing filling a Gothic spandrel.

De Morgan’s strong unassertive style adapted well. It was cool enough for Philip Webb, but it could be robust. Norman Shaw used the tiles in the ‘Old English’ interior of the Tabard Inn at Bedford Park, the artistic suburb, built from the late 1870s, where the inhabitants ‘read Rossetti by Japanesey lamps’. De Morgan still looked modern when the next generation of the Arts and Crafts, led by Mackmurdo, founded the Century Guild. The early tendrils of Art Nouveau that wove through their designs found a complement in his. His last technical breakthrough, the triple lustre of the ‘moonlight’ and ‘sunlight’ suites, had an exotic Whistlerian glitter that suited Nineties Aestheticism. The house in Addison Road, Kensington that Ricardo built for Ernest Debenham and clad outside and in with De Morgan ceramics, brought his career as a potter to a fantastic close.

Mark Hamilton is not much interested in any of this, however. He does not mention Mackmurdo or Ashbee. Ernest Gimson appears briefly as ‘Edward Gimson, a cabinetmaker’. Footnotes and captions are vague: ‘a “fairly recent” sale’ will not help anyone find the catalogue of the Wiltshire Collection of De Morgan’s work sold by Sotheby’s in 1991. ‘A house by Norman Shaw’ or ‘four fruit and flower tiles’ tell us little more than we can see for ourselves.

As a biographer, rather than an art historian, Hamilton can perhaps be forgiven this looseness of reference. But he is oddly incurious, too, about the rest of De Morgan’s life. His long, happy marriage to Evelyn Pickering – which reversed the usual hierarchy of gender and genre, since she was the painter and he the applied artist – was described by Stirling as one of the most mutually creative partnerships since the Brownings. Hamilton casts little new light on it. ‘It is pointless to speculate,’ he says flatly, ‘on the intimate details of a marriage which took place over a hundred years ago.’ So that’s that.

De Morgan’s health forced him to give up pottery in 1905 and the business, which was always ‘very ill De Morganised’, closed shortly afterwards. He and Ricardo – who was, ironically, descended from the great economist and had enough money of his own not to work – had never made much effort with book-keeping. It would, they said, spoil their enjoyment. The conventional view that the products of the Arts and Crafts Movement were too sophisticated to succeed financially is in most cases a simplification, as Charles Harvey and Jon Press have made clear in the case of Morris and Alan Crawford in his work on Ashbee. It would be interesting to know how justified De Morgan was in feeling that now he could ‘make beautiful things ... nobody wants them’.

His grief at the failure of the enterprise was dispelled when, with an ease that surprised himself, he took up fiction. For forty years, as he told a friend (though Hamilton, prudently, does not tell his readers), he had scarcely looked at any books other than technical manuals. ‘When I turned again to literature, I took it up exactly where I left it off.’ He went back to Dickens; or rather, to a sentimental memory of Dickens, a world, as Edmund Gosse said, ‘where the family is not challenged, where religion is quietly respected, where property enjoys all its rights’.

From designing for households Oscar Wilde might have visited, De Morgan began writing for the drawing-rooms in which his name could never be mentioned. His novels, composed in the lengthening shadows of Edwardian nostalgia, took their readers back to the favourite reading of their own youth. Apart from incidental details, it is hard today to find much that is enjoyable in these huge, rambling books.

Augustus De Morgan had once read algebra ‘as if it were a novel’. His son wrote novels with plots like algebra, his love of intricacy now freed from the technical constraints of pottery and innocent of any in literature. In It Can Never Happen Here, Hamilton, who does his subject no favours in his summaries, explains that ‘when old Jim is knocked over by a cart and loses a leg, and his little daughter, out in the snow looking for him contracts pneumonia, the kind-hearted Athelstan takes them to the country.’ It would take a heart of stone not to laugh. Hamilton concedes that the books’ strengths are dialogue and situation rather than plot but his synopses make De Morgan sound like Daisy Ashford: ‘Judith sees sense in her cool arrogant way, and gets married to a duke which, as everybody agrees, will suit her much better.’

Despite delicate health, De Morgan continued to be active into his seventies. He was a supporter of women’s suffrage – a fact Hamilton does not mention. After 1914 he threw himself into the war effort and was offered facilities for experiments at the London Polytechnic. In a dramatic return to youthful form, he set fire to a hydrogen bottle, blew all the windows out and was asked not to come back.

After his death his wife completed two unfinished novels. His pottery remained almost unknown until, in 1952, the Victoria and Albert Museum held its Exhibition of Victorian and Edwardian Decorative Arts. There Morris, Burges, Ashbee, De Morgan and the rest of the handful for whom – Morris thought – the museum had been created in the first place, were given their first reassessment. The curator, Elizabeth Aslin, recalled hearing the sound of sledgehammers destroying Victorian tiles and furnishings in one part of the museum as she set but the exhibits in another. The balance of taste had, however, begun to shift for De Morgan the potter. The novelist will have longer to wait.