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This articles offers a historical overview of De Morgan's tile career from his beginnings at Morris & Co through retirement from his Fulham Tileworks. You may prefer to go directly to the:
Historical information relevant to individual tiles is presented on their own pages.
De Morgan's designs were so copied by other tile makers that a search for "Victorian Tile" brings up many Victorian take-off on his tiles. De Morgan's tiles were not mass-produced, however. His early tiles show the strong influence of William Morris, which his later work is more stylized, and can be thought of as early Art Nouveau Tiles.
Arts and Crafts as a style is a 20th century invention; for Victorians, it was a philosophy, even a world view. Arts and Crafts for Ruskin, Morris, De Morgan and their circle described the manner in which a thing was produced. A mass-produced Arts and Crafts style would have been a contradiction in terms and anathema to the original spirit of the term. It was the Arts and Crafts philosophy that resonated with William De Morgan and formed the basis of his life-long friendships with William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones.
He is certainly the most wonderful genius I ever met. ~William De Morgan on William Morris
William De Morgan, Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris were close friends, although De Morgan was perhaps closer to Edward-Burne Jones. Letters from Burne-Jones to De Morgan inquiring about his health and state of heart are personal and often signed "Affectionately". De Morgan met William Morris in 1863 in Red Lion Square, London, not far from where he had shared a flat with Burne-Jones. They became fast friends of a mostly professional nature at first then a close personal friendship grew among the three men.
It naturally followed that De Morgan would begin work at Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. There, designs passed freely between artists and media -- a Burne-Jones design for embroidery could become a painting (Morgan Le Fay), a painting might be adapted for tile (Briar Rose and the Cinderella tiles), a design for stained glass could be adapted for painting and tile (Days of Creation). De Morgan's tile rabbits are not so different from Philip Webb's hare for The Forest tapestry.
Tile in England and northern Europe had never been popular as it had been in Mediterranean countries. Some encaustic tile (two or more colors of clay) had made its way into churches but it was not common. The early 19th century saw a Gothic Revival with many new and renovated churches, and private estates following the fashion. In the 1830s, the tide shifted. A wave of popularity began to swell that would last more than 50 years. By the time De Morgan started at Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co., tile was being mass produced and the addition of tile from entrances to entire walls was commonplace. The demand for tile was high and would remain so for many more years.
De Morgan's focus at 'The Firm' was primarily on stained glass before making his way to ceramics. This was not wasted time at all. It was his early experiences with stained glass that inspired him to develop the red lustre tiles characteristic of his Chelsea period and finally the irridescent tiles during his Fulham period. He was able to reproduce the metallic sheen on the surface of stained glass by reducing the copper or silver oxides during firing, so that a thin film of irridescent metal was left on the finished tile. De Morgan did not invent lustre tiles, but did reinvent them newer and better.
De Morgan sold no tiles of his own during the 1860s, but by the end of the decade he had experimented enough that he had tiles to show his friends. At Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. (and later Morris & Co.), the first tiles were designed by Morris himself, often based on medieval illuminations. These included Columbine, Daisy, the Garden tiles for Red House, and several sunflower and trellis variations. Philip Webb is credited with designing the Red House birds and the Swans. De Morgan said he only designed three tiles for Morris & Co.: Poppy, a later version of Tulip and Trellis, and another that he could not remember. Several tiles from that time show his influence including hawthorne trellis, nine square bough, artichoke, Peterhouse diaper. Morris and Co. designs for one media often made their way into others: Morris's tile and embroidery designs made their way into stained glass, and eventually to wallpaper and textiles.
The Morris influence on De Morgan's style is strongest in his Chelsea period tiles, where fantastic creatures rest on fronds and foliage that is so reminiscent of Morris. But Morris influences are seen throughout his career. The tile on the left is the early Morris tile design of 1870 and that on the right is the De Morgan tile of the same name, 1890.
Membland Hall tile panel detail.
Membland was a collaborative
effort between William De Morgan
and William Morris, 1876-1877.
De Morgan's ceramics are usually classified as falling into three major periods: Chelsea, Merton Abbey, and Fulham.
In 1872, De Morgan moved to Cheyne Row in Chelsea after setting fire to the roof at his previous quarters on Fitzroy where he worked with ceramics and stained glass in a fireplace kiln. Cheyne Row was an artsy neighborhood, with literary connections, not far from the homes of his friends, Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris. Morris visited the new pottery works weekly or more often, and Morris & Co. remained a major retail outlet for De Morgan through 1907.
De Morgan's operations expanded here and he rented more space on the same street. Initially, he used the same Dutch blanks that Morris had used, but they failed to hold the strong colors De Morgan wanted as well as he liked and he moved to pressed clay blanks. In his later years, De Morgan denied Morris having had much, if any influence on his later work. That's debatable, animals and natural elements are common to all his periods. The Morris influence on tiles produced at Orange House Pottery in Chelsea is unmistakable.
One noteable tile from this period was Bedford Park, named after the West London housing development of 1870's where these tiles were very popular.
It was at Chelsea that he developed the 'red lustre' tiles and vases decorated with rich majolica colors in what he called the Persian styles that we commonly call Iznak. Iznak tiles were difficult to come by, but the more provincial Damascus tiles were readily available. Many of the tiles he made during this period were on special commission. He made copies of 16th century Persian tiles for a house Lord Leighton was building and decorated the Russian Tsar Alexander II's private yacht, the Lividia.
The Persian influence began to show itself strongest in the floral and tesselated designs of both De Morgan and Morris toward the end of this period. Fan-shaped flowers and carnations, traditional Persian themes, that often decorated Perisan tiles made their way into De Morgan's designs. The picture on these tiles is hand painted using a method invented by De Morgan. However, it has not been painted directly onto the tiles.
During the Chelsea period, both Morris and Demorgan became well-known and successful. DeMorgan's reputation skyrocketed as his reproduction 16th Damascus century tiles for Lord Leighton's home that could not be distinguished from the originals. He had several commissions from the Tsar of Russia. At the same time, William Morris received several commissions from the British royal family. Both men needed to expand.
In 1882, De Morgan move his tileworks to Merton Abbey in south London, beside the Wandle river, where Morris had several large buildings converted for his textile, furniture, and stained glass operations. The association with Morris continued strong -- De Morgan included a picture of a medieval abbey on his maker's mark, although no abbey building had stood on those grounds for many years. The actual tileworks were across the street and down the road a short distance on the northwest side of Merton Road, not on the Merton Abbey site itself.
At Merton Abbey, De Morgan introduced larger 8-inch and sometimes even 9-inch tiles, in addition to the 6-inch tiles he had produced in Chelsea. Some tiles from this period were the green fantastic animals series. During this time he developed the high gloss his tiles were famous for. But this was a process, early Merton Abbey attempts showed microscopic pitting and a flatter, less glossy finish. The tiles from Merton Abbey are for the most part single tiles, six to eight inches, with some three panel creatures, but fewer larger murals as he would undertake in his Fulham period.
Beginning in 1882 and continuing for more than a decade, De Morgan received several commissions from P&O for decorated tiles for twelve new liners. Many were large panels showing P&O destination cities and countries in the Middle East. None of the ships have survived, half were sunk and the remaining were sold and broken up.
Within five years, the cramped quarters at Merton Abbey, and the long commute, prompted De Morgan to look for a location closer to town. De Morgan had recently married Evelyn Pickering and began to look for something closer to their rented home in Chelsea.
De Morgan moved his operation to Fulham in 1888. De Morgan's maker's mark for the Fulham pottery works is a tudor rose. and the polychrome ships and galleons, in addition to larger Persian designs, harked back to the Renaissance.
Fulham tiles have deep backgrounds, birds, and animals with a turquoise and olive to emerald green colors. Also during this time, De Morgan spent his winters in Florence, Italy, for health reasons. He would have his designs painted locally on paper and send the papers back to London. The paper was placed on the tile and then glazed and the paper would burn away during the firing process.
Larger panels in Persian colors, Polychrome ships and animals, and irridescent tiles are characteristic of De Morgan's Fulham period.
As a business, the financial situation was chilly, partly due to the recession brought about by the Boer War, but also tile's popularity waned as the century drew to a close. Some large, public installations continued but decorative tile was no longer a popular choice for interiors. Tile, which had decorated palaces and government buildings, became a utilitarian media for underground stations, schools, and such.
De Morgan left the business in the hands of the Passenger brothers and Frank Iles, who had been with him for 25 years. He went on to a successful career as a novelist.
De Morgan's first tiles were, like Morris & Co. tiles before him, were handpainted on Dutch blanks using a pin-prick method. The outline was transferred to the tile by pricking the outline of the design through paper, and charcoal was rubbed through to mark the edges. This was the method used for the Red House tiles and the fairy tale tiles designed by Edward Burne-Jones and painted by Kate and Lucy Faulkner.
As time went on, De Morgan developed a paper transfer technique. Each tile design was painted onto a thin piece of paper, often mounted on a glass frame to allow the light to shine through, a throwback to his days in stained glass at Morris & Co. A traced outline of the design from a master drawing was painted by reference to a drawing or finished tile. The completed transfer was placed onto a tile's top porcelain layer and the back brushed with glaze. When fired, the paper burnts away, and the remaining ash mixed with the glaze, appearing as tiny specks on the finished tile. The glazed reverse image fused with the tile. Painted paper technique allowed greater precision, and appeared hand painted, which technically they were.
A more detailed discussion can be found in the article, Morris & Co. Tile Making Process.
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