Friday, January 31, 2020

Visual Catnip...William de Morgan and William Morris...

Design for printed fabric - Honeysuckle - William Morris - 1874
Over the new year period, on a trip to Birmingham I went back to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. I love being there and going back to the paintings, ceramics and sculptures that feel like a remote backcloth to life. Born in Brum, but leaving the Black Country for the West Country as a child, meant that ‘The City of a Thousand Trades’ was linked to visits to the family and the familiar ; the art gallery and the jewellery quartier. 

The Blind Girl - John Everett Millais - 1856
The Pre-Raphaelite room in the gallery mesmerized me from my earliest years. I used to be shown the intricate details on the painting – painstakingly realised with such realism and in such iridescent colours. Yet with age, at one stage I grew tired of this visual overload, and shrugged it off as Victorian excess, as heavy and stifling as the typical 19th century home interior. However this tardive teenage rejection did not last long. I took up a more objective vision of art and its appreciation in general and no longer felt the need to be apologetic about any admiration I might feel for any aspect of any kind of art. Why should you feel intimidated by the dictates of (someone else’s) taste ? Or the new directives imposed on past works and visions that have been taken out of context ? I was very sad to see that the painting that had absolutely fascinated me in childhood (Hylas and the Nymphs – J.W Waterhouse 1896) had been removed from Manchester art gallery due to issues concerning the portrayal of women and their assigned role in society/life. 

Hylas and the Nymphs - J.W Waterhouse - 1896 (
Despite being ill for my latest visit to the art gallery, I did manage to make my way up to the permanent display of ceramics and tilework in the decorative art section of the applied art collection. This is housed on the open upper floor of the imposing ‘greenhouse’ gallery structure - typical of the Victorian age and widely found in libraries and stations with characteristic expanses of glass supported by ornate wrought iron. 

Design for wallpaper - Wild Tulip - William Morris - 1884
As always, one of the key exhibits on display here was work by William de Morgan (1839 – 1917). His art - pottery and ceramics - exemplifies the social and aesthetic values of the Arts and Craft Movement, just like the work of his friend, William Morris (1834 – 1896). Both men were born at a time when mass manufacturing was being driven and enabled by the industrial revolution, and was transforming life in 19th century Britain. Likewise they had witnessed first-hand the saturation of every part of society by soul-less mass produced goods whose manufacture had a dehumanising effect on the labourers and each individual for whom they were destined. I can’t help but wonder what William Morris himself would think of his prints being reproduced today in order to manufacture cheap clothing for global juggernaut H & M, in conditions dictated by fast fashion? Or indeed the Strawberry Thief, amongst his other designs, being plundered to adorn every conceivable surface, from oven gloves to teaspoon rests, much in the same way that The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady ‘accessories’ were hugely commercialized in the 1980s. 

de Morgan
To mark his disapproval of a period dominated by the race for innovation and technology, William Morris refused to visit the Great Exhibition of 1851. In this machine age, when factories delivered services and manufactured goods to unprecedented levles, art had become an industrialised commodity as another. Even though the work of both Morris and de Morgan would go on to have a significant impact of the decoration of domestic interiors in the Victorian age, they practiced their respective crafts with principle. Indeed, guided by truth and beauty, they believed that craftsman should devote themselves to their art, using traditional techniques instead of mechanically churning out vast quantities of meaningless produce. Like the initial founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, they were influenced by the writings of art critic John Ruskin and yearned for a return to a purer time, exemplified by the Medieval age. 

So it was that de Morgan worked alongside Wiiliam Morris in the 1860s, producing stained glass windows with another important late Pre-Raphaelite, Edward Burne-Jones. De Morgan’s formal training as a classical artist enabled him to depict Biblical scenes and those from mythology and legends. However, by his own admission, de Morgan was more a designer than a ‘real artist’. He was fascinated with obtaining an opaque, iridescent finish on glass and this led him in other directions. Although he may have established his artistic credentials during this period of collaboration with Burne-Jones, he moved away from the portrayal of angelic, Arthurian or saintly beings. As much as I loved Burne-Jones’ paintings and stained glass when young, and still love his beautiful drawings today, there are only so many wan, winsome and wilting figures in billowing drapery you can take.

Drawing - Edward Burne-Jones
Once themes and draftsmanship become a little too standard, satiation point is soon reached, although judging by the Victorian appetite for such art, their threshold was considerably higher than mine. The paintings of de Morgan’s wife, Evelyn (1855-1919), are a case in point - for me at least. The beautifully executed recurrent female forms, striking similar poses in classical themes, soon become cloying. However it is important to realise that she was often obliged to conform to popular tastes rather than follow her own leanings since the income from her art was often the financial linchpin in the de Morgan household. Indeed, William’s scientific experiments in firing and glazing techniques from this time onwards resulted in the exploration of other forms and motifs, but did not ensure any lasting monetary gain whatsoever.

De Morgan drew inspiration from what was termed ‘Persian’ ceramics, although in fact this largely referred to16th century Islamic pottery and majolica from Italy and Spain. In this respect he resembled many other Western artists and writers who were attracted to all things Oriental. They were avid for the exotic, and eager to experience a visit to the Levant to complement or replace the more commonplace Grand Tour of Europe. William Morris himself declared: « To us pattern-designers, Persia has become a holy land».

de Morgan
With his ever-analytical, scientific mind, bolstered by a mathematical training, de Morgan found his forte in creating intricate geometric forms, playing on symmetric shapes, and tessellations. These were common in the Islamic art which he so admired, where rich floral patterns took the place of the human figures whose depiction was forbidden by faith. De Morgan departed from the staple Burne-Jones protagonists and moved away from the purely botanic-based designs of Morris. 

His ceramics were devoted to portraying a multitude of plants and mythological, fantastical and heraldic creatures portrayed in stunning patterns and colours that draw inspiration from Syrian, the Middle Eastern work, and the Iznik ware of Asian Turkey. He had seen such art first-hand when he carried out a commission in the Arab Hall of what is now Leighton House Museum. Furthermore, he would have known of the writings of Owen Jones on the subject of Islamic design from the book 'Grammar of Ornament’ (1856).

Design for wallpaper - Tulip and Willow - William Morris -1873-5
In the late 1860s, interest in home improvement was gathering momentum as changing demographics led to ever-greater property ownership. A renewed desire for tiles meant that production increased to provide surround tiles for fire places, or wall decoration and flooring in kitchens, washrooms, parlours, sitting rooms, hallways and pathways. Companies started to supply an impressive range of ‘art tiles’ to meet demand and to exhibit their wares in the international trade fairs. Yet while the work produced by ‘The Potteries’ - centred around Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire - may have made of England the most significant ceramic producers worldwide, it did not suit de Morgan’s concept of the artist potter/ceramist since it had led to uniformity without intrinsic significance. Thomas Minton and Sons perfected production techniques that enabled them to produce on an industrial scale, thus become a leading Staffordshire company throughout the Victorian era. 

de Morgan
Innovative encaustic tiles opened up additional markets and catered to new demands in tiles for public buildings, institutions and palaces, alongside home interiors. Mass-produced Minton tiles were used to replace Medieval church floors - drawing criticism from William Morris but meeting with approval from the ‘father’ of the Gothic Revival Movement – A.W Pugin. The Palace of Westminster, Victoria & Albert Museum and many other prestigious buildings were decorated using Minton tiles in England and even in the USA with the US Capitol.

de Morgan
 The need for ceramic tiles to meet the standards of the Arts and Crafts Movement led de Morgan to set up his own firm in the 1870s. The continued desire to recreate the unique finish of the rich ceramics created in 9th Century Egypt also led him to virtually burn down his workshop at one stage during a (presumably failed) experiment. Nevertheless, he did finally manage to produce lustreware with such skill that he became an expert in the field. A partnership with the architect Halsey Ricardo resulted in a number of important commissions, including Debenham House, London, in 1905 and the design of schemes for the decoration of twelve P&O liners, and the provision of tiles for the purpose. In 1883, de Morgan was also commissioned by Lewis Carroll to design several red lustre tiles featuring fantastic beasts -  a snark, jabberwock, eagle, dodo, among others – to decorate the surround of a fireplace…
Since de Morgan’s work has no religious content or intent per se, unlike much of the art that had inspired it, it has been criticised for being merely clever geometrical patterns that are soulless. Furthermore, the costly production processes meant that de Morgan’s creations were only truly accessible to a select public, with the obvious financial means to afford such expense. This limited their growth, posing restrictions on the public since it excluded the vast majority and ultimately had an impact on sales. In addition, aesthetics were evolving. 

Taste changes, and as no longer in the spirit of the times, De Morgan & Co folded in 1907. Having finally perfected his lustreware technique in later years, he wrily remarked that “All my life I have been trying to make beautiful things and now that I can, nobody wants them." Indeed, through concentrating on the creative process, he had overlooked the aesthetic mood at the turn of the century, with the result that his motifs and patterns appeared somewhat outdated.

de Morgan
What I find the most endearing and admirable in de Morgan is this earnest, even dogged approach to art and experimentation and the fact that despite being born into a lineage of mathematicians, he was apparently inept at managing the financial aspects of any of his endeavours. For all his love of figures and the beauty of mathematics, he was notoriously bad at the books ! He was also known for his sense of humour – shared by his wife – and again, I think that makes of de Morgan a most congenial character, very far from the dour, caricatural image we might have of the average Victorian. 

de Morgan
The expressive, organic, undulating forms and flowing lines of Art Nouveau had overtaken the heavier, history-bound, cluttered style of the 19th century. The beginnings of change had already made themselves apparent in the black-and-white illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley (1872 – 1898). His art marked a striking move away from the more reassuring style of Burne-Jones which had been a key inspiration and influence in Beardsley’s short life. Whilst Burne-Jones dealt with a dream-like domain of myth and legend, his young admirer’s Aesthetic art bordered on the nightmarish, with its troubling, almost menacing edginess. In this new climate, de Morgan’s designs no longer had their former relevance or success. The Minton company was able to adapt to the times by introducing Art Nouveau designs influenced by the Vienna Secession art movement, founded by Gustav Klimt and others ; de Morgan could not and would not make the change. On the closure of his company, he literally turned the page, and added a new chapter to his life…. through literature. 

de Morgan
It is interesting to think that over his lifetime, he was to have greater success from the novel-writing that he ultimately turned to - once the commercial opportunies of ceramics had finally failed him. Today, of course, the de Morgan name is synonymous with art, and probably not literature, even if William published seven best-selling novels in this final phase of his life, gaining him acclaim in England and the USA. 

de Morgan
These decorative arts operate as visual catnip on me – drawing me in every time. Just the name given to some of de Morgan’s iridescent finishes is enough to make me dream. Moonlight and sunset lustre… How magical is that ? 

de Morgan

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