Archive for William de Morgan

The (Mostly) Peaceable Kingdom: Animals in Art

Posted in Christine Cariati, Fine & Decorative Arts, Flora & Fauna, Illustration, Painting, Printmaking, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 2, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Franz Marc, Gelbe Kuh (Yellow Cow), 1911
Oil on canvas
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

The other day, while cleaning out a drawer, I came across a post card of this exuberant painting by the German painter Franz Marc (1880-1916.) In 1911, Franz Marc, along with August Macke and Wassily Kandinsky, founded Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider). They were a diverse group stylistically, but they held common beliefs in the spiritual nature of art, the link between visual art and music and the symbolic use of color to depict emotion. Marc’s paintings of animals, mostly horses, had fluidity, grace and deep emotion. Sadly, while waiting for the paperwork on his artists’ military exemption to come through, Marc was killed by a shell splinter to the head in the Battle of Verdun.

Franz Marc, Blaues Pferd I (Blue Horse I), 1911
Oil on canvas
Stadtische Galerie em Lenbochhaus, Munich

Revisiting Franz Marc’s animals brought to mind other images of animals in art that have caught my attention over the years. They are quite varied in style and tone, but I believe they all say something interesting or profound about the way we see and relate to animals.

Karl Joseph Brodtmann, Lion, c. 1842
Lithograph from Nâturhistorische Bilder Galerie aus dem Theirreiche

The Swiss artist Karl Joseph Brodtmann (1787-1862) was an expert 19th-century lithographer whose natural history studies capture a wealth of detail. His animal portraits are dignified and convey a sense of respect and wonder for his subjects.

René Magritte, Le Mal du Pays (Homesickness), 1940
Oil on canvas, Private Collection

Belgian painter René Magritte (1898-1967) painted Le Mal du Pays at an unsettled time in his life—the Germans had invaded his home town, and he was having marital problems. Magritte was thirteen years old when his mother committed suicide by drowning herself in the river, so we can probably safely assume that the angel in black on the bridge, contemplating the void, is Magritte. The meaning of the lion is perhaps more ambiguous, but in his elegant, calm yet alert pose, he seems to be serving as guardian for his human counterpart.

detail from The Unicorn at the Fountain,
second tapestry of the series, The Hunt of the Unicorn,  Flemish, c.
1500
The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Lions are very popular subjects in a variety of media. Above, a lion and lioness lounge among the flowers, in a detail from the medieval Flemish tapestry, The Hunt of the Unicorn.

Wenceslaus Hollar, Lion and Tulip, c. 1662

A personal favorite, from Bohemian artist/engraver Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677). Hollar was most famous for his etchings of London before and after the Great Fire of 1666, but produced an astonishing quantity and variety of work—portraiture, studies of costumes and contemporary dress, architecture, allegory, landscape, maps and natural history studies of animals and shells.

Nilgai (Blue Bull) Mughal, c. 1620
Ink, opaque watercolor and gold on paper
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

detail, Shah Jahan Hunting Deer with Trained Cheetahs, Rajasthan, c. 1710
Ink, opaque watercolor and gold on paper
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Tiger Approaching a Waterhole, Kotah, c. 1790
Watercolor and opaque watercolor

detail, Two Princes Shooting Deer; Dogs Hunting Down Boar, Kotah, c. 1660
Opaque watercolor, gold

Indian miniatures are full of wonderful depictions of animals, both peaceful and fierce. Many Indian miniatures have scenes of the hunt, giving the artist an opportunity to paint graceful herds of leaping deer and ferocious tigers, leopards or cheetahs.

Marc Chagall, To My Betrothed, 1911
Gouache
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Marc Chagall, Fantastic Horse Cart, 1949
Gouache and paste;
Blanden Memorial Art Gallery, Fort Dodge, Iowa

Marc Chagall, Monkey Acting as Judge Over the Dispute Between
Wolf and Fox
, 1925-27
Gouache, Perls Gallery, New York

Marc Chagall (1887-1985) incorporated animals into his work in fantastical ways—a man with a head of a bull or a gravity-defying horse and cart are easily integrated into more realistic elements. In his dreamy work, there’s a fluid coexistence between animals and humans—often their characteristics are interchangeable.
Monkey Acting as Judge Over the Dispute Between Wolf and Fox
is one of 100 gouaches that Chagall did to illustrate the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine (1621-95). The image doesn’t literally illustrate the story, but Chagall does give us a sense of the essence and spirit of their characters.

Chauvet Cave, Lion panel

Chauvet Cave, Black bison superimposed on clawmarks and engravings

The lyric quality of Chagall’s animals brought to mind the cave paintings from Chauvet. These caves, undisturbed for thousands of years, were discovered  in December, 1994. These paintings of lions, bison, aurochs, mammoths, hyenas, cave bears and rhinoceroses are over 30,000 years old, twice as old as the art in the caves at Lascaux. They are beautifully rendered with a tremendous sense of motion and accurate perspective.

William de Morgan, Design for a tile
Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Closer to home we have some more domesticated animals. In the example above, William de Morgan (1839-1917) was creating a decorative motif, but he also captured something very endearing and lyrical in these rabbits.

Richard Whitford, A Prize Shropshire Ewe, 1878

Queen Victoria (1819-1901) owned several of Richard Whitford’s (1821-1890) paintings, thus earning him the epithet, “Animal Painter to the Queen.” Whitford mostly painted farm animals, particularly sheep. At the time, breeders of pedigree farm animals would often commission paintings of their prize-winning stock to display alongside their medals and citations. I always thought this sheep had tremendous dignity and presence and I love the way he is integrated into the surrounding landscape.

Mark Tansey, The Innocent Eye Test, 1981
Oil on canvas
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Mark Tansey’s (b. 1949-) The Innocent Eye Test seems like the perfect painting to close out this brief review of animals in painting. Tansey, who is known for his monochromatic palette, is interested in exploring  opposites and contradictions, “how different realities interact with each other.” His paintings are imagined narratives that deal with the fact that in the 19th century, photography replaced the traditional function of painting, which was to represent reality. His work, Tansey says, “is based on the idea that the painted picture knows itself to be metaphorical, rhetorical, transformative, fictional.” The Innocent Eye Test is a humorous take on history painting that works on many levels. The assembled “experts,” Tansey’s send-up of art critics, stand by, observing the cow’s reaction to a large-sized painting of two cows in a field. Note the man with the mop on the left. The painting that the cow is gazing at is based on an actual painting, The Young Bull, 1647, by Dutch painter Paulus Potter (1625-54).

Wider Connections:

Concerning the Spiritual in Art by Wassily Kandinsky

Franz Marc, 1880-1916 by Susanna Partsch

Rene Magritte, 1898-1967: Thoughts Rendered Visible by Marcel Paquet

The Unicorn Tapestries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Adolfo Salvatore Cavallo

The Man Who Drew London: Wenceslaus Hollar in Reality and Imagination by Gillian Tindall.

Gods, Kings, and Tigers: The Art of Kotah, Edited by Stuart Cary Welch

Indian Court Painting, 16th-19th Century by Steven Kossak

Marc Chagall: Painting as Poetry by Ingo F. Walther

Return to Chauvet Cave: Excavating the Birthplace of Art by Jean Clottes

The Designs of William de Morgan by Martin Greenwood

William de Morgan Tiles by Jon Catleugh

The Picture in Question: Mark Tansey and the Ends of Representation by Mark C. Taylor

Venetian Red Salutes the Decade

Posted in Christine Cariati, Contemporary Art, Drawing, Female Artists, Fiber Arts, Film & Video, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Photography, Public Art, Quilts, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 31, 2009 by Liz Hager

We thought a Venetian Red salute to a decade of art would be a fitting subject for a final post in 2009.  Admittedly, we weren’t interested in throwing up an amalgamation of critically-lauded highlights of the decade. Rather, we wanted to share with you our own very personal short list—a selection of artists, whose work when we were able to see it during the past decade inspired us emotionally and artistically. We hope that our list will motivate you to collect and share your own list of “art in the aughts.”

William de Morgan, Vase, 1888-98,
earthenware painted with luster glaze. (V&A Museum.)

2000
This little vase opened up two big worlds to me—William Morris and the Ottoman Empire.  In the winter of the Millennium, I didn’t know much about Morris, his workshops, or devotees. My education began unexpectedly on a visit to the V&A one morning. As the textile galleries were closed, I ambled through the V&A’s cavernous rooms, eventually ending up in the ceramics galleries. After hurrying by the cases filled with fussy 18th-century pieces, I came to this gem, a small vase by William de Morgan. Such a gorgeous design and luxurious glow! I later learned a great deal about de Morgan, including his passion for things Middle and Far Eastern. Lusterware was one of his  enduring interests.

As the Ottomans before him, De Morgan made luster glazes by mixing metallic oxides with white clay and gum arabic. He would have packed the painted pieces closely in a kiln and fired at a low heat. At the critical moment, he would have added dry material, such as sawdust, and after a brief, but intense firing period, the kiln would have been shut down, closing off the source of oxygen. The resulting smoke-filled environment produced the irresistible iridescence. —Liz Hager

Henri Michaud, Untitled, 1968.
Collection of Catherine Putman, Paris.

2000
My pick for 2000 is Untitled Passages, a show of work on paper by Henri Michaud at the Drawing Center in New York. Henri Michaud (1899-1984) was born in Belgium and was mostly known as a poet. In his youth he was attracted to the Surrealists, and he admired the work of Paul Klee, Max Ernst and Giorgio de Chirico—but his independent nature kept him apart from all movements and isms.  Michaud felt there were things beyond words that he could not capture in his poetry, and his drawings were experiments with creating work that hovered between writing and drawing.  He drew, scratched and threw ink on to paper to make illegible marks, letters that were part of no alphabet, simple calligraphic marks that had no conscious meaning—Michaud was drawing from l’espace du dedans (the space within). In the 50s and 60s, Michaud also experimented with the drug mescaline and his “mescaline drawings,” done under its influence, using ink, acrylic, watercolor and gouache and collage, represented this state of intense, heightened awareness, the fluidity of time and space, the bridge between control and abandon. Michaud’s drawings and paintings are about the journey, the passage of time and life. From his unconscious, under the influence of drugs or not, his work  reveals itself as part lexicon, part landscape, with evocations of cellular structures, maps, water, membranes, clouds, planets, beasts and insects—a hidden, interior universe made visible. —Christine Cariati

Albrecht Dürer, Self Portrait, 1500,
oil on limewood, 26.38 x 19.25 in.
(Alte Pinakothek, Munich)

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Seated Woman, 1907
oil on canvas.
(Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich)

2001
The two paintings above hang in buildings across a plaza from one another in Munich. Although it didn’t strike me at the time, juxtaposing them in this setting amply demonstrates the evolutionary paths that painting traveled during the four centuries that separate the two portraits.

When I was learning to paint as a teenager, the Dürer self-portrait was one of my favorites. That gaze casts a powerful spell. The incredible precision with which Dürer elaborates every strand of fur, every lock of hair, garnered my respect (still does). When I was finally able to see the portrait in the flesh, although I hadn’t thought about it for years, it still packed a mighty punch.  And yet, for all the pyrotechnics of the Dürer, my older self favors the Kirchner for its electrifying color palette. —Liz Hager

John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Pauline Astor, 1898/9
oil on canvas, 96 x 50 in.
( The Huntington Library.)

2002
Sargent has always been one of my favorite painters for the sheer virtuosity with which he applies paint, particularly in the depiction of fabrics. The strong connections between Gainsborough and Sargent had somehow eluded me until a 2002 trip to the Huntington.  Gainsborough’s Blue Boy also hangs there and the luxury of viewing the two in such proximity demonstrated how much Sargent ‘s portrait owes in form and style to Gainsborough’s. And how much they both owe stylistically to Van Dyck.

The connections among the three are freaky. To wit: Pauline Astor was 18 years of age, the same age as Jonathan Buttall when Gainsborough painted The Blue Boy. Sargent was 43 years old at the time he painted Pauline, the same age as Gainsborough when he painted The Blue Boy. It was 129 years after the death of Van Dyck that Gainsborough painted The Blue Boy; and it was 129 years after the creation of The Blue Boy that Sargent began painting Pauline.  —Liz Hager


Mark Lombardi, World Finance Corporation and Associates, 7th version,
1999, 69 x 84 in.

2003
An exhibition of Mark Lombardi’s drawings, Global Networks, was at The Drawing Center in New York in late 2003. In his drawings, Lombardi kept track of political and financial misdeeds on a global scale, linking people and events related to various scandals from the 1960s-1990s. Politics aside, Lombardi’s drawings are things of beauty in themselves. His work was art, not political reporting. Lombardi’s drawings, often very large and delicately drawn in pencil, call to mind the charts of the ancients that delineated arcane knowledge. These works portray webs, networks, labyrinths. The lines arc and loop and intersect, creating order out of chaos. His work seems to be about elusive connections, the flattening of time and space and the fleeting nature of truth. Lombardi’s reputation as an important artist was beginning to take hold when he committed suicide in 2000, at the age of forty-eight. —Christine Cariati

Diane Arbus, Boy with a Toy Hand Grenade, 1962.

2004
Because it included all her published works, many photographs never before exhibited, diaries and other paraphernalia, SF MoMA’s 2004 show “Diane Arbus” was the most complete survey of her work—no, her life—ever assembled. Arbus’ work kindled my early photographic fires; in fact, she was the first artist to inhabit my consciousness. (A copy of the catalog of her small posthumous 1970 show at MoMA is still a prized possession.) The SF MoMA did not disappoint. Arbus’ iconic pictures looked every bit as unconventional as they did in the 1960s. But the truly exciting elements for me in this show were her diaries and the pictures of her studio; they added a dimension of insight I couldn’t have possessed earlier.

Larry Sultan, Boxer Dogs Mission Hills, from the “Valley” series, 1998-2002.

Additionally that year, MoMA mounted an exhibit of Larry Sultan’s Valley series—shots taken inside SoCal tract-homes turned pornographic studios. Though Sultan sought a different message through his work, these photos of a hidden world owe a lot to the territory uncovered by Arbus.  Sultan died earlier this month. He was only 63. —Liz Hager

Maggie Orth, Leaping Lines, 2005
woven circuitry in Jacquard weave, 16 x 72 in.

2005
As a design museum there is none better than the Cooper Hewitt. The “Extreme Textiles” exhibit in 2005 presented a large and fascinating array of cutting-edge textiles. Loosely grouped into categories—stronger, faster, lighter, smarter and safer—the exhibit demonstrated resolutely that fabric isn’t just for making clothing. Maggie Orth’s electronic fabric, designed with an ever-changing surface pattern controlled by software, struck me as one of the most interesting combinations of art and technology I’d ever seen.—Liz Hager


Hans Memling, Portrait of a Young Woman (‘Sibyl’), 1480
Panel, 46.5 x 35.2 cm.
(Stedelijke Musea, Memlingmuseum – Sint Janhospitaal, Bruges.)

2005
Memling’s Portraits, an exhibition of 20 of the 30 existing portraits by Netherlandish painter Hans Memling (c.1435-1494), was at The Frick Collection in the late fall of 2005. Memling was an apprentice to Rogier van der Weyden in Brussels, where he learned the still-new technique of oil painting from van der Weyden, the first Netherlandish painter to master the medium. Memling is more famous for his religious paintings than his secular work—his superb Nativity and Virgin and Child paintings are masterpieces of tenderness and true religious feeling. In 1465 Memling moved to Brussels, where he did very well painting portraits of wealthy Flemish and Italian emigré families. As in all his work, the exquisite detail and use of glazing showcase Memling’s mastery of technique. In the middle ages, when life was fleeting, and death often came early, portraiture was a means of providing a record, proof of existence. By the 15th century things had changed a bit and portraiture also became a way of  documenting one’s wealth and status. Memling’s portraits are criticized for being cool, because the subjects rarely look at the viewer, and are lost in introspection. While it is true that the portraits are not easy-to-read psychological studies, I felt strongly that Memling’s attention to detail, his faithful recording of what he saw in these faces, made them quite revealing. The subjects are undeniably serene and enigmatic, but I felt that I came to know something very significant about these people. In many of the portraits, Memling placed his sitters by a window, through which we see landscapes and glimpses of buildings and activity that add another very interesting dimension to his work, an innovative device that later Italian painters admired and emulated. —Christine Cariati

Loretta Pettway, Quilt, ca. 1960,
corduroy tied with yarn, 84 x 84 in.

2006
I can vividly recall the moment when I turned the corner into the first exhibit room at the de Young’s exhibit of “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend. A group of stunningly-bold pieces nearly took my breath away.  I was dumbstruck: how could so traditional a folk form created by a group so isolated from the modern world appear so strikingly modern? In their abstracted and geometric patterns, the quilts displayed an uncanny kinship to the paintings of Frank Stella or maybe even Barnett Newman from the 60s and 70s.

I felt deep emotion basted into the panels of these quilts. As I moved through the exhibition, the pieces offered me something the work of the Minimalists never has—quiet but intense joy. The reverence and love was palpable. They emanated a kind of spirituality. —Liz Hager

Fra Angelico, The Coronation of the Virgin,
tempera on panel, 10 5/8 x 14 5/8 in.
(Cleveland Museum of Art.)

2006
The work of the Italian Renaissance master, Fra Angelico (c.1395-1455) was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from October 2005 through January 2006. This exhibition of 75 paintings, drawings and illuminated manuscripts was the first comprehensive show of Fra Angelico’s work since 1955.  Much of his later work, the altarpieces and frescoes, are not movable, so the work in this show was on a small scale—such as portraits of the Virgin and Child and intimate narrative scenes. Many of these were fragments from larger works, which gave the viewer an opportunity to study them closely which would not have been possible in their original locations. Fra Angelico, a Dominican friar, was long mythologized, by Vasari and others, as merely saintly, humble and devout. Recent scholarship gives us a fuller picture of the man, and what is now known about this tremendously intelligent painter—who learned much from Masaccio’s masterpiece, the Brancacci Chapel frescoes—only enhances our appreciation of these luminous, color-saturated, intensely gilded, works of art. Fra Angelico is often considered a transitional painter, but he is more than that—his work anticipates the late Renaissance while in a sense perfecting the Gothic. He continues to use the sumptuous pinks, blues and reds of the earlier period, and perfected the Gothic love of gold leaf—using it masterfully not just for halos, but stamped and engraved as draperies and clothing. It was a transporting show, Fra Angelico’s masterful technique enhances the deeply felt spiritual quality of his work. —Christine Cariati

Francis Bacon’s studio.

2007
While in Dublin in 2007 I did make a pilgrimage to see the famous “lost” Caravaggio (spurred on by a reading of the The Lost Painting
which is a most readable book about a work of art). In the process, I stumbled upon an exquisite Vermeer.

But it was at the Hugh Lane Gallery where the faithful and permanent re-creation of Francis Bacon’s studio (i.e. 7 Reece Mews in London)  cast its indelible spell on me.

What a mess! At first scan, I was tempted to conclude that Bacon was a deeply-troubled hoarder. How in the world could he have painted here? And there, amidst the horrifically gargantuan piles of debris—newspapers, photographs, magazines, paint cans, rags, old socks, trousers, a shirt or two—I saw an answer. A carefully-cleared path makes its way through the piles from the door to his easel. It seems as if Bacon knew after all exactly what was most important. . . focus. —Liz Hager

Mauerweg ©2008 Liz Hager

2008
Berlin is a city chock full of museums and galleries, so there was a lot of art to see there in the Fall of 2008.  Curiously, however, it was the Berlin Wall that made the deepest impression on me.

Even in its remnant state, the Wall inspires awe, not just for the wealth of its symbolic meaning, but for the sheer enormity of its once considerable physical presence. Since the Wall came down in 1989, points along its former path are marked by ceremonious memorials—public facilitators of a collective remembrance.

Other segments, however, have been marked by an unobtrusive path—two parallel lines of cobblestones—embedded by turns in asphalt or earth. It struck me that the path was a powerful work of art, although it wasn’t billed overtly as such. Though physically subtle, the message it conveyed was in some ways more compelling than the public memorials. The path too reminds us of the demarcation of a country and the collective pain of a people separated from itself. Given its horizontal nature, however, the path invites one on a personal journey.  I walked the line, traced the past, and in doing so, I couldn’t help but meditate on what that past meant to me.

Finally, like all great works of art, the path embodies a potent axiom of the cosmos.  These cobblestones, already wearing a mantle of moss, gently reminded me that all things irrevocably return to dust. —Liz Hager

Giorgio Morandi, Natura Morta (Still Life), 1954,
oil on canvas, 40 x 46 cm.
(Private collection.)

2008
My top pick for 2008 was Giorgio Morandi, 1890-1964, a retrospective of his work  at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the fall of 2008. I went back to see this show over and over. These small paintings, so similar in subject matter and painted in an extremely limited palette, open up as you look at them—the seemingly simple color scheme expands and deepens, and they become monumental in scale. They are very personal paintings, full of mystery—meditations on loneliness, stillness, perseverance. The cumulative effect of seeing so many paintings of Morandi’s at once was astounding. I started to see them as sections of one continuous painting and I’d find myself watching the progress of certain favorite vessels as they changed bearing and grew in presence, dignity and meaning from painting to painting. In fact, for days afterward, every time I looked from my window out at the New York skyline, the rooftops and water towers, in the winter light with a dusting of snow, took on a Morandi-like existence. The quiet, the self-sufficiency, the balance, the stillness of these works put me in a meditative state that lasted for days. —Christine Cariati

2009
William Kentridge is quite possibly the most gifted artist and original thinker working today. From the mail we received in response to our Kentridge post this spring, it’s safe to say that we were not alone in being blown away by the “Five Themes” exhibit at SF MoMA.  In a way, this exhibit does define the decade, for much of the artist’s prodigious output on view was completed in this decade.

A magnificent draftsman, Kentridge might have been content with just producing his drawings. But thankfully, theater is in his DNA, and his drawings are but vehicles for his inventive and intriguing animated films—What Will Come, Artist in the Studio—as well as his tour-de-force staged pieces—The Magic Flute, The Black Box, and the upcoming Shostakovich opera of Gogol’s The Nose.Liz Hager

William Kentridge in his studio

2009
I have to second Liz’s appreciation of William Kentridge. From the first time I saw his work a decade ago, I have wanted to see more, and Five Themes provided that opportunity. In fact, I’d put Five Themes on my best of 2009 list five times, one for each time I went to see it. The work is so rich and deep, every time you view it, it gets more interesting. Kentridge’s work is inspiring and completely original—thoughtful, personal, political, humorous, satiric and filled with meaning—and with an almost unimaginable level of skill. His sense of stagecraft and the integration of music into his work is masterful. I love the way he crafts his animated pieces, fearless about erasing one image as it morphs in to the next—he’s not worried about holding on to anything, there is always more in the well. I also love the way he involves you in his process, you see and feel his creative process unfolding, literally in the case of Artist in the Studio. I can’t wait to see Five Themes again at MoMA this spring in New York—I am sure the work will reveal itself in new ways in a different location and installation. — Christine Cariati

Wider Connections
Francis Bacon’s Studio
Narrative & Ontology—More on The Boy with Toy Hand Grenade
Inner Sympathy of Meaning—The Quilts of Gee’s Bend
William Kentridge—William Kentridge: Five Themes (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) catalog
Antony Beever—The Fall of Berlin 1945

No Trifle—William de Morgan & the Iznik Tradition

Posted in Ceramics, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, People & Places, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

The making of patterns is no trifle—it’s a rare gift to be able to do it.
—Edward Burne-Jones

Ottoman-era tiles, Yeni Camii, Istanbul

Iznik tiles, Yeni Camii, Istanbul.

De Morgan "Mongolian" motif

William de Morgan, Tile, “Mongolian” motif.  (Photo courtesy William de Morgan Tiles by Jon Catleugh)
Note: the Ottoman inspired colors and ogee (double S shape) motif of the vines.

I first encountered William Frend de Morgan’s (1839-1917) tile work at Kelmscott Manor, William Morris‘ summer home in the Cotswold district of England. While I knew something about the Arts & Crafts movement in England, as well as Morris and the better known members of his circle (Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Madox Brown), I confess, that at the moment of our “introduction,” I knew nothing about de Morgan and his work. Nonetheless, his alluring designs spoke eloquently for him. Beyond the obvious connection to Morris’ design aesthetic, there was something else naggingly familiar about the designs. Armed with this thought, I began to investigate the man and his work.

De Morgan first met William Morris in 1863, and moved immediately into his close circle of artist friends, all of whom were passionate about restoring the hand-crafted arts to Britain. Morris suggested de Morgan work in “the Firm” (at that time Morris, Marshall & Faulkner) by designing stained glass. De Morgan tried it for a while, but gave it up in the early 1870s to concentrate wholly on ceramics. (Not such a long leap, given the similarity in firing techniques.)  De Morgan’s designs are testament to the power of Morris’ vision. The two worked together for many years and de Morgan’s tiles seem to channel the spirit of the master’s aesthetics all-too-adeptly.  But de Morgan was his own artist stylistically, and, as I came to appreciate, he was the first ceramicist to embrace Ottoman-era ceramic design & production methods wholeheartedly.

In our current age of instant images, it is difficult to imagine the impact that newly-discovered cultures had on the Victorians. Certainly, they were well-familiar with the Greeks & Romans. Beginning in the 1850s, however, as printed cottons from India and ceramics from the Far East arrived in Britain, exotic new design aesthetics were “discovered” by Victorian artists. Under the influence of Owen Jones and his The Grammar of Ornament, published in 1868,  newly-leisured middle-class latched onto the Persian and Ottoman styles in a big way. Elaborate smoking rooms and Turkish baths, both of which traditionally sported tiled walls, became the rage.  The brilliant palette of the Ottoman designs, as well as the juxtaposition of pattern against pattern and fanciful animal and floral motifs would have seemed incredibly exotic, and desirable, to a population which until recently had dressed themselves and their houses for the most part in drab, pattern-less designs. The exhibitions of Ottoman and Persian arts staged by the new South Kensington Museum (later the Victoria & Albert Museum) had enormous and immediate impact on Morris and his circle.

A tireless experimenter, De Morgan vigorously embraced the Ottoman method of production, fascinated by luster, the metallic glaze used by the Ottomans and later Renaissance-era Spaniards and Italians. By 1879, de Morgan had developed a reputation for his “Persian” color palette—ultramarine blue nestled against turquoise and green figure prominently throughout his work. Moreover, he “lifted” without much modification the imaginative peonies, roses, carnations, hyacinths and tulips that grace Iznik ware.   Beginning in the 1870s his designs began to incorporate ogee (double s) and palmette elements,  motifs arguably perfected by the Ottomans.  All in all, de Morgan’s designs were always close to the spirit of the originals, though not exact copies.

William de Morgan was a prolific designer and characteristic Victorian, accomplished in many fields. At the time of his death in 1917 (of influenza) his portfolio of tile designs contained upwards of 1200 drawings. This figure probably doesn’t represent an accurate accounting of his total output.  In addition to painting, he produced five best selling novels.

Wider Connections

Good information on de Morgan through the usual source material on the Arts & Crafts movement is scant. For an in-depth discussion of his life and work, see Jon Catleugh‘s book, William de Morgan Tiles.

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