No Trifle—William de Morgan & the Iznik Tradition
By LIZ HAGER
The making of patterns is no trifle—it’s a rare gift to be able to do it.
Iznik tiles, Yeni Camii, Istanbul.
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.
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.