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I don't want to achieve immortality by being inducted into the Hall of Fame. I want to achieve immortality by not dying. ~William De Morgan
It is sometimes said that De Morgan got his start working for Morris and Co., but this isn't exactly true, and in the case of understanding De Morgan's beginnings in ceramics, being more specific helps in understanding. De Morgan's interest in the decorative arts began when he was introduced to William Morris in 1859. Morris was 25 and De Morgan not quite 20. This was the year that William Morris married Jane Burden and began the design for Red House, their first married home. The men became friends, De Morgan became interested in the decorative arts, and began experimenting on his own with stained glass.
After Red House was completed, it became a weekend retreat for Morris and his Pre-Raphaelite friends, who occupied themselves with its decoration, based on medieval artisanal values. After a dinner at Red House one evening, those friends present agreed to create a company to offer goods and services similar to those they had created for Red House. Red House was designed by William Morris in collaboration with his friend, architect Philip Webb. Thus 'The Firm' (Morris, Marshall, and Faulkner) was born. The Firm's early business was primarily providing stained glass for Gothic Revival architecture, primarily churches. De Morgan's interests in stained glass dove-tailed perfectly with The Firm's needs and a year later, he began working at The Firm, in charge of the production of stained glass.
As The Firm's offerings became more diverse, De Morgan's interest turned to tile, where his experiences with stained glass were an asset. He continued to work for 'The Firm' until 1872, when he established his own tile works in Chelsea. De Morgan's tiles were sold through The Firm until is dissolved in 1875 and then through its successor, Morris & Co., formed the same year. The most famous of the tiles produced during this period are the large Membland Hall panels was produced in 1877.
De Morgan's work is usually divided into three period, based on the location of his tile works. The unstated fourth period are his early tiles, such as Tulip and Trellis, which were created while working at 'The Firm', although The Firm's participants collaborated heavily, and any item could have the been worked on by Morris, Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Lizzie Siddal, Kate Faulkner or others. During these early years, De Morgan focus was on stained glass, not tile; the influence of his work with stained glass is evident throughout his work. The Firm's tiles during this period were hand-painted in rich colors:
Many of the tiles from this period show the De Morgan infuence, with Poppy being a good example of this, but not all: The Burne-Jones fairy tale tiles were designed by Edward Burne-Jones, and painted by Lucy Faulkner.
However, it is difficult to classify the periods solely by design because many popular patterns were produced during all three periods. A better way is to look at the execution of the individual tile. Like Morris's work, many of De Morgan's work feature totem animals and mythic themes that were popular in medieval culture, for example, the salamander, a magical creature born of fire in the Peacock and Salamander tile panels.
In 1872, De Morgan set up his pottery works in Chelsea, staying there until 1881. Both here and at The Firm, he used blank commercial tiles, either red biscuit clay or dust-pressed white earthenware tiles, that he often bought from Wedgewood or Minton. There was a problem with thse tile for external applications, which he would resolve several years later. De Morgan's results with tile in his early Chelsea period were varied; the tiles produced had firing defects and irregularities. Blank pots and vases from Wedgewood and others were also hand-painted and fired during this time.
Morris and De Morgan maintained their friendship and both were interested in eastern decorative arts. By 1874, De Morgan began making lustre tiles, having rediscovered and enhance a technical found in majolica and eastern tiles. The red lustre tiles illustrate this. At the same time that he was was refining his glazing techniques, he like Morris became interested in Perisan (or Iznak) designs. The artist, Frederic Lord Leighton was a collector of "Persian" tiles and De Morgan created reproduction tiles to fill in deficiencies in the collection to completely tile the entrance hall and staircase of Leighton House. This was a boon to his reputation and his work became very popular.
By 1881, William Morris's workshops were cramped and spread out geographically. He wanted premises that were large enough to manufacture everything under one roof. He found Merton Abbey, which being near a river, was suitable for vegetable dyes. Carpets, textiles, and tapestries were produced at Merton Abbey, while furniture, embroidery and wallpaper were produced elsewhere.
De Morgan set up his Merton tileworks across the street and down the road a bit from Morris's Merton Abbey operations. At his Merton Abbey tile works, he refined his lustre techniques, producing many hand-made tiles, often with Persian themes with Persian themes.
Although De Morgan tiles were still being sold through Morris & Co., large part of De Morgan's business between 1882 and 1900 was the result of a commission from P&O for decorative tiles for 12 new liners. The tiles ranged from simple scrolls, such as Blue Peony, to full murals showing exotic landscapes and Ports of Call the liners would visit through the Middle East.
In 1888, De Morgan struck up a partnership with architect Halsey Ricardo and moved the factory from Merton Abbey to Fulham. He overcame his past issues with glazes and the new complex lustres with underglazes that did not run were offered. After 1892, De Morgan's health deteriorated during this time and he and his wife, Pre-Raphaelite painter Evelyn De Morgan, would winter at the villa of Evelyn's uncle, John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, at their villa in Bellosguardo near Florence, Italy. He set up a small workshop in Florence where local painters would use the "painted paper" technique on his designs, sending them back to London for production under the direction of the Passenger Brothers.
The long, stylized curves that characterize Art Nouveau style became De Morgan's signature in these later tiles, with the Persian influence clearly visible. William Morris's Arts & Crafts influence is still evident with its Victorian meloncholy over industrialization and idealization of Nature, De Morgan's symmetrical patterns begin give way to exaggerated and assymetrical lines. Charles Rennie Mackintosh would complete the transition from Arts & Crafts to Art Nouveau in the decorative arts.
Although best known for his ceramics, De Morgan was always plagued by financial problems until he retired in 1907. He then wrote a serious of immensely popular "Victorian suburban" novels and survived on his earnings as a writer.