Head Curator Sally-Anne Huxtable explains how she became smitten with the ceramics of William De Morgan, and why she particularly loves his peacock design on a bowl at Standen House, West Sussex.
My childhood was a very rural one in which art, museums and heritage didn’t really feature. It was only in my later teens that I started to develop an interest in art, and a love of decorative art and design came about a decade later when I found myself starting a part-time PhD on Victorian Pre-Raphaelitism, Aestheticism and Arts and Crafts.
At that time I was living in London and on a whim I volunteered at the De Morgan Centre, then based at Wandsworth Library. I was immediately smitten with the work of William Frend De Morgan and with working in a museum; this proved to be a transformational moment in my life.
Born in 1839, De Morgan was studying art at the Royal Academy when in 1863 artist Henry Holiday introduced him to William Morris at Morris’s Red Lion Square studio. It seems likely that this meeting prompted De Morgan to drop out of his studies and pursue a career in decorative art. De Morgan initially designed stained glass and ceramics, which Morris marketed and used in his decorative schemes.
Around this time, experiments with firing both stained glass and ceramics led De Morgan to recreate the gorgeous metallic sheen of medieval Hispano-Moresque lustre ceramics. These were luxury ceramics produced in Muslim Spain in the 14th and 15th centuries. They were characterised by a use of intricate pattern, stylised creatures and iridescent lustre glazes, all of which De Morgan sought to emulate through his own designs.
William De Morgan became fascinated by lustrous metallic glazes and rediscovered the art of lustre decoration. This dish, painted in ruby-red and gold lustre, can be seen at at Carlyle’s House, London.
Inspired by nature
De Morgan was greatly influenced by the natural world. Many of his designs feature animals, both stylised and naturalistic. These examples are in the collection at Wightwick Manor, West Midlands.
The sea was another source of inspiration for De Morgan, with galleons being one of his favourite motifs. They are often depicted in full sail with flags and banners, such as on this dish at Wightwick.
Elements from medieval Islamic pottery can be seen in many De Morgan designs. In this dish at Wightwick Manor, an antelope stands at the water's edge, a standard Persian lustreware motif.
In 1872, having burned the roof off his studio in Fitzroy Square during one of his experiments, De Morgan opened a pottery in Chelsea, where he concentrated on ceramics and perfected his lustre techniques, as well as developing a range of richly coloured ‘Persian ware’ influenced by the Iznik tiles of the Ottoman Empire. The ruby red lustreware bowl I’ve chosen is from the collection of the Arts and Crafts house of Standen, in West Sussex.
The bowl was designed by William De Morgan and beautifully decorated with stylised peacocks and pinks by Charles Passenger, one of the artists in De Morgan’s pottery. Underneath, it is signed with Passenger’s initials and concentric circles of red glaze.
For me, this bowl is a perfect example of De Morgan’s genius as a designer. He brings together those fantastical medieval Hispano-Moresque techniques and motifs, such as the peacock, with 19th-century Aesthetic and Arts and Crafts sensibilities that also favoured this dazzling bird. The symbolism of the peacock holds a special place in my heart.
The birds featured so strongly in my PhD that once I gained my doctorate I celebrated by having a large peacock tattoo across my back! The shimmering ruby lustre of this bowl echoes the shimmering feathers of the bird that symbolises metamorphosis in alchemy, and the creation of the glaze is a form of alchemic transformation from base pigments and minerals to glorious iridescence.
Although successive potteries at Merton Abbey and Sands End were never financially viable concerns, and in 1907 De Morgan finally gave up ceramics to become a successful novelist, his influence on the world of ceramics is immeasurable. I will always be grateful for the way his works helped to change my life and set me on the road to this amazing career.
This blog is adapted from 'An object I love' by Sally-Anne Huxtable which appeared in the autumn 2020 issue of the National Trust Magazine.