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William de Morgan: A Chelsea potter

Monday, 12th November 2012
Dragon tile A Chelsea Potter’s imagination was captivated by the intriguing decoration of 16th century Iznik ware. He was William De Morgan, and Iznik, a Turkish town, was once the scene of a revolution in pottery. Formerly known as Nicaea, this town was captured from the Byzantines in 1331 by Orphan I and became the fast expanding Ottoman Emirate’s capital.


Iznik had long been established as a production centre for simple earthernware pottery with an under glaze decoration. The end of the 15th century saw a dramatic development: potters began to produce superb quality vessels with fritware (stone-paste) bodies, low fired and painted with cobalt blue beneath a colourless lead glaze. Cobalt ore was probably obtained from Quamsar in Central Iran. This was a revolutionary change both technically and visually which resulted in the production of highly decorated vessels and tiles in the 16th and 17th centuries. Fritware had been made earlier in the Near East, but Iznik ware with its white surfaces excelled. Tiles were the dominant product.


The 16th century saw a change of style when more flowing lines were introduced with subtle rhythms. New deeper colours were added. Previously the dark cobalt blue had been combined with turquoise and pastel shades of sage green and pale purple. Purple was replaced with bold red, and the sage green with a heavy emerald.


Travellers to Istanbul’s mosques and other Turkish cities will be familiar with the evocative blue found on tiles and vessels from Iznik. The meticulous designs combine Ottoman and Arabesque patterns with Chinese elements. Ottoman rulers liked Chinese Porcelain and so did the Safavid Court of Persia.


In the 17th century a faience pottery-making industry was created known as Iznik Cin (Cin meaning China), but the Ottomans were unable to make Porcelain like the Chinese. The industry, born out of the Iznik pottery revolution, eventually moved to Istanbul. Chinese porcelain started to be imported into Turkey.



The Chelsea Potter fascinated by Iznik ware, with its decoration of mythical creatures entwined with rhythmic geometric motifs floating under luminous glazes, was William Frend De Morgan. Iznik ware inspired him and deeply influenced his work. Born in 1839 to highly educated parents, he attended Royal Academy Schools. Later he enjoyed the company of the Pre-Raphaelite circle including William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones.


De Morgan was the most important ceramicist of the Arts and Crafts movement. He was also an inventive chemist with a keen interest in all technical aspects of his work. He developed a high quality biscuit tile that was resistant to moisture and experimented with innovative glazes and firing techniques. The Iznik influence of intricate patterns shows strongly in his tile work.


Like other Pre-Raphaelite members De Morgan was involved in social and political causes, including prison reform, the Suffragette movement and pacifism. In 1887 he married the painter Evelyn Pickering, who was one of the first women to attend the recently opened Slade School of Art.


De Morgan had various commissions, including work for stately homes, the Czar of Russia’s yacht and the decoration of public rooms on several P & O liners. His work can be seen in the V&A and William Morris Museum, but the largest collection is housed in the De Morgan Centre, Wandsworth. It is an excellent centre for the study of 19thcentury art and is home to Pickering’s works as well. The centre promotes the Arts and Crafts movement and De Morgan’s work if beautifully displayed there. 


The Black Bird Vase, a baluster necked bottle, well reflects the Victorians` interest in the Middle East. Notice the peacock feather pattern from Persia. The Dragon Tile Panel shows the interest in fairy stories and mythological creatures, while The Moonlight Suite Galleon Charger is a brilliant example of lustre ware with its shimmering moonlight and silver, gold and copper colouring. The BBB Tile, called so after Barnard Bishop and Barnard fireplaces for whom it was produced, was one of the most iconic patterns produced throughout De Morgan’s career.


William De Morgan emulated Iznik ware brilliantly in his Chelsea Pottery. Iznik and Chelsea have both promoted the very special art form of making pottery.

Marian Maitland

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