Last Saturday, I went to London to see the Sublime Symmetry exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery.
A collaboration between the London Mathematical Society and the De Morgan Foundation, the exhibition celebrates the influence of symmetry in the designs of the Victorian designer, potter and later novelist, William De Morgan.
Born in London in 1839, William was the son of distinguished mathematician and founder of the London Mathematical society, Augustus De Morgan and his wife, Sophia, who were liberal and encouraging parents, supporting William in his desire to become an artist. Although he entered the Royal Academy, William left soon after to better find his own creative style. Out of a life-long friendship with textiles designer William Morris, the two went into business together between 1863 and 1872 with De Morgan designing stained-glass and furniture for Morris & Co.
Overall, De Morgan was best known for his fiction, but his most celebrated ceramics work emerged between 1872 and 1881 when he set up his own pottery works in Chelsea, experimenting with and perfecting innovative firing and glazing techniques which led to several noteworthy commissions from the rich and famous such as the painter Alfred, Lord Leighton and department store owner, Ernest Ridley Debenham.
I fell in love with William De Morgan’s tiles ten years ago. A friend, knowing of my passion for Islamic architecture and art, recommended that on my next London trip I should visit Leighton House Museum in Holland Park, the former residence of Lord Leighton.
Like many of his contemporaries, Lord Leighton was part of the Orientalism movement, where western artists, writers, academics and philosophical sorts imitated aspects of middle-eastern and north-African art, design and literature and developed an interest in Islamic spirituality. This is illustrated in the design of the magnificent Arab Hall at Leighton House. The wood and metal work were imported, mainly from Egypt, but the lustrous ceramic tiles in their peacock hues of cobalt and verdigris were created by William de Morgan. It was love at first sight and I have returned five or six times since my first visit. As photography is not permitted, the images below are from the internet.
Debenham House (also known as Peacock House) is just a few streets away and was built in 1905 for the department store owner Ernest Ridley Debenham with De Morgan being commissioned to design some of the interior tiles. Unfortunately, it is no longer possible to enter the property which has occasionally been used as a film set and, in the past, has held open days. I discovered that the property is currently being renovated and tried to persuade a work man to let me inside for 5 minutes, but to no avail. These images from the internet show more examples of De Morgan’s tiles inside Peacock House.
The unique blue and green glazed bricks on the exterior mimic the feathers of the gorgeous peacocks I was lucky enough to see whilst eating my lunch in nearby Holland Park.
After the Debenham House commission, the fashion for Moresque design started to decline and De Morgan left ceramics behind, turning his multi-talented hand to writing.
Apart from Arab and Persian influences, de Morgan also depicted mediaeval themes, mythical creatures and animals as can be seen in some of the Sublime Symmetry exhibits.
As well as his artistic talents, De Morgan had great mathematical aptitude, perhaps unsurprisingly considering his father’s eminence in that field. Geometry and symmetry were central to the Islamic designs which inspired much of De Morgan’s work. Here are some examples.
The exhibition is both visually stunning and informative and runs until 28th October.