Sophie Campbell



On the tiles with de Morgan

May 13, 2018

In the late 1870s, the artist William de Morgan was hired by Frederic, Lord Leighton, the Damien Hirst of his day, to complete the spectacular Arab Hall at his Holland Park studio house.

De Morgan arranged Leighton’s collection of peacock-blue Iznik tiles to dazzling effect, still visible at Leighton House today. It changed his life: he was entranced by Islamic ceramic design, with its flowing, repetitive patterns. And underpinning its elegant symmetries was a discipline he truly understood – mathematics.

Arab Hall, Leighton House © Will Pryce

The Guildhall Art Gallery’s thoughtful new exhibition Sublime Symmetry examines De Morgan’s mathematical pedigree, his career as an artist and his 20-year struggle to master the complex ‘oriental’ art of lustreware.

His drawings show his fascination with reflective symmetry – stand a mirror on the central line and the image doubles – and rotational symmetry, when the same image swivels around a central point for rhythmic effect. He then converted his drawings to three-dimensional images on the curved surfaces of dishes, bowls and vases.

There are many surprises, not least the fact that his father, Augustus, first professor of mathematics at newly-founded UCL (University College London) in the 1820s, aged just 21, was so full of mischievous, self-deprecating wit, always doodling on letters, including the one he sent turning down a prestigious Royal Society fellowship.

Augustus’s children had a happy Bloomsbury upbringing on ‘Godless Gower Street’, and William’s brother George went on to co-found the London Mathematical Society, which co-sponsors the show and has an intriguing display of its own. Today it’s based in Russell Square, with 2,700 members all over the world.

An Augustus doodle
LMS logo

As for the work, despite his best efforts de Morgan couldn’t quite let the figurative go. In between the arabesques and the unfurling petals and the saz leaves is a delightful menagerie of fantastical creatures. Frogs sulk, fish wriggle, peacocks fling out their tails into showers of fractals.

Take a closer look at that dodo, below left. Could it be coincidence that de Morgan was great friends with another brilliant mathematician, the Oxford don Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll?

Spot the bear and the hare
Peacock fractals
Dodo tile
'Fish in a net'

Something de Morgan did take from Islamic design was the attention he paid to the back of his plates and bowls, often gloriously patterned, and many of them pasted with yellowing labels from earlier collectors.

Then there are his studio imprints, from the premises he shared with his friend and collaborator William Morris at Merton Abbey, near Wimbledon, and his potteries at Chelsea and Sands End in Fulham.


Dish back with label
Sands End Pottery
Merton Abbey

Best all, there’s a happy ending to go with the happy beginning.

By the time William de Morgan nailed lustreware, it was out of fashion. Instead of repining he embarked on a new career as a best-selling author, finding great fame and funding a happy retirement with his artist wife, Evelyn.

There’s symmetry for you.

Sublime Symmetry runs at the Guildhall Art Gallery (nearest tube: Bank) until October 28 2018. Entry free.

Where to see De Morgan’s work in London:


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