William De Morgan and Maths


William De Morgan: Black Swan and Daisy Tile, produced 1872-1907

Pre-Raphaelite painting can often come across as inert, but the designs of the tendency’s primary ceramicist  – William De Morgan (1839 -1917) – are always full of characterful life and implied movement. You can catch him permanently in the Watts Gallery (where the De Morgan Foundation is based), Ashmolean, British Museum, V&A and at Pitzhanger Manor in Ealing – but he’s also having something of a wider moment.


William De Morgan: Seahorse Tile Panels, produced 1872-1907

He will feature with his painter-wife in ‘William and Evelyn De Morgan: Two of the Rarest Spirits of the Age’ at the Laing Gallery, Newcastle (14 March – 20 June), and is currently on show at the Russell-Cotes Museum in Bournemouth (to 2 Feb). That show is titled – accurately enough – ‘Sublime Symmetry’, but it’s stated the theme is to explore ‘The Mathematics behind De Morgan’s Ceramic Designs’.


William De Morgan: Fish and Net Vase, c.1882-88

That led me to expect something like calculated ratios or computational bases for the number of repetitions.  Yes, although De Morgan’s admired Euclid, his father was a Professor of Mathematics and his brother formed a mathematical society,  the maths turns out to be no more than symmetry, repetition and geometric shapes. You can dress that up as mathematical, but in that case lots of art – Donald Judd’s and Bridget Riley’s, for example – is mathematical and it seems a little superfluous. None of which is to diminish the pleasure to be gained from how ingeniously and attractively De Morgan uses those devices: the Russel-Coates is certainly worth a visit. There are plenty of flowers and birds, but I have chosen watery examples, including perhaps his neatest combination tile (top and bottom) in which four corners make – as you might not guess from one tile – a swimming swan…


William De Morgan: Black Swan and Daisy Tiles, produced 1872-1907

 Art writer and curator Paul Carey-Kent sees a lot of shows: we asked him to jot down whatever came into his head

About Paul Carey-Kent

Art critic and curator, based near Southampton. I write most regularly for Art Monthly, Frieze, Elephant, State, Photomonitor... and, of course, FAD.