Museum Crush talks to Sarah Hardy, curator of the Guildhall’s exhibition exploring the maths behind the lustrous designs of William De Morgan
William De Morgan, the leading ceramicist of the Arts and Crafts Movement, is renowned for the way he effectively reinvented lustreware and his exploration of Middle Eastern and Islamic techniques.
His designs from the turn of the century are instantly recognisable and often feature complex symmetrical motifs with fantastical beasts beneath his signature glaze. But what is less apparent is the mathematics that underpins many of these fantastical and seemingly free-flowing designs.
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Sublime Symmetry: The Mathematics Behind William De Morgan’s Ceramic Designs at Guildhall Art Gallery showcases 80 of De Morgan’s pieces and reveals the mathematical techniques that underpin his work.
And, says Curator Sarah Hardy, the inspiration for the exhibition came from children – when she was volunteering on a De Morgan Foundation education programme, three years ago.
“I was putting an education package together and I thought ‘let’s get some pupils in, they know the curriculum’,” she explains, “and they all pointed out to me that they’d seen these symmetrical patterns and designs in the work.”
“I noticed how this could lead to a more historical, academic exploration and having an exhibition that you know is instantly going to be a draw for teachers, schools, families and children is exactly what we wanted to be doing with the collection at that point.”
As well as the mathematics of ceramic design, the exhibition shines a light on De Morgan’s family background and how this influenced his signature style.
“We knew that his father was a celebrated mathematician,” says Hardy, “he was the first Professor of Mathematics at University College London and we wanted to see how that might have influenced his son.
“William attended his father’s mathematical classes at UCL, and although he went on to study art, he talked a lot about the geometric ordering of things in the Islamic and Iznik patterns which he uses throughout his work.”
Sublime Symmetry seeks to explore the underlying principles beneath De Morgan’s complex designs, and the mathematical structures which allowed him such creative freedom.
The exhibition has toured the UK, but Hardy says that its arrival in the capital has allowed more of the ‘London-ness’ of De Morgan’s story to be explored. The De Morgan Foundation has worked closely with the London Mathematical Society, founded by De Morgan’s father, to bridge the gap between mathematician father and mathematical-artist son.
Trawling through the De Morgan Foundation’s archives, Hardy also stumbled on a piece of evidence from De Morgan’s childhood that she couldn’t have orchestrated better.
“One really important object that we’re borrowing is some mathematical equations from a student of Augustus, William’s father,” she says.
“It’s a student’s working out that’s been torn out of a notebook and obviously given to the young William to keep him occupied – ‘here, scribble on this’. There’s a sketch on the back from William, undersigned by his mother with ‘By Willie, aged 6’. It’s gone from a throwaway bit of college work to a treasured family drawing and it essentially brings all of these elements of William’s childhood together in one artefact.”
De Morgan initially worked from his mother’s front room, the space restrictions limiting him to store-bought square tiles and circular plates on which to work. While these honed his sense of mathematical symmetry, it was his move to the spacious Merton Abbey with his friend William Morris that breathed new life into his creations.
“As he got more space he could then order ceramics to be made for his own specification, allowing him to explore how design works in three dimensions around pots and vases,” says Hardy.
His custom-made kilns allowed firing to take place at specific temperatures, leading to the deep colours and luminous glaze which defined his work.
Hardy’s favourite piece in the exhibition is a red vase which she says demonstrates De Morgan’s mastery of his craft. The pear-shaped vessel depicts fish in a deep red lustre surrounded by a white net.
“There’s quite a lot going on and it’s one of these where you take the surface pattern for granted,” she says. “The red lustre is a difficult colour to achieve in the kiln, with the different tones, as it requires firing at different temperatures so the chance of something breaking is really high.
“He’s drawn the net onto the vase with wax, and let that dry, then put the lustre glaze over that wax and let the wax melt off in the heat of the kiln. The glaze design bakes onto the ceramic object and the white of the net comes through with these beautiful fish swimming beneath it.”
Like masking tape on a painted wall, stripped back to reveal the lines underneath.
“What’s fantastic in my mind is that the net is designed to follow the shape of the vase, where it’s thin at the neck and then becomes quite bulbous around the middle,” Hardy continues.
“It’s mimicking that overall shape of the vase and there’s so much movement and action going on. It’s a lively, wonderful thing to see, with the lustre glaze and the light which gives a certain movement to it.”
William De Morgan’s compositions lend themselves to closer scrutiny, deeply layered in both appearance and technique. Sublime Symmetries reveals these hidden intricacies and adds an extra mathematical dimension to the master craftsman’s work.
Sublime Symmetry: The Mathematics Behind William De Morgan’s Ceramic Designs is at Guildhall Art Gallery from May 11 – October 28, 2018
Guildhall Art Gallery and London’s Roman Amphitheatre
London, City of London
Discover the art collection of the City of London Corporation and visit Guildhall Yard, a tranquil and historic square in the middle of the City. The Gallery was established in 1886 as, 'a Collection of Art Treasures worthy of the capital city'. See works dating from 1670 to the present,…