There has been a good exhibition of the ceramics of Géza Gorka at the Kieselbach Gallery in Budapest, which I’m sorry to have missed. There is a detailed article about Gorka’s long career here, from which the pictures are taken.
Given the popularity of de Morgan’s pottery for the last two generations, it’s surprising that the first modern biography wasn’t published until 1997, Mark Hamilton’s Rare Spirit.
Hamilton, a literary agent, is unusually interested in de Morgan’s novels and takes them seriously. (In a review of the book, Fiona MacCarthy declared herself unconvinced.)
When Mr. De Morgan was clearing out to go to Merton, it was a strange sight. He was always slapdash in those days, and couldn’t stand the thought of packing. He just sat on a chair and put a hammer through dishes worth £2.10s and £3.00, at the same time saying, ‘Go on boys help yourselves!’ which you may be quite sure we did.
This is a staggering thought, bearing in mind that the best de Morgan pots now fetch around £10,000.
I have been looking at contemporary reviews of de Morgan’s first novel Joseph Vance.
The Sunday Times spoke of “The extraordinary unconventionality and charm of Mr William de Morgan’s ‘ill-written autobiography’ (an absurd description) Joseph Vance. It is a very long and very detailed story of mid-Victorian life and manners, and its very lengthiness and detail contribute to make it fascinating.”
The American press was very enthusiastic. The New York Times wrote: “Mr. de Morgan possesses a subtle humor in characterisation and dialogue rather than in situation, and a deep and touching tenderness underlies the entire work. He writes as a man might who has successfully searched life for joy, and then has lost what he has found. It is all written from the heart — a man who has a sad story to relate, and tells it because he must, not because he would. In Its way it is as sincere as Newman’s Apologia. It is epic in its conception, magnificent in its presentment — this autobiography of a great-hearted man could only be told as it is by another great-hearted man, for it is a sound dictum that there cannot be in the creation what in the creator is not.”
The Baltimore Times said: “The book is of a high order. It is more than a novel: it is a piece of literature. … Joseph Vance is either a survival of the age of sanity or a return to it, the times of Dickens and Thackeray. What is all the more wonderful, there is nothing of imitation about it. The writer remains independently himself and conducts us so easily through this house of memories that one would say the book wins rather than compels interest There is humor here spontaneous and vigorous; yet the book contains romance as improbable as life itself.”
Olivia Howard Dunbar in The North American Review was more thoughtful and saw that the novel’s comparability to Thackeray and Dickens meant it was old-fashioned. “That a contemporary of Mr. Meredith and Mr. James should have been so far able to resist the influences of his time as to produce a novel that is mid-Victorian to the least syllable may seem at first sight a startling case of artistic obduracy. Yet it is possible that the elaborate simplicity of Joseph Vance is the disguise of a shrewd artfulness, and that it was Mr. de Morgan’s sophisticated intention to imply a comment on literary fashions with which he may not happen to be in sympathy. Or the novel’s period of incubation may have been unnaturally prolonged, and it may literally be a lonely survival of the age of Dickens and Thackeray, discipleship to both of which masters it frankly displays.”
One of the delights of William de Morgan’s novels is his sideswipes at followers of Causes, whom he knew well through his association with Suffragists and Spiritualists and his friendship with William Morris.
In Joseph Vance he satirises Aunt Isabella, who has “gone to a Congress of an Association for the Promotion or Suppression of some Virtue or Vice, I’m not sure which!” She is a believer in Homeopathy and collects weird, ineffectual remedies:
“‘It’s that nice prescription of Dr. Hillyer’s. It’s only a little Ammonia and Chlorodyne and Gentian and Bark, and nothing that can possibly hurt. And of course you won’t mind me, dear, no one does! But I’m sure you ought either to take something or let Dr. Hillyer see you.’”
She enquires about symptoms that only homeopaths know about:
“‘Itching in the nostrils. Titillation in the membranes of the nasal canal. Sensation as of centipedes on the occiput, or of a large heavy object in the glottis, accompanied with wheezing, snoring, or choking. Incessant sneezing. Metempsychosis and Asphyxia. Tendency to jump, start and use bad language. Sensation of a swarm of bees in the larynx. Caryatids.’ That’s just exactly what she read very loud to me and a policeman’s back, standing at our gate.”
And she insists that you swallow something she has prepared:
“When I came back from posting my letter found two tumblers of the Weakest possible grog with paper over them — one teaspoonful every four hours of each, alternately. She makes some concession to my feelings on the subject of High Dilutions, and (at great risk to myself, she says) allows me to have Mother-Tinctures. Hence the Alcohol, which has the same relation to real Grog that a glass of water too often has to beer, owing to previous associations and ineffectual dry rubs.
“I wouldn’t nag on this way at poor Aunty, only she really did aggravate Papa.”
I’m reading William de Morgan’s first novel – and his most popular – Joseph Vance, cast as the autobiography of a poor boy who goes through many trials to achieve success in life. The narrative is comic, discursive and fizzes with the joy of writing. And there is a love interest too, so the comparison with Dickens was inevitable.
I wondered how he was received in his own time and came across this contemporary account:
About four years ago the struggle to live became exceptionally severe, and it was about this time that Mr. de Morgan conceived the idea of ‘Joseph Vance’. He wrote the opening chapters, but was able to get no further, for there was a revival in the tile industry that kept the aged author and artist busy for three years. Twelve months ago, having some time on his hands, Mr. de Morgan decided to finish his first book.
A t this time Mr. de Morgan had no idea of selling the book. It was written for the pure pleasure of writing, and if any were destined to read it the privilege was to be confined to friends. Those who read this first novel of 200,000 words suggested that it should be sent to a publisher, so to a publisher it was promptly dispatched. It came back with the intimation that it was much too long. Several times it was refused, and then Mr. de Morgan conceived the idea of having it typed. It was sent to a well-known firm, and immediately put in hand. One day the proprietress was walking through, the office, when she noticed one of the girls in tears. An inquiry yielded the information that the girl was crying over some of the scenes in the novel she was typing. The proprietress glanced over the girl’s shoulder, and soon was crying also.
She told some friends of the extraordinary power of the novel, and by this circuitous route the story of the book reached Mr. Heinemann, the publisher, who thought a book that could make a typist cry must possess some extraordinary merit. The ’script was sent for, and Mr. Heinemann’s reader gave a glowing verdict on its merits. It was therefore published, and became the success of its year. Mr. de Morgan’s next book followed with equal success, and now he is engaged upon a third novel, which will be published early in the spring. He is a tall, fine-looking, bearded man, recalling Mr. George Bernard Shaw, and he is a very sound thinker.
London Mainly About People
How was de Morgan viewed by his contemporaries? I looked at Harmsworth’s Universal Encyclopedia, published in 1922, five years after he died. As you might expect, he was described as a “British novelist” and his pottery was treated as a detour.
“After studying at the Royal Academy, he devoted himself to working in pottery and glass. It was not until he reached his 66th year that his first novel, Joseph Vance, appeared.”
It concluded, “De Morgan is weak in plot construction, but his characterisation is good, and his depictions are true to life,” a fair summary.
William de Morgan’s A Likely Story has long passages in which pictures talk.
The main subject, Reginald Aiken, ekes out a living as a painter by picture restoration. One of his jobs, a seicento portrait, talks to old Mr Pelly about its subject and her adventures in Italy. Mrs Euphemia Aiken later hears a photo of the portrait telling her that Reginald isn’t such a bad fellow after all.
These occult narratives are hedged about with scepticism and qualifications: were they dreams, or the voice of the unconscious, or perhaps just a sort of self-hypnotism? A young friend of Mr Pelly’s ponders on the meaning of his experiences.
“It was the action of his brain, my dear, not his own doing at all ! Let me see — what’s it called ? — something ending in ism.”
“No ! Oh dear, I shall remember directly …”
“No, no! — do be quiet and let me think. …”
“You silly girl! I had just got it, and you put it out of my head . . . There ! . . . Stop ! . . . No ! . . . Yes — I’ve got it. Unconscious Cerebration!”
The Psychomorphic, a psychic investigation society, investigate Mrs Aiken’s narrative and sagely conclude that, “failing further evidence, we are justified in placing this story in section M 103, as a Pseudo-real Hyper-mnemonism.”
William and Evelyn de Morgan were both associated with Spiritualism. William’s mother Sophia was a medium his sister Mary claimed to communicate with the dead. Lois Drawmer has analysed the Spiritualist content of Evelyn’s paintings, which intensified as she got older (above).
Contemporary with the Arts and Crafts Movement, the Spiritualist craze was associated with progressive politics of the sort that the de Morgans supported, like women’s suffrage and pacifism. Spiritualism was not thought to be inconsistent with science, not least with the theory of evolution, which was extended to the evolution of spirits after death and which explained the superiority of their knowledge to that of the living. Even the evolutionary biologist Alfred Russel Wallace was a Spiritualist. A Likely Story is dedicated to The Scientific Enquirer.
William de Morgan’s novel A Likely Tale has jocular passages and passages of medievalising romance.
His principal character, Reginald Aiken, has to fend for himself after his wife leaves him and he lives in artistic squalor. Aiken takes on a housekeeper, Mrs Gapp, who spends too much time at The William IV, and upon whose return a glance convinced Aiken that “her register of sobriety would stand at zero on any maker’s sobrimeter.” This facetious humour was characteristic of de Morgan.
She said that a vaguely defined community, called The Boys, had been tampering with the lock. Mr. Aiken, from long experience of her class at this stage, was able to infer this from what sounded like “Boysh been ’tlocksh—keylocksh—inchfearunsh.” This pronounced exactly phonetically will be clear to the student of Alcoholism; be so good as to read it absolutely literally.
“Lock’s all right enough!” said Mr. Aiken, after turning it freely both ways. “Nobody’s been interfering with it. You’re drunk, Mrs. Gapp.”
Mrs. Gapp stood steady, visibly. Now, you can’t stand steady, visibly, without a suspicion of a lurch to show how splendidly you are maintaining your balance. Without it your immobility might be mere passionless inertia. Mrs. Gapp’s eyes seemed as little under her control as her voice, and each had a strange, inherent power of convincing the observer that the other was looking the wrong way.
“Me ?” said Mrs. Gapp.
“Yes—you!” said Mr. Aiken.
Mrs. Gapp collected herself, which—if we include in it her burden, consisting of some bundles of firewood and one pound four ounces of beefsteak wrapped in a serial—seemed in some danger of redistributing itself when collected. She then spoke, with a mien as indignant as if she were Boadicea seeking counsel of her country’s gods, and said, “Me r-r-runk ! Shober!”
I’ve been reading William de Morgan’s lively and enjoyable novel A Likely Story (1911), which justifies the occasional comparison with Dickens.
After a trade recession forced him to close his pottery business he made more from writing than he had ever made from art. His first novel, Joseph Vance, is probably his most read – Oxford University Press reissued it in the 1960s – and between 1906 and his death in 1917 he wrote eight more. His reputation waxed and waned. His books were popular in the USA. After his death his wonderful lustre pottery faded from view. The studio potters were sniffy about it and it was only in the 1960s that it was re-evaluated. Now no-one reads his books.
His sister-in-law Wilhelmina Stirling wrote a biography shortly after his death. The William de Morgan Foundation say she is the first source for information about the de Morgans and their Arts and Crafts circle, even if she is not always a reliable one. She treasured their work and kept their memory green for fifty years until her own death, when de Morgans’s pottery was coming back into fashion. Her collection then passed to the De Morgan Foundation.
The image above is one of William’s illustrations to his sister Mary’s fairy tales, which, says the de Morgan Foundation, “challenge the prevalent ideologies by subverting the traditional fairytale conventions and therefore also societal ones.”
There is one rather odd de Morgan publication, The Result of an Experiment (1909), a record of their exploration of automatic writing. William’s mother was a spiritualist and his sister Mary was said to have spirit communications with a dead sister, though she claimed her mother’s seances were staged. Although William and Evelyn were associated with progressive social causes they toyed with the occult and Jane Drawmer argues that Evelyn’s paintings combined ideas about evolutionary science with spiritualist notions.
I have been trying to find out more about British art schools between the wars to see to what extent they were permeated by modernist ideas and to what extent they remained in thrall to the Arts and Crafts, which I talked about in my last post.
Stuart MacDonald, in The History and Philosophy of Art Education, says little about the art schools in the 1920s and 1930s, turning in those decades to theories of child art, but he does comment that the Arts and Crafts approach persisted until the Second World War.
The plate above, from Charles Holmes’s Arts & Crafts: A Review of the Work Executed by Students in the Leading Art Schools in Great Britain and Ireland, is typical of the work that was being done in 1916. The tiles were made by Reco Capey at Burslem Art School. This talented pupil did similar work for Doulton’s at the same time as he was a student there. Capey, who is perhaps best known for his designs for Yardley, was appointed chief instructor in design at the RCA in 1925, where he worked under the traditionalist E. W. Tristram for ten years.
These items by Capey (above), sold at Christie’s in 2014 , show how decidedly he had left behind the Arts and Crafts in his professional life and how enthusiastically he embraced Art Deco. In an article “Design in Everyday Life”, which he wrote for the Journal of the Royal Society of Arts (23 February 1940), he expressed a firm commitment to modernist design (below). He was undoubtedly a modernist influence at the RCA, where he worked with Paul Nash. Capey’s and Nash’s appointments look very much like an attempt by Rothenstein to counterbalance Tristram’s medievalism.
William Johnstone, a key figure in the modernisation of British art schools, says in his memoir, Points in Time, that, when he took over the Central School of Arts and Crafts after the war, the crafts were in his opinion too geared towards the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society “and not enough towards present day living”. He decided that John Farleigh, head of book production, was blocking change, got rid of him and appointed Jesse Collins in his place. Collins had taught book production part-time at the Central in the 1930s, where he was one of the few teachers aware of the Bauhaus. He helped Johnstone to introduce Bauhaus methods at Camberwell and also did so at the Central after the war.
Between the wars, pottery at the Central had been taught by Maggie Hindshaw and her strong-minded assistant Dora Billington, who was actually the driving force behind the course. Hindshaw had worked in Alfred and Louise Powell’s London studio and her work never strayed far from their their orbit. Billington had worked in a similar style, but when she encountered the pottery of William Staite Murray and Bernard Leach in the 1920s, she appears to have undergone a Damascene conversion and by the early 1930s decorated earthenware at the Central had been replaced by bold, simple forms whose appeal derived from glazes and kiln accidents rather than brush work. Studio pottery’s relationship to modernism is complex and ambivalent and although its formal properties are easily described in modernist terms – plain, simple, functional, uncluttered, honest, direct – its ideology, largely the creation of Bernard Leach, was anti-modern, anti-industrial and anti-intellectual.
The complexities of the period are illustrated by the fact that many of the figures in this narrative were at once modernist and associated with the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. Capey, Farleigh and Billington were all its presidents in their time, and Johnstone, despite his disparagement of the Society, collaborated with it and was made an honorary member. Ideologists of modernism, of the stripe of Adolf Loos, Wells Coates and Herbert Read, might be inclined to declare modernism to be not a style but a principle (to adapt a phrase of Pugin’s), but for most artists the opposite was the case. Change in style comes from the accumulation of innumerable influences, adaptations, imitations and alliances. It is unsurprising that artists and teachers in the 1920s and 1930s changed their styles and their way of working, but the change in art schools was slow and gradual.