Maths may not be synonymous with the Arts and Crafts movement, however an upcoming touring exhibition of potter William De Morgan’s ceramics, Sublime Symmetry, is set to explore the intrinsic relationship between tiles and geometry, writes Olivia Jones.
De Morgan, a pre-eminent ceramicist of the late-Victorian period, was surrounded by maths from childhood. His father, Augustus De Morgan, was a professor of mathematics at University College London. De Morgan’s elaborately patterned tiles and plates, depicting mythical animals and decorative flowers, were built from templates of tessellating geometrical shapes and rotational symmetrical patterns.
“Symmetry has always been a concept of beauty,” says Sarah Hardy, curator of Sublime Symmetry, which will tour the UK from next month until September 2017. De Morgan received classical training at the Royal Academy, where students were taught to draw using correct proportions.
As his friend and collaborator William Morris, De Morgan was influenced by the symmetry of Gothic medieval art, as well as the repeating geometrical patterns of ornate Persian wares and colourful Iznik tiles from Turkey. A form of Islamic art, Iznik tiles feature endlessly repeating interlacing circles and polygons that symbolise the infinite nature of Allah. De Morgan visited the collections of Persian ceramics at London’s V&A and the British Museum and, in 1877, he helped install thousands of tiles brought back from Damascus in the Arab Hall, the centrepiece of artist Lord Leighton’s former home in Holland Park, now a museum.
Symmetry was instrumental to De Morgan’s design process; for patterns to be reproduced across tiles they had to be precise mirror images. Using a technique called “pouncing” he would make pinpricks along the outline of a design and rub charcoal through the holes on to the ceramic surface. The pounced design would then be flipped over on to the other side of the ceramic surface and the process repeated, ensuring a perfect reproduction of the design over a central line of symmetry.