Bird dish by William de Morgan

Went to the de Morgan Centre yesterday. It has only been open for a few years, and was beautifully fitted out in a super old building that was given to the local people in 1887. However, I'd made an urgent decision to visit, as I'd heard it was to close at the end of this week, with no definite plans to re-open. The reason? The council wants to get its hands on the building it is in, and has broken its lease. Sounded like shades of the Livesey Museum a scandal which has gone rather quiet.

The Scandal of the Livesey Museum
The Livesey looked after the needs of children in a deprived area, and was unique. Having seen the surroundings of the de Morgan Centre, it seems to me an absolute beacon of elegance and culture in the grotty, dirty, run down dump that is Wandsworth West Hill. Both museums could hardly be needed more as cultural and intellectual oases - as affirmation that life's horizons don't have to be limited by the pub and the bookie's and the Tesco container lorries grinding past.

The Livesey seems to be lying empty, and I can find out nothing further about its prospects. I think the idea was to sell it for housing, before the housing market collapsed. No doubt the business geniuses at Wandsworth's council have similar exciting plans that are worth dismantling a new world-class facility for.

Anyway if you love de Morgan's ceramics, this place is a wonder. He was very interested in Middle Eastern art and developed techniques in lustre ware,

Red Lustre Ware pot by William de Morgan

but most of all his pots and tiles are full of life and individuality, with motifs of fish and foliage and birds continuously deployed, yet different each time. Wonderful subtleties of colour in these parrot tiles here.

Parrot tiles

There are also lots of paintings by William's wife, Evelyn, very accomplished and full of a kind of oriental richness, but - dare I say it - they do rather belong to the "Victorians in Fancy Dress" school.

View inside de Morgan gallery

However, they provide a wonderful backdrop to the ceramics.

Lewis Caroll and William de Morgan

Oh, and the Carroll connection. Carroll called on de Morgan to talk about tiles in December 1882. He says no more. In March, 1883, he records, Mr. de Morgan came as his guest for the night at Oxford, and they dined tete-a-tete in Carroll's rooms. In his usual style, Carroll doesn't bother to say any more about him or what they discussed. I wonder if de Morgan kept a diary and if so was any more forthcoming. Carrol then called on de Morgan "before breakfast" at the end of May, to discuss tiles even further.

Nothing further til March 4, 1887, when our hero called on Mr. de Morgan and "chose a set of red tiles for the large fire place". Were these the Hunting of the Snark tiles which his child friends so often remembered? I had always assumed these were specially commissioned, so perhaps Carroll was referring to tiles which he apparently purchased for the Common Room at Christ Church. His bank account shows that he paid de Morgan 52.10 on the 11th December 1886. A very substantial sum - multiply by about fifty to get the current price in pounds.

Carroll sometimes paid for Common Room items out of his own funds, and presumably claimed them back later. He was always willing to spend substantial sums (including money he hadn't actually got) on art so it's not impossible that he paid all that money out of his own pocket just to decorate his fireplace. It would be interesting to know more.