Putting De Morgan’s maths under the microscrope


There is much to please the eye at Sublime Symmetry, an exhibition of work by celebrated arts and crafts ceramicist William De Morgan opening at Guildhall next month.

Perfectly matched patterns snake across tiles, fantastical beasts bear down on lustrous pots and vases, but one of the most interesting pieces featured in the exhibition, according to its curator, is actually somebody’s maths homework.

The sheet of paper, torn from a notebook, is covered in complex equations done by a student of the potter’s father, famed mathematician Augustus De Morgan. But flip it over and you’ll find a child’s colourful sketches, undersigned ‘Willie, aged 6’. “It’s quite sweet really, you can imagine the De Morgans sitting around the dinner table, the kids all squabbling and Augustus throwing them a scrap of paper and saying ‘will you just shut up and do some colouring in’,” curator Sarah Hardy says.

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William De Morgan

It’s a throwaway item that was most likely retained simply for familial sentiment, but to Sarah, no item paints a clearer picture of the role mathematics played in De Morgan’s life, and in turn, his work.

Sublime Symmetry explores the potter’s relationship with mathematics through his father at a young age, and the role these principles played in the development of his trademark patterns, symmetry, and contours of shapes.

Sarah came up with the concept of the exhibition after schoolchildren in an education programme at the De Morgan Foundation picked up on symmetrical patterns and designs in the work they were studying.

“On first appearance they’re these wonderful, fantastical designs, but if you look at them closely they are actually very detailed geometric patterns,” she says.

“It’s clear [William] had a wonderful aptitude for maths, even though he’d gone off and chosen to be an artist.”

She teamed up with the London Mathematical Society to explore De Morgan’s upbringing and how it impacted his designs, amassing more than 80 pieces, including loans from the Victoria & Albert Museum and University of London’s Senate House.

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Swimming Fish Under A Net

Highlights include the Two Handled Vase with Persian Floral Decoration, the symmetrically ordered Fan Tile Panel and – Sarah’s personal favourite – a Vase with Swimming Fish Under a Net.

“He’s drawn the net on to the vase using wax, then put the lustre glaze over that wax and let the wax melt off in the heat of the kiln,” she explains. “You’re left with a white net and these fish swimming beneath it, it’s beautiful.”

The exhibition has been touring the UK for the last 18 months, but its arrival in the Capital has been cause to dig deeper into life in the De Morgan’s progressive household.

“We took the opportunity to team up with UCL, which holds the De Morgan archive, and look really closely at the whole family.

“There are a lot of things that have never been on display before.”

And De Morgan’s work will continue to serve as a teaching tool at the foundation for a series of educational programmes for schoolchildren at Key Stage 2, developed with funding from the City of London Corporation’s Inspiring London Through Culture grants programme.

“This was particularly important to us – mathematics in an art gallery is quite an exciting way to teach it,” Sarah says.

“Hopefully it will inspire children who aren’t really enthusiastic about mathematics to see a different side to it.”

Sublime Symmetry is on at Guildhall Art Gallery from 11 May to 28 October Photography © De  Morgan Foundation