Arts and Design

Evelyn and William De Morgan enjoy surge of interest

Sixty years ago, they were so unfashionable they were in danger of being forgotten. Today the Victorian artists Evelyn and William De Morgan are having a renaissance with, supporters say, interest never higher.

Persian Two-Handled Vase (1882-1888) by William De Morgan
Persian Two-Handled Vase (1882-1888) by William De Morgan

The De Morgan Museum recently reopened in Barnsley after a major refurbishment. In the last few weeks it has been given accreditation status by Arts Council England. This month it also joined the National Gallery in London and the Metropolitan Museum in New York on an app offering online tours. Plus, there are touring exhibitions in the US and UK and displays in Surrey and Wolverhampton.

All of which is not bad for an arts organisation which is run on a shoestring with just one paid member of staff, Sarah Hardy.

Evelyn and William De Morgan were a married couple who excelled in their chosen fields: William as one of the Britain’s leading ceramicists and Evelyn as a radical, symbolist artist who succeeded at a time when the obstacles for women were numerous.

The Passing of the Soul of Death (c.1919) by Evelyn De Morgan
The Passing of the Soul of Death (c.1919) by Evelyn De Morgan Photograph: De Morgan Foundation

“She was an extraordinary woman and an exceptional painter,” Hardy said. “And she was a huge feminist and supporter of women’s suffrage.

“I remember the first time I saw her pictures and just being absolutely captivated by the perfection of them. She paints figures and faces with such conviction.”

The De Morgan collection has about 2,000 works in it and has a twisty history.

It was put together by Evelyn’s sister Wilhelmina Stirling, who died aged 95 in 1965 and had been passionate about keeping the collection together and getting the De Morgan story known.

Hardy said: “Unfortunately in the 1960s this stuff was so desperately unfashionable that Wilhelmina really struggled to find a permanent home for the collection after her death. So she set up a trust with an endowment to look after the collection in perpetuity.”

In Memoriam (c.1890) by Evelyn De Morgan
In Memoriam (c.1890) by Evelyn De Morgan Photograph: De Morgan Foundation

For a number of years the collection stayed at Stirling’s house in Battersea. After that it was in storage with some of it, including 13 paintings, destroyed in a 1991 fire. Then some of the works went on display at Cardiff Castle and Cragside in Northumberland.

In 2001 the collection was brought back together and displayed at a small museum in Wandsworth. That closed in 2015 and it was decided to once more have a sharing model for the collection.

Which means works from the collection can today be seen at the Watts Gallery in Surrey and Wightwick Manor, a National Trust property in Wolverhampton and Cannon Hall in Barnsley, where Evelyn’s mother was born.

The partnership with Barnsley Council and refurbishment of galleries allowed it to successfully apply for museum accreditation. “It is a huge moment for us so we are delighted,” said Hardy.

Persian Rice Dish (c.1890) by William De Morgan
Persian Rice Dish (c.1890) by William De Morgan

Plus there has been a successful touring show of work in the US and next year there will be a display of Evelyn’s gold drawings at Leighton House in London and William’s ceramics in Exeter.

Hardy said it was an exciting time for the De Morgan foundation, but also the De Morgans with interest in their work never higher.

Hardy said Evelyn should be seen as an artist for today. In Barnsley the museum has worked with refugee groups, with NHS nurses and with the recently bereaved to explore parallels with De Morgan’s paintings and life today.

Nurses have looked at a painting like In Memoriam, which shows an inconsolable woman mourning her loss, and it resonates with their experience on the health frontline, particularly during the pandemic.

Bereaved people have taken solace from de Morgan’s The Passing of the Soul at Death, which shows the moment of a woman’s death and the spiritual sunlight she’s heading too.

Refugees looked at de Morgan’s By the Waters of Babylon, which illustrates the biblical story of the Exile of the Jews, and reflected on their own experiences of being away from home and how the anguish can be overwhelming.

The museum also worked with a blind veterans group on Evelyn’s show-stopping painting Night and Sleep.

“I just think,” said Hardy, “these paintings are eternal and they will always mean something to people if they are given the right keys to unlock them.”


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