There cannot be many people who have not heard of William De Morgan, the celebrated ceramics artist and designer of the Arts and Crafts age. Fewer people however, will recognise the name of his wife Evelyn De Morgan, a celebrated painter of her time.
William De Morgan trained as an artist at the Royal Academy and went to work with William Morris until setting up his own business in 1872, through which his main focus was the creation of beautiful objects to grace the Aesthetic Victorian home. William met Evelyn at a fancy dress party where she was dressed as a tube of Rose Madder paint upon which William is said to have quipped that he was “madder still”.
Evelyn De Morgan (nee Pickering) was an unusual woman for her age, breaking away from Victorian accepted stereotyping and going to train as an artist at the Slade School of Art (where she met Mary Tytler Fraser later Mary Watts). Her work is stylistically similar to that of the Pre Raphaelites and also the Aesthetic movement, however her social conscious and deeply spiritual ideals are ever present in her work
The De Morgans married in 1887. Aside from their devotion to one another, they were each completely dedicated to their work, both were influenced by symbols and motifs from other cultures and reflected these is through their work in markedly different ways.
Evelyn used her painting to express her fear for the increasing secularisation of society. Her paintings have been referred to as “painted parables” offering spiritual salvation through virtue and devotion. Women play a central role in many of her works, and she is considered an early feminist. During 2019, a whole room was dedicated to her work at the National Portrait Gallery in London as part of the Pre-Raphaelite Women exhibition. Although not part of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), her style reflects that of the PRB and she and her husband were friends with William and Jane Morris. Evelyn did paint Jane Morris, Rossetti’s favourite model, as an older woman and this painting can be seen as a comment on the PRB’s objectification of women and beauty such that the ideal of beauty fades with the passage of time.
William however, was not concerned with such high minded ideals. His work was concerned with the creation of beautiful objects and he was greatly influenced by symbols and iconography from other cultures. He is probably most well-known for his ceramic tiles which used to adorn many a fire surround in middle class Victorian homes and interiors. He was asked to assemble a large collection of tiles owned by Frederick, Lord Leighton, and where some tiles were missing or damaged, De Morgan made replacements. He was asked to design schemes for and provide the tiles for twelve P&O liners between 1882 and 1900. These depicted landscapes that the ships visited, but none are known to have survived. Williams passion was the development and perfection of lustre ware, and he was asked to create several tiles in red lustre for his friend Charles Dodgson (the author Lewis Carroll) which had fantastical animals on them. These decorated Dodgson’s fireplace in his rooms at Christchurch, Oxford.
The De Morgan Foundation Trust has it’s offices within the Watts Gallery Artists Village, and in a separate gallery inside the main building there is an excellent display of the work of this unusual husband and wife.
Decoration or Devotion is on permanent display at the Watts Gallery Artists Village, Compton in Surrey and is open 7 days a week.