Mr and Mrs De Morgan, a perfect partnership

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”.

The De Morgan Gallery at the Watts Gallery Artists Village, near Guildford, Surrey

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.

Evelyn De Morgan’s work on display at the Watts Gallery Artists Village

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. 

Cabinet of red lustre ware by William de Morgan at the Watts Gallery Artists Village

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.

Watts the big secret?

Deep in the Surrey countryside just off the North Downs Way is  the village of Compton and a house called Limnerslease, home to the Watts Gallery (Artists Village), the home of renowned Victorian portrait painter, George Frederick Watts and his artist wife, Mary.  After their marriage in 1886, the Watts’ moved to Compton in 1891 into their newly built home, Limnerslease where they were to spend 13 happy years until G F Watts’ death in 1904.  On taking possession, the Watts’ led by Mary, decided to build a gallery to house the work of G F Watts (known to his friends as ‘Signor’); this gallery opened a couple of months after Watts’ death in 1904.  It remains one of only a few galleries dedicated to a single artist and is often hailed as “a national gallery in the heart of a village”.   On her death in 1938, the house and contents were sold but the gallery remained open under the auspices as a Trust.  It wasn’t until 2016 that the site reopened in its current form.

Entrance to the Watts Gallery in Compton
lead door opposite the main entrance to Watts Gallery

Their old home is now small museum housing works by Watts, as well as a few artefacts belonging to the artist including and easel, paint storage carousel and pigment paint.  In an adjacent gallery room there are on display 3 of the four rescued relief frieze panels made by Mary Watts for the old Cambridge Military Hospital Chapel in Aldershot. (The fourth is in storage). Alongside these are various items made by Mary and the Compton Pottery which she started for local people and other personal items such as diaries and notebooks. 

Mary Watts was a remarkable woman and artist in her own right, attending the Slade School of Art (at the same time as the painter Evelyn De Morgan) where she studied sculpture.  She was a firm believer that anyone, given the right opportunity could create something beautiful, and that everyone should have a craft through which they could express themselves creatively.  She designed and oversaw the construction of the Watts Mortuary Chapel, which was a gift to the people of Compton to afford them a place where they could lay out their dead prior to burial so that others could ‘pay their respects’.  She designed, made and instructed others in the making of the terracotta tiles that cover the outside of the building and was responsible for the design and making of the internal relief work.

terracotta bust of Clytie by G F Watts outside the Watts Gallery
winter view of Clytie by G F Watts

In addition to showing artwork by G F Watts, the gallery holds four temporary exhibitions a year by artists connected to, or contemporary to Watts.  Connections are not always obvious which makes for surprising and interesting exhibitions. 

the Watts Contemporary Gallery

During 2019 temporary exhibitions have been about the moon, called moonscapes this exhibition celebrated the 50th anniversary of the moon landings through artworks and artefacts by artists contemporary to Watts’ lifetime.  The summer and early autumn showcased the work of the Orientalist painter J F Lewis, showing his keen eye for minute detail, outstanding skills as a draughtsman and colourist.  The late autumn and winter offering was devoted to the portrait painter and WW1 war artist, William Orpen.

Daughters of Theia by Mary Branson, created as part of the community programme connected to the Moonscapes exhibition in 2019

The Watts Gallery Artists Village offers a very pleasant day out in beautiful, tranquil countryside with the opportunity to see some incredible art by one of the greatest painters of his time.  The site also boasts an excellent gift shop selling interesting, high quality gift items and cards and an excellent tearoom.  Coffee and cake definitely recommended!  Above the visitor reception and shop is a contemporary gallery space which hosts rotating exhibitions by selected artists and groups relating to the Watts programme or the wider Artists Village.  There is plenty of free parking on the site.  A varied and extensive programme of community-based activities runs all years round, together with several ‘special event’ weekends.

Physical Energy by G F Watts
Alfred, Lord Tennyson by G F Watts

The Artists Village is open 7 days a week from 10.30am to 5.00pm.

Navigating the past

Tucked away behind the cricket ground in Guildford are the Wey Navigations.  Opened in 1653, the site was dominated by two boat building families the Stevens and the Edwards but is now owned by the National Trust. This compact property offers an interesting snapshot of a what traditional barge building yard was like. It has been over a decade since I last visited and much has changed including the  addition of the Wey barge Reliance, built at Dapdune between 1931-2 and which sank in the Thames after striking a bridge.  It was acquired by the NT it is now moored at the Wharf for visitors to board and sample cramped, dark conditions that made up everyday life for watermen. Various outbuildings and old stores provide an array of information panels and interactive exhibitions including model navigation system and the block and tackle weight lifting exhibit, where three 56lbs weights are attached to different lifting methods to demonstrate how difficult and easy it can be to lift the same weight.  The complex is very child friendly and would make an excellent schools visit, with plenty of activities available for families.

Relaince, built at Dapdune Wharf 1931-2

The day I visited was the final day of an exhibition by 4 graduate students at UCA Farnham, titled ‘Tumblehome’ it is the result of how these four artists reacted to the surroundings, history and traditions of the wharf.  I found out about this exhibition by accident, and being a huge fan of site specific artwork, was curious to see their ideas.  There was disappointment from the start as there was no information available at the entry kiosk, now it may be because it was the last day of a month long exhibition, but the reception staff didn’t make any mention of it when they spoke about what there was to see on site.

There’s an exhibition here….somewhere

A couple of inconspicuous ‘A’ frame poster boards  signalled where artworks were sited, but I almost missed the largest exhibition area completely as it was so inconspicuous!  A quick check on the NT website revealed a short section about the project and the inevitable self-important verbose statements by each artist.  Of all the work on show, the digitally printed papers and fabric of Noelle Genevier, I felt were the most engaged and relevant pieces on display.  I have to confess that the large piece of canvas and rope suspended from a makeshift wood frame did little to provoke any questions, while the slideshow running in the background opposite was pretty standard stuff, modern photographs interspersed with archive images presumably drawing comparisons to how the use of the wharf has changed from industry to pleasure.  The quirkiest piece was the installation of cottage shaped teapots on show in the Smithy and the giant papier mache teapot in the main exhibition area and which apparently draws attention to our relationship with tea and comfort, a comment I am assuming, on the changing nature in use of the site from industrial workplace to leisure attraction.

Digitally printed fabric in the old stable
teapots in the old smithy
Giant papier mache teapot

Unfortunately most of the labelling of the artworks had disappeared and in the absence of any other information I think that most visitors would have found it all very hard to engage with.  This is hugely disappointing and a massive missed opportunity.  Art is a fantastic way to draw attention to an historical collection or site and to engage a more diverse audience than may usually be expected.   Overall I suspect that the students were not given enough time to work on this project alongside their degree show work which is a shame, although I feel that some of the work missed the mark in terms of thinking and display.  Still, there is always next time.