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.

A Right Swanky Pad

What to do on a warm summer afternoon? Try a visit to Polesden Lacey House near Dorking in Surrey. This impressive mansion looks like a Georgian Palladian house, but was in fact built in the Edwardian period of the early 20th century, remodelling an older, smaller property that stood on the site. This was to be the country home of wealthy socialites, Ronald (Ronnie) and Margaret Greville, but tragically Ronnie died in 1908, so Margaret lived there alone. The couple filled the house with a vast collection of paintings, porcelain, silver and furniture and Margaret took great delight in holding lavish parties at the house to which the crowned heads of Europe and anyone who was ‘anyone’ was delighted to receive an invitation.

Polesden Lacey House

Margaret herself was from humble origins, being the illegitimate daughter of William Younger the Scottish brewery magnate. When she was 21 years old, William Younger acknowledged her as his daughter and sole heir, which secured her future financially. All she needed now was a husband of suitable standing to allow her access to London Society, and this she found in Captain Ronald Greville of the 1st Life Guards. They married in 1891 and sadly had no children.

After her husband’s untimely death, Mrs Greville threw herself into the social whirl of the age, becoming great friends with the future King George 6th and Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother), whom she invited to spend part of their honeymoon at Polesden Lacey. After her death she left her jewels to Queen Elizabeth (Queen Mother) who said of her “so shrewd, so kind and so amusingly unkind, so sharp, such fun, so naughty; altogether a real person, a character, utterly Mrs Ronald Greville”. (Bradford, S, 1989; King George VI, p11). Mrs G. (as she is often referred to) was a real ‘marmite’ person – love her or loathe her. It seems that the society photographer Cecil Beaton was a loather and is reported to have described her as  “a galumphing, greedy, snobbish old toad who watered at her chops at the sight of royalty … and did nothing for anybody except the rich” (Buckle, R (Ed), 1979, Self Portrait with Friends, selected diaries of Cecil Beaton, p.215-16).

Whatever the truth about her may have been, her home was definitely built to impress, she and Ronnie could be described as the Posh and Becks of their day, their home, while having ‘all mod cons’ being very ostentatious to the point of being vulgar.

Gold Room

Today part of the ground floor of the house is open to the public, dressed out as if a weekend party is about to take place. Entry through the front door reveals a symmetrical pair of curved bays, one with windows one without, with the window areas being obscured by trimmed hedges. This second bay housed the kitchens and did not have windows looking out to the front of the house, as Mrs G did not wish for her servants to be able to ‘gawp’ at her important guests arriving. Having the kitchen at the front of the house was very modern indeed as it was close to the dining room which meant that food at the Greville’s parties would always be served hot! (In most other large house the kitchens were in basements or in a separate annexe because of the danger of fire, it also meant that food was invariably cold by the time it reached the dinner table). A guided tour reveals some interesting snippets of information about the Grevilles and life at Polesden, but a free flow visit is also interesting. The upstairs of the house is laid out mainly to offices and is currently not open to the public. A warning to visitors, the lighting at Polesden is particularly low due to fragile nature of some of the furnishings and other display items.

Library

Polesden Lacey has a fantastic Rose garden as Mrs Greville was very fond of roses. The NT have commissioned Peter Beale Roses to create a Mrs Greville rose, and this can be purchased from the garden shop on site. In August however, the rose garden is past its best, which is during June and early July when the property hold an annual Rose Festival. There is a small formal walled garden with flowers for cutting for display in the house, with a long herbaceous border along the outside wall. Behind this is a small kitchen garden, tiny orchard and a new area for chickens, a bug hotel and a wormery, all in tune with the conservation ethos of the National Trust. To the front and side of the property are magnificent lawns where visitors can sit and admire the view across the Surrey Hills, or children can run about in safety.

Long Border
Sun Dial in Walled Garden wall
Peace Rose

From humble origins

Having a ‘spare’ afternoon is always a luxury but sometimes it seems a shame to waste it doing nothing, so with this in mind I went to visit the National Trust property, Oakhurst Cottage in the village of Hambledon in Surrey.

Originally built in the 16th century most likely as a workman’s cottage, this tiny home saw some remodelling during the 19th century and since then time has largely stood still.  We met our guide (visits are by pre-booked guided tour only) in the garden of the cottage and were then treated to an interesting introduction in the adjacent store barn.  One of the most interesting things about this building, is that it is built in the same way as the main cottage as a large square timber frame with in filled panels of brick.  The original cottage was one large building with a central fireplace and smokehole in the roof, but during the 19th century this was altered and a small extension was added, the fireplace was moved to the side and a chimney built on.  The biggest change was the addition of an upper floor with two distinct rooms for sleeping.

sitting room fireplace
sitting room dining table
second bedroom with hand knitted blanket coverlet and hand made rag rugs
all mod cons, the outside ‘convenience’

The National Trust acquired the cottage as a legacy from two sisters who owned several properties in the village in the 1980’s together with its sitting tenants, who were living in the house without the benefit of mains drainage, electricity, central heating and hot and cold running water.  The Trust have dressed the cottage to look as it most likely would have done during the 19th century, sparsely furnished and with many handmade items of furniture, rugs and coverlets.

Victorian hand made ‘paper pieced’ quilt bed cover

At the same time as our visit a young family was visiting also, and I take my hat off to the two young boys (probably aged 5 and 7) who were for the most part very well behaved, for what must have been for them,  pretty boring.  In the scullery the guide talked at length about it being the women’s domain as it housed the bread oven, the washing tub and copper.  The mother of the family group seemed to take quite violent exception to this idea, which is a bizarre notion, as this is exactly how it would have been over 150 years ago for women.  It was very funny hearing her protestations about equality and her views on the subjugation of women in the past!  The poor tour guide (an elderly gentleman) was quite bemused by this “strong independent woman”. 

pantry and food store

It is interesting how many younger people see the past through a 21st century lens, constantly calling out perceived injustice and malfeasance.  I find this fascinating, it seems to me that there are many who are only interested in a sanitised version of history that fits with their own experience and ideals.  This is plainly ridiculous and it is the duty of organisations such as the NT to present the past as accurately as possible, while being mindful of current sensibilities.  However, no heritage organisations should be afraid of tackling ‘difficult’ issues from the past.  These cannot be airbrushed from history, it is so important that younger people know about past problems and what was done, to avoid them happening again.

Outside Oakhurst Cottage is a small garden filled with flowers and vegetables.  There are some interesting architectural features on the building, the oak timber frame beams being the most obvious, while at the back of the property is a nice example on the rear wall of bricks laid in the Rat Trap pattern.  This is a method that can save up to 30% on the number of bricks needed to cover a 1m square and up to 50% on the amount of mortar required.

Rat Trap brick pattern
rear cottage wall showing rat trap brick pattern and tin bath

The cottage is tucked away at the far edge of the cricket green in Hambledon village, which in reality is little more than a hamlet (although there is a village shop that also has a small café serving excellent food), it is open for 4 days a week, Wednesdays and Thursday and Saturdays and Sundays between April and October for pre-booked guided tours only. Also available at the cottage are some albums and books showing the cottage at different stages in its life including a book of prints of watercolours by the well-known Victorian painter, Helen Allingham who painted the cottage. It seems that it is this painting on which the Trust have modelled the cottage we see today, and which includes the replacement of the windows from rectangular panes to diamond lattice panes.

Image result for oakhurst cottage surrey by helen allingham
Oakhurst Cottage, Hambledon Allingham
from the book “The Cottage Homes of England by Helen Allingham and Stewart Dick

Oakhurst Cottage is tiny gem, like an oversized dolls house frozen in time. Definitely worth a visit.

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.