Victorian art powerhouse The De Morgan’s return to the spotlight with a major show at Art and Crafts House, Wightwick
William and Evelyn De Morgan are the quintessential late Victorian artistic couple; a turn of the century powerhouse whose art encapsulates the ideas of the Pre-Raphaelites, the Arts and Crafts movement and the aesthetic and political progress of English art in the early twentieth century.
Primarily a ceramic designer, William De Morgan began his artistic career working alongside William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, before opening his own potter’s studio in Chelsea in 1872 and rediscovering the lost art of lustre decoration. A stained glass artist, inventor and chemist with an interest in education, prison reform, the suffragette movement, pacifism and spiritualism, he even turned his hand to novels – producing several popular works of fiction in the early 1900s.
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No less formidable was Evelyn De Morgan, who followed in the footsteps of her uncle, Pre-Raphaelite artist John Roddam Spencer-Stanhope and became one of the first women to train as a professional artist at the Slade School of Art. A successful artist in her time, her paintings are renowned for their layered mythological, biblical and literary themes, clashes between good and evil and of course their Pre-Raphaelite styled female beauties.
So when the gallery that displayed their work, The De Morgan Centre in Wandsworth, had its tenancy agreement terminated in summer 2014 it deprived London of access to a uniquely Victorian-infused collection of art and ideals.
It also left The De Morgan Foundation looking for new ways to provide public access to a holding established by Evelyn De Morgan’s sister, Mrs Wilhelmina Stirling, to safeguard, maintain and encourage engagement and appreciation of Evelyn and William De Morgan’s work.
Since 2014 the collection, which comprises more than 1,000 ceramics created by the iconic Arts and Crafts potter and numerous oil paintings and drawings by his wife, has been shown in exhibitions across Britain, with artworks currently loaned to Queen’s House in Greenwich, Watts Gallery and The Ashmolean among others. The foundation’s website has also striven to widen access and spread the message.
But now the collection has a new outpost in the Midlands – at the National Trust’s Wightwick Manor in Wolverhampton where an exhibition of De Morgan ceramics and painting kicks off a 10-year partnership to help spread the art and ethos of the De Morgan Foundation even further.
Hosted in The Malthouse, Wightwick’s new purpose-built gallery space, A Better, More Beautiful World? features over 100 ceramics by William and 18 paintings by Evelyn in a show that explores the relationship between the artists, their social and creative inspirations, and their vision for a world without conflict.
The exhibition also highlights the links between the works of the De Morgans, Morris & Co and the Pre-Raphaelites that are displayed in the Manor, which was built by Black Country industrialist Theodore Mander and his wife Flora in 1887.
The midlands couple were heavily influenced by the Aesthetic Movement. It is said they took inspiration from a lecture on ‘the House Beautiful’ by Oscar Wilde, decorating the Manor’s interiors with the designs of William Morris and his Arts & Crafts contemporaries, including the De Morgans.
The Mander family also offered space for Wilhelmina Stirling to store the De Morgan collection at Wightwick during the Second World War, so it’s fitting that the De Morgan’s peculiarly distinctive artworks have now returned.
Evelyn’s paintings, heavily laden with symbolism and floating Pre-Raphaelite females, are possessed of a shimmering quality that, despite their unmistakably Victorian aesthetic, at times seems to anticipate elements of the fantasy art of the late 20th century.
William’s ceramics and tiles, while also nodding to the fantastical via a penchant for exotic animal motifs and the occasional foray in to folklore, epitomise the dual quest for beauty and functionality that lay at the heart of the Arts and Crafts movement.
William died in 1917 and Evelyn in 1919 and this exhibition offers a fitting entree to the work of an artistic couple that Sir Edward Poynter described as “…two of the rarest spirits of the Age.”
A Better, More Beautiful World? is at Wightwick Manor and Gardens from May 6th 2017.
Wightwick Manor and Gardens - National Trust
One of only a few surviving examples of a house built and furnished under the influence of the Arts & Crafts Movement. The many original William Morris wallpapers and fabrics, Pre-Raphaelite paintings, Kempe glass and de Morgan ware help conjure up the spirit of the time. An attractive garden reflects…