Evelyn de Morgan

De Morgan photograph
Name: Evelyn De Morgan
(née Mary Evelyn Pickering)

Born: London, England
30 Aug 1855

Died: London, England
2 May 1919

Mary Evelyn Pickering (later to become Mrs William De Morgan) was born in London, the eldest child of Percival Andree Pickering, a senior barrister, and Anna Maria Wilhelmina Spencer-Stanhope, the sister of the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Rodham Spencer-Stanhope.

Coming from a wealthy aristocratic family, Evelyn benefited from an excellent home education where she began drawing lessons at the age of 15. It appears there was little parental opposition to her chosen career and, at the age of 17, she commenced study at the Slade School of Art in London under the tutelage of Edward J Poynter.

The following year she was to win there a series of awards: Prize and Silver Medal for Painting from the Antique, First Certificate for Drawing from the Antique, and Third Equal Certificate for Composition - accompanied by a Slade scholarship for three years, leading to yet more awards.

At around this time, Evelyn's uncle, John Rodham Spencer-Stanhope, bought the Villa Nuti in Bellosquardo, Florence, moving permanently there in 1880. This provided a convenient means for her to travel and study in Italy - which she first did in 1875, visiting Rome, Perugia and Asisi, thence to Florence in 1876. The many classical and artistic facets of this city were to have an enduring impression on her subsequent work as an artist.

Evelyn sold her first painting, Tobias and the Angel, in 1875, followed the next year by her first exhibition (showing St Catherine of Alexandria) at the Dudley Gallery. After this she was invited to exhibit at the prestigious Grosvenory Gallery in London where she met with such success that she became a regular exhibitor there. She soon moved into her own studio in Chelsea.

In 1887 Evelyn married William De Morgan, the novelist and ceramicist who had established a kiln in Chelsea in 1871. He was an associate of William Morris and, although his work in ceramics and stained glass won much artistic acclaim, he was never financially successful and he relied on Evelyn for financial and moral suppport.

Between 1890 and 1914, in the interests of William's health, the couple wintered every year in Florence - which appears to have been conducive to her artistic and also her spiritual development. However, she was not a prolific exhibitor (probably due to the absence of financial necessity) although there are records of exhibitions at Leighton House, London (1902-3); a one-woman exhibition entitled Anglo-Florentine Portraits at the Bruton Gallery, London (1906); and an exhibition of 25 works at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery (1907). She also held a Red Cross benefit exhibition at the Edith Grove studio, London, in 1916.

The influences on the subject matter of Evelyn's paintings find much of their basis in her early education in the classics, mythology and Renaissance art, combined with a typical Victorian mastery of academic technique. This, together with her family connections and friendship with Edward Burne-Jones and the Pre-Raphaelite movement, would on its own have been enough for her to have emerged as a typical late Pre-Raphaelite painter.

However, the latter part of the 19th century in England was also intellectually charged due to the impact of Darwin's evolutionary theories and the ensuing disenchantment with many aspects of traditional Biblical Christianity, combined with a society beginning to benefit from the new industrialisations, scientific discoveries and inventions, such as the widespread use of electricity and photography. It was surely no coincidence therefore that Spiritualism began to appear in Britain at around this time, being introduced from America, as a sort of antidote to the pervasive materialism and religious uncertainty.

This new ethos was certainly apparent in the work of contemporary writers, many of whom introduced into their novels elements of Spiritualism and its practices based on first-hand experience. There was also an upsurge of interest in the writings of the eighteenth century Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), popularised through the writings of Baudelaire and Balzac which were widely available in translation. When combined with the concurrent ideas of Theosophy (i.e. the personal attainment of a direct relationship with God through various belief systems and practices) and even the occult, there resulted an overall pervasive notion, even among the public at large, that human development was a fundamentally spiritual process wherein the toils of earthly existence were merely a prelude to ultimate enlightenment - spiritual evolution thus paralleling the natural evolution as expounded by Darwin.

Into this cultural environment Evelyn was born and it is likely that her later encounter with William De Morgan and his mother, Sophia Frend De Morgan (1809-1892), hightened her awareness of the spiritual potential within herself. The book From Matter to Spirit was published by her mother-in-law in 1863 and it became a standard work on the subject of Spiritualism. As such it is likely to have had a profound effect on Evelyn in the later development of her notions of the correspondences between the natural and supernatural realms, spiritual survival and evolution, and a strong belief in the afterlife.

At about the time of their marriage, Evelyn and William embarked upon a long-term collaborative experiment with automatic writing. The result was a series of transcripts having a highly metaphorical nature and expressing various spiritual truths derived from such classical sources as Ovid, Plato, St Augustine, Shakespeare, Bunyan and the Bible. The collection was eventually published anonymously in 1909 under the title The Result of an Experiment.

To depict her ideas on spiritual evolution visually, Evelyn appears to have developed a system of iconography based on traditional biblical luminist imagery to show man's moral struggle in choosing between good and evil, truth and falsehood. She used light and its effects to represent the universal divine presence, countering evil through love, hope and wisdom. Similarly she used darkness to represent the evil of egotism, despair and ignorance.

In this way many of her paintings may be described as representing modern allegories, several quite overtly so, by employing the traditional biblical symbols of angels and demons in various forms, representing good and evil.

There follows a brief explanation of some of the paintings and their sources and references:

Clytie (MOE007) is based on the Greek myth, probably as told in Ovid's Metamorphoses IV, wherein the jealous Clytie, in love with Helios, tells her father of his new mistress. In her sadness she stays outside day and night only watching the sun (Helios) and her limbs take root, transforming her into a plant. She is depicted with her legs rooted among sunflowers and, with the setting of the sun, her head droops with the flowers.

The Little Sea Maid (MOE008) finds its source in Hans Christian Andersen's tale of The Little Mermaid (1855). Anderson was also interested in spirituality, as evidenced in several of his tales. Here the Little Mermaid yearns not only to experience human love but also to possess an eternal soul. The Sea Maidens is a sequel and depicts the mermaid's sisters who later in the story sell their abundant hair to the witch in exchange for a knife with which the Little Mermaid can kill the prince and return to being a mermaid. However she is unable to go through with this and throws herself into the sea.

Life and Thought have Gone Away (MOE012) is based on Tennyson's metaphorical poem The Deserted House (1830) in which death is described as the soul leaving the earthly prison of the body and moving into the spiritual realm:

Life and Thought have gone away
Side by side,
Leaving door and windows wide:
Careless tenants they!

All within is dark as night:
In the windows is no light;
And no murmur at the door,
So frequent on its hinge before.

Depicted in the painting are the personifications of Life and Thought abandoning their earthly mausoleum and being beckoned towards the celestial city by angels. The peacock at their side represents immortality.

Lux in Tenebris (MOE014) - light in the shadows of darkness - metaphorically depicts Christ as the Light of God and the World sent as man's redeemer, as in the Gospel of St John, Chapter 1, Verses 1-5. Bearing a laurel branch, the angelic messenger brings peace and the hope of salvation to the dark corners of the earth where evil lurks, here symbolised in the forlm of crocodiles.

Eos (MOE015) was the Greek goddess of dawn (known in Roman mythology as Aurora), depicted here watering the earth with dew (following the story told in Ovid's Metamorphoses XIII). She was also the mistress of Tithonius who, at her request, was given immortality by Zeus. However he was not also given perpetual youth and eventually metamorphosed into a cricket. The dew represents the tears shed by Eos for her son Memnon, killed by Achilles in the Trojan War. These tears eventually nourish the earth and bring forth flowers. The birds, or Memnonides, rose from the ashes of Memnon's funeral pyre and are also symbols of rebirth and regeneration.

Flora (MOE013), according to Ovid's Fasti (a calendar of months), was the Mother of Flowers who was transformed from the nymph Chloris and who enabled the whole earth to blossom in spring. The parallel with Evelyn's own life is apparent - she had recently started spending half the year in Florence, Returning to Britain in spring. The influence of Botticelli is also naturally much in evidence in this painting (as also in Eos and Gloria in Excelsis). Her Flora holds pink and red roses like Botticelli's Flora in La Primavera (Spring), but also resembles his Venus (in the Birth of Venus) in her stance and wind-swept hair. A scroll at her feet written in Italian explains her origin:

I am Flora who came from Florence
The City which takes its name from flowers
Amongst the flowers I was born and now changing home
I have my dwelling in the mountainous north
Welcome and amid the northern mists
Let my treasure be dear to you

(Mezzo Mondo translation)

In Ovid's Fasti the goddess says:

"In the fields that are my dower I have a fruitful garden fanned by the breeze ... This garden my husband filled with lovely flowers and said, Goddess have sway over the flowers. Often I wished to count the colours spread around but could not." (Translation by J G Frazer)

Earthbound (MOE018) depicts a worldly man with all the trappings of wealth and power but who is morally bankrupt. He appears so intent on the lure of earthly wealth that he doesn't notice the approaching Angel of Death or his fellow man who, recently deceased, enters the spiritual realm. The following verses by Evelyn accompanied the painting when first exhibited:

Who clutches at a heap of gold
Still clutches what he may not hold,
The soul that knows no second birth
Shall wane, fast held by Mother Earth.
Grim twins await his latest breath,
Oblivion, hand in hand with Death;
He sinks, the captive of his prize,
Nor even knows that others rise.

[Reference: "Evelyn De Morgan Oil Paintings" edited by Catherine Gordon, De Morgan Foundation, London, 1996. In particular the chapter "Evelyn De Morgan and Spiritualism" by Judy Oberhausen]