Evelyn De Morgan

To celebrate Evelyn De Morgan’s birthday in August, De Morgan Museum curator Sarah Hardy has given an overview of the artist’s life and work.

Did you know? The De Morgan Museum occupies the top floor of Cannon Hall in Barnsley. It is home to the finest collection in the world of internationally celebrated artists William and Evelyn De Morgan. He was a potter and friends with William Morris, and she was a Pre-Raphaelite painter with a difference. Not least because she was a successful woman artist in patriarchal Victorian Society.

Black and white photo of a seated Evelyn and William De Morgan
William & Evelyn De Morgan

Why Barnsley?

De Morgan was born in London in August 1855 to wealthy parents. Her father was Andre Percival Pickering QC and her mother was Anna Spencer-Stanhope who had grown up at Cannon Hall when it was a family estate. Evelyn visited Cannon Hall regularly throughout her life and contributed decorative organ panels to All Saints Church in Cawthorne in 1883.

Visit online: https://my.matterport.com/show/?m=pqCEHZxAsh9

A screenshot of the virtual tour of the exhibition at Cannon Hall
Explore the exhibition digitally: watch videos and take a closer look of objects and paintings

A Radical Woman

On one particular trip to Barnsley, Evelyn’s father noted in his diary that he had taken Evelyn out to draw. He also paid for no fewer than three drawing tutors to teach her art before she enrolled at the prestigious National Art Training School in 1872 and took a place at the revolutionary Slade School of Art in 1873. She won a full scholarship and proved herself as equal to – if not better than – her male colleagues. The Slade School allowed women to study from the nude in life drawing classes, something women were usually banned from in polite society. Evelyn De Morgan also took anatomy lessons and so her drawings are beautiful and robust.

Pencil compositional sketch of draped, seated female torso associated with ‘St Catherine of Alexandria’ (recto) and pencil sketch of a standing figure (detail) on the reverse
Pencil compositional sketch of draped, seated female torso associated with ‘St Catherine of Alexandria’ (recto) and pencil sketch of a standing figure (detail) on the reverse

Myth and Magic

De Morgan favoured mythological subjects and many of these are on view at Cannon Hall. Her paintings of Helen of Troy and Cassandra depict two women central to the story of the fall of Troy as told in Greek mythology. However, she puts women at the centre of the story, rather than depicting heroes such as Achilles who are usually associated with the story.

A painting featuring Helen of Troy. There is water and a castle behind her. She is surrounded by doves and is looking into a hand held mirror.
Helen of Troy by Evelyn De Morgan

In 1887, Evelyn De Morgan married William De Morgan, a successful Arts and Crafts potter. The De Morgans had a happy marriage and were equal partners. William was a supporter of the women’s suffrage movement. The couple practiced automatic writing, as they believed that they could contact spirits of the dead. Many of Evelyn De Morgan’s paintings have spiritualist undertones, such as Earthbound where the old king has ignored his spirituality in favour of earthly riches. 

There is a figure  with wings standing over a bearded man on the ground. The painting one of a sunset, there's an angel in the distance and the moon is to the left of the composition.
Earthbound by Evelyn De Morgan

Artist of Hope

Starting at the outbreak of the Boer War De Morgan began painting pictures which promoted a peaceful future. She was so shocked by the First World War that she began painting pictures which directly responded to the huge loss of human life caused by conflict. She often gave these pictures titles such as ‘S.O.S’ reflecting new technology for Morse Code. 

Not too far away, at Towneley Hall in Burnley, a large number of Evelyn De Morgan’s war pictures are now on display until the end of this year. The interpretation has been prepared by Blind Veterans UK and Syrian refugees. People who have directly experienced war share their stories to bring the pictures to life. You can visit online through our app Smartify, which allows you to visit from home:

A Family of Artist Exhibition: The De Morgan Collection at Cannon Hall

Many of the works have never before been on public display and include grand, sweeping canvases such as Evelyn De Morgan’s Boreas and Oreithyia, delicate drawings, curious decorative arts such as Evelyn De Morgan’s highly recognisable, brightly coloured and detailed ceramics are on long term display in the upper rooms of the museum. The must-see pieces are on long term display and will take up long term residency in the upper rooms of the museum.

‘A Family of Artists’ is the only place in the North of England where De Morgan pieces can be viewed in all their glory on a lasting basis. This long-term partnership with Cannon Hall forms part of the De Morgan Foundation’s commitment to providing wider public access to the collection. Cannon Hall will also become a key member of the network of De Morgan Collection exhibitions and loans in the UK and around the world.

As well as enjoying beautiful works of art, visitors can also explore the strong links between Cannon Hall’s most famous residents, the Spencer-Stanhopes and the De Morgans.


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