When I went to the preview of the HMP Wandsworth exhibition last week at the Wandsworth Museum, it was an unexpected treat to discover the De Morgan Centre in the same building. Never heard of it? Nor me. It so happened that it re-opened last Thursday after a complete two year re-fit. It houses a large proportion of the life’s works of William De Morgan (1839 – 1917), ceramicist, and his wife, Evelyn De Morgan (1855 – 1919), painter. The De Morgan collection is displayed in a single room gallery. But it is a very large, high-ceilinged room which has been exquisitely appointed to house more of the collection than hitherto, including several paintings by Evelyn which have not been shown before and have been fully cleaned. The immediate effect as you enter is a breathtaking riot of colour. Quite spectacular.
William De Morgan was born into a highly intellectual and progressive family. He was an aspiring artist who, disillusioned with the art establishment, fell in with William Morris, the Arts and Crafts movement and the pre-Raphaelite crowd. Although something of a polymath, his primary interests were pottery and ceramics. He employed a wide range of influences, but much Eastern (particularly Isnik) as was the fashion. De Morgan was particularly focused on perfecting glaze techniques, resulting in gorgeous finishes, particularly using lustreware, a “lost” technique which he rediscovered through extensive experimentation. His works produced some of the tiles in Lord Leighton’s famous Arab Hall and he also completed commissions of compositions in tile for luxury cruise liners, a few of which are on show at the centre. William De Morgan had potteries in both Fulham and Chelsea. Late in life he turned his hand to writing novels with considerable success, especially in the USA, although some I have spoken to rate them as terrible!
In 1887 De Morgan married Evelyn Pickering, 16 years his junior and at 32 almost considered “on the shelf” by the standards of the day. But Evelyn was an independently-minded woman, not given to bending to societal norms of the age. Having trained at the Slade on a scholarship in the 1870s (one of its first woman students), she had devoted her time to building a career as a painter. Her subjects were typical of the pre-Raphaelite themes of myth and allegory, not a few given to the idea of women being trapped or enslaved ( e.g. the Gilded Cage). Over half of her output is in the collection.
The De Morgans had a loving, supportive and successful marriage. Their circle included Morris, Ruskin, GF Watts, Leighton and other movers and shakers in the art world, although they were more Grosvenor Gallery types than the Royal Academy crowd (not being an art expert by any means, I wonder to what extent these distinctions are exaggerated?). They were intellectually progressive, very supportive of women’s suffrage. They were also pacifists and much interested in spiritualism (a disappointment to us, perhaps, but one must remember that many intellectuals of the day thought there was something in it).
One might argue that the De Morgan Centre and its collection are strictly for lovers of pre-Raphaelite and Arts and Crafts genres. But no, it is a joyful, colourful space, beautifully decorated and lit. Evelyn’s paintings might not float everyone’s boat, but I defy you not to be amazed at the beauty of William’s creations.