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Yesterday I went along to three exhibitions by City of London institutions which opened recently. All are well worth visiting; all are free.

Guildhall Art Gallery: Sublime Symmetry
This exhibition features the works of William De Morgan, the late 19th century London ceramicist, friend and collaborator of William Morris, GF Watts and many others. We are long-standing fans of De Morgan. The closure of a dedicated gallery in Wandsworth some years ago tragically meant that a huge collection of his work, which is owned by the De Morgan Foundation, has been kept behind closed doors. It’s important therefore to do all you can to get to this show. The theme is De Morgan’s background in mathematics, how that meshed with his interest in Islamic symmetical forms and from there informed his decorative work. The artist’s father and brother were both celebrated mathemeticians. Augustus De Morgan was the founding Professor of Mathematics at UCL, friend and correspondent of Ada Lovelace among others, and clearly a warm and funny character. It felt good to meet him. But of course, the stars of the show are De Morgan’s sumptuous, exquisite works. Vases, bowls, dishes, tiles all beautifully decorated with figures from nature and myth.
This runs until 28 October.

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Guildhall Library: Worshipful Company of Tylers and Bricklayers
More a display than a full blown exhibition, this is the latest in the library’ series which features the City’s livery companies. This year celebrates the 450th anniversary of this company’s first Charter, granted by Elizabeth I 1568, although the company can trace its origins back to 1416. We are shown many objects from its collection, well complemented by items from the library as well. This includes probably my favourite, the so-called “Breeches” Bible from 1589, which was used for the administration of oaths. It is, of course, a late generation English bible before the advent of the Authorised Version (1611) and furhermore is the only example of a chained book in the library’s collection.  In addition we have a trowel (of course), ledgers, ordnances and minute books, a loving cup and a portrait miniature of its most famous member, the playwright Ben Jonson who was a bricklayer before he made it big in the London theatre.
Runs until 31 August.

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The ‘Breeches’ Bible, 1598.

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Ben Jonson’s overdue subscription recorded as paid.

London Metropolitan Archives: Picturing Forgotten London
What I love about the LMA exhibitions – and this one is no exception – is that you see historical images that you’ve never seen before. Not one. This is remarkable considering the hundreds of London history books out there, not to mention what’s online. To choose one example, I thought I’d seen everything on frost fairs: not so!

The headline title is a broad topic indeed which features not forgotten London necessarily, but a London which simply no longer exists, whether the obvious things such a buildings, but also professions, animals, forms of government, everyday life, religion, commerce, housing, transport, technology, sport, food and welfare. The images which bring these themes to life – whether maps, engravings or photographs – are clearly heavily researched astutely chosen.

Warmly recommended. Runs until 31 August.

© London Met Archives 28160 Frost Fair low_500

London’s last frost fair, 1814.

By the time this print was published, just few days later, the ice had melted, and the fair gone forever. London Bridge can be seen in the distance.

© London Met Archives 32422 Archway low_500

Rural Archway, 1841.

A winding lane with barns and a farmhouse. It is hard to imagine London’s built-up suburbs as open country but the last farms in the area only disappeared in the early twentieth century.

© London Met Archives 305674 St Pancras low_500

Commercial warehousing, buildings and shops in front of St Pancras Station, 1871.

St. Pancras station opened in 1868 but the hotel and grand entrance were not completed until 1876. Older buildings were demolished as part of the project, including this row of houses and shops which stood nearby. It’s hard to imagine this picturesque scene on one of the busiest parts of Euston Road today.

© London Met Archives 233962 Skylon_500

South Bank, 1952. Featuring County Hall and the Skylon.

This seemingly free-floating steel structure stood outside the Dome of Discovery on the main Festival of Britain site on the South Bank. With no particular function or message, ‘Skylon’ was nonetheless much loved. It was removed shortly after the closing of the Festival.

 

 

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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.

De Morgan Centre

Photograph Nigel Frey. © De Morgan Foundation

De Morgan Centre

William and Evelyn De Morgan. © De Morgan Foundation

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!

De Morgan Centre

Dragon Tile. © De Morgan Foundation

De Morgan Centre

Dolphin Plate. © De Morgan Foundation

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.

De Morgan Centre

The Guilded Cage. © De Morgan Foundation

De Morgan Centre

Luna. Newly-cleaned and on public display for the first time. © De Morgan Foundation

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.

The De Morgan Centre in Wandsworth costs £4 entry, free entry for Art Fund members. For opening hours etc. check their web site.

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