TAITMAIL Saving the De Morgans
Evelyn Pickering could have been the leading Pre-Raphaelite painter, at least up there with her uncle R S Stanhope. In 1887 she married the then uber-fashionable ceramicist William De Morgan, and in the Arts and Crafts milieu they were Posh ‘n’ Becks, Harry and Megan, George and Amal rolled together.
The collection of their work is a fabulous narrative of inventiveness in De Morgan’s lustreware, feminism in Evelyn’s campaigning and work, the quality of her painting, and of their cultural age in their associations with the Pre-Raphaelites, Arts & Crafts and Aestheticism. Yet the collection of their work begun a century ago, obsessively preserved by Arts & Crafts enthusiasts ever since, is in danger of being dispersed.
When they died, he in 1917 and she two years later, her rich and eccentric younger sister Wilhelmina Stirling took it on herself to preserve as much of their work as she could, having inherited what they had, and devoted her fortune and the rest of her long life to adding to her holding and displaying it all in her large Wandsworth mansion (a 17thcentury glory, maybe by Wren, she had saved from local authority demolition). Her story gives us a wonderful image of her and her butler, Mr Peters, scrabbling around the dustbins of the wealthy looking for discarded pots and tiles, and finding them.
Evelyn was a fine painter, maybe even a great painter, who from the start fought anti-feminist prejudice when as one of the first female students at The Slade she eschewed her given first name of Mary for the bi-gender Evelyn. Yet the Tate has none of her work because by the time it woke up to her importance Wilhelmina had acquired everything that was available.
They could buy an Evelyn De Morgan at auction now, but there would be stiff competition at rare sales of her work. A portrait diptych that came up for sale in July 2018 was estimated to be worth up to £30,000 and went for £125,000. William is even more welcome in the saleroom: an 1885 amphora of his went recently for £24,800, and in 2016 a single tile was sold at a New Orleans auction for $950.
When Wilhelmina died in 1965 she left it all to the foundation she set up, but neglected to do one other vital thing: she didn’t leave the house to posterity to display it in (most recently, in 2017, Old Battersea House was sold to an anonymous buyer for £12m).
The De Morgan stuff is valuable both to the market and to posterity, yet the future of this collection of 56 oil paintings, more than 800 drawings and over 1,000 ceramic pieces, is in the hands of a single dedicated and imaginative young curator, Sarah Hardy, who runs the De Morgan Foundation. From 2001 the collection had a 21-year lease to part of Wandsworth’s former public library, but a loophole was found and Wandsworth Council closed it in 2015. It had been getting around 3,000 visitors a year.
To get the collection known and seen Sarah Hardy has forged partnerships with galleries around the country as enthusiastic about the De Morgans as she is, and devised travelling exhibitions - Sublime Symmetry, her show of William’s lustreware, is currently at the Russell Cotes Museum in Bournemouth before moving on to The Laing, Newcastle. The De Morgans were close friends and collaborators with George and Mary Watts and the Watts Gallery near Guildford has become a centre for Arts & Crafts; there Hardy has established her office and a permanent changing exhibition of both Evelyn’s and William’s work. This month she launched a new website, https://www.demorgan.org.uk and linked to Google Arts and Culture, which so far has images of half the collection.
She has ensured that the De Morgan Foundation’s collection is seen in one form or another by over 300,000 a year.
Yet there is no subsidy for this. Because the charity doesn’t have its own building it can’t quality for lottery funding, and grants from the likes of the Art Fund and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation are for temporary projects only. The exhibitions wash their faces, but the foundation is running at an annual deficit of £60,000.
Since Wilhelmina’s death her collection has faced dispersal several times, only saved by the determination of enthusiasts like Hardy and her predecessor for 40 years Kate Catleugh. A number of deals have come close to being sealed and failed at the end, but now its touring life and new website have given the De Morgan Foundation an established presence.
But the danger is still very present that the remark of Evelyn’s mentor, Edward Poynter, when he was President of the Royal Academy, will be prophetic:“There go two of the rarest spirits of the age”.