Sunday 4 September 2011

Endless Digressions on Evelyn de Morgan

The problem with Evelyn de Morgan is that it is really hard to write a short piece about her. However ‘small-time’ and ‘B List’ she seems in the Pre-Raphaelite world, just writing a quick piece about her and her work is damn near impossible because when you start looking at her work, there is a whole can of worms that gets opened, both to do with the art and to do with the way it was and is received.

It all started because I found my ‘Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists’ catalogue (Jan Marsh and Pamela Gerrish Nunn) and remembered that I have a bit of an issue with the concept of Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists. It’s not that I think there were none, on the contrary there seem to be many and they are getting to be as famous as the chaps. If you think of how easily you can slip names like Brickdale, Stokes and Julia Margaret Cameron into a piece on Pre-Raphaelitism and no-one has a problem, but I feel that sometimes people try and create the idea that there was an organised gang of female artists, separate from the main Pre-Raphaelite men by fluke of gender, somehow different solely because they were women. I have a problem with this because it takes the women away from the main discussion of art in a kind of ‘meanwhile in the girls’ house’ kind of way. It is a personal thing that rankles me, like ‘Pre-Raphaelite Landscape Artists’. Honestly, do we really really think there was a separate group of Pre-Raphaelite artists who concentrated on landscape, or was it because they weren’t very good at people (very silly argument indeed)? Isn’t the whole point of Pre-Raphaelite art to paint from nature? My God, they all did it, stop pigeonholing people! OK, except for Rossetti, who never seemed to go outside. Maybe he was a vampire… Oh, I see one of those cheesy Pride and Prejudice and Zombie novels in that. If you see Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Vampire in a bookshop, remember I had the idea first. Getting back to Evelyn de Morgan…

See, this is my problem, there is just too much to say about her and way too much digression on my part to say it properly. The thing about de Morgan is that she was amazing, and in a proper Pre-Raphaelite way. She and her husband developed a different way of using paint, mixing it with glycerine to produce clarity of colour which is amazing. That reminds me of how the early Pre-Raphs started painting on white to accentuate colour, getting the effect you want through manipulating your medium. When you see a de Morgan in real life they are luminous, they call to you from the other side of an art gallery with a joyous explosion of colour that is only matched by possibly Holman Hunt’s acid-luminous canvases. In order to explain the perfection and problem with Evelyn de Morgan we will look at some yummy pictures, starting with….

Dawn (Aurora Triumphans) (1886) Evelyn de Morgan
Now, the first thing you need to know about Evelyn de Morgan is that illustrations do not do her justice. Anyway, here we have possibly the most beautiful of her paintings, huge and colourful and signed ‘EBJ’. Hang about, Edward Burne-Jones?! If you think about it, you never saw them together…could this be the truth, that Ned Burne-Jones spent every Thursday as Evelyn de Morgan in some mad double-life? Well, obviously not. Mind you, it does bring us to the reason why EdM is not better known. Everyone says her stuff is like Burne-Jones. Is it true? Well, have a look at these…

Love Among the Ruins Edward Burne-Jones

Cassandra Evelyn de Morgan
On the face of it, there are similarities. The way she did drapery is equally as exquisite as Burne-Jones and there are scores of beautiful sketches as she perfected the way cloth hung on figures. The pallor of the flesh and the classical posing also is shared by both artists as is some of the subject matter, allegorical scenes and legends, but the same could be said of G F Watts who tackled the same subjects, just in a different style. While on the face of it the above pictures have a resemblance, knowing Burne-Jones like some of you no doubt do there is no way you would think ‘Dawn’ was one of his, despite the signature. The colour palate is entirely wrong, Burne-Jones utilising a dreamy sigh of colour that makes his work unmistakable. I show ‘Love Among the Ruins’ above as it seems the most ‘colourful’ of his works (again, the illustration doesn’t do it justice) and the nearest I can get to de Morgan’s work. I suppose it’s easy for me to shake my head in wonder now, as I have books on Burne-Jones’ work and have seen exhibitions of his work, so have an overview of his style that enables me to go ‘Well, that obviously isn’t one of his’ when I see ‘Dawn’, but when the Russell-Cotes family bought it in 1922, they bought it as a Burne-Jones, assisted by a very kind signature that someone had added for them, so you can hardly mock them for their mistake. If you don’t have the luxury of seeing the entire breadth of an artist’s work, via the magic of modern reproduction, then it’s easy to make seemingly quite fair assumptions on the very little information you have.

Flora (1894) Evelyn de Morgan
Guess who I’m reminded of when I see de Morgan’s work? Not a Pre-Raphaelite, but an influence on the movement, someone who at the time was somewhat less known than he is now. In 1890 the de Morgans acquired an apartment in Florence and began spending six months of every year there for William de Morgan’s health, the artist’s husband and fellow artist. It was there that Evelyn saw, loved and studied the following pictures…

The Birth of Venus (c. 1485) Sandro Botticelli

Primavera (1482) Sandro Botticelli
I do love a bit of Botticelli, he’s both ace and skill, although I’m not meant to say that being an art historian. I’m meant to say that his clarity and purity of vision, light and colour are sublime, or something like that. Plus he did great feet. I don’t have a problem, I swear. Getting back to the matter in hand, look at Sandro’s lovely Flora…

Primavera (detail)
 Couple the sprigged dress, floral carpet and classical, graceful pose and these ladies are sisters, and despite the differences in style, I find de Morgan’s art has a hell of a lot in common with Botticelli’s works.

Boreas and Orietyia Evelyn de Morgan
Chloris and Zephyr detail
 This lady is quite Venus-y in her posing, while being carried about by a chap with wings in his ankles, but also the couple are very ‘Chloris and Zephyr’. I love the contrast between how jagged and horrible the landscape is compared with how perfect the couple are and how you really, really don’t want them to land anywhere so very unforgiving and rough. The swirl of drapery, seen as such a ‘Burne-Jones’ motif is a beautiful echo of Botticelli’s blue swirl around his figures, although Sandro didn’t put wings on his chap’s feet. It would make buying shoes a hell of a job, you’d be stuck in mules for the rest of your days…

The Hour Glass (1905) Evelyn de Morgan

Thanks to the fabulously named Wilhelmina Stirling, de Morgan’s sister and staunch supporter, we have not only the De Morgan Foundation, but also information on Evelyn de Morgan, recorded after the artist’s death. It was also the redoubtable Mrs Stirling who put the Russell-Cotes family right on the artist responsible for their ‘Burne-Jones’, apparently in no uncertain terms. Everyone needs a bolshie sister called Wilhelmina. At first glance, it is fairly obvious what this picture is about, if only for the mournful look of the model, who seems somewhat familiar. Hello Jane Morris…

Portrait of Jane Morris (Study for the Hour Glass) (1904) Evelyn de Morgan
Almost thirty years since she had appeared in a picture, we have the Stunner out of retirement in an amazing painting which is primarily about the ending of life, but also, I think, about the brevity of ‘beauty’ and the way women obsess about their looks. By choosing a woman whose young face was the icon of beauty for a movement, her older face is seen considering a rapidly streaming hourglass and a dying rose, while behind her, through the open door, the figure of Life pipes happily in the sunshine. The book on the floor entitled ‘Mors Janua Vitae’ or Death is the Portal of Life seems to imply that the very nature of our tumbling grains of life should push us to embrace more before it ends, not spend our time considering the grains that have fallen and will never be again. It is a bit of a female preoccupation that as we grow older and ‘by definition’ less attractive (if you believe all the adverts attempting to sell you stuff to make you young again), it is seen as inappropriate to frolick in the manner of our youth (my back isn’t up to a lot of frolicking at present, but I’ll try a little light cavorting), but this work seems to say that we are fools to imagine all we have left is to watch our time run out in a dark room. Turn yourself round and get outside in the sunshine, there is a whole lot of frolicking left to do before your sand runs out, you may just need a couple of Nurofen occasionally to keep going.

So to conclude this rather rambling love note to Evelyn de Morgan, I would like to see more of her work, an entire exhibition would be rather splendid, just to wallow in the luminous beauty of the paintings and the perfection of her sketches. Just as Waterhouse’s work is akin to Millais’, then, yes, it is a fair comparison to show de Morgan’s work with Burne-Jones, but once together it is easy to see how different they are and how de Morgan’s work is worth celebrating as a powerhouse of late Pre-Raphaelite glory.


  1. Great, great post. But I was just posting about the 'split' (subtle in some cases) between the prb's who followed Ruskin and truth in nature and those who followd a 'medieval' path. De Morgan, like BJ, was of the later and headed into the Symbolist camp. Great work though. What a team (in the nicest sense of that word) she and her husband were. And don't forget one of my favourites Kate Bunce - undervalued I think.

  2. Oh, I love Bunce, but my favourite has to be Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale because it's just so beautiful. I'm rather keen on Louise Jopling too. SO many great artists, so little time !

  3. Magnifico blog,de sabia ironía.
    Fascinante Evelyn, y las otras.
    Todas tienen gran mérito y belleza.
    Siempre es un placer visitarte.

  4. Muchas gracias, me alegra te gusta el blog! Disculpen a mi español terrible...

  5. Thanks, Kirsty, for devoting a thoughtful essay to Evelyn. We who know and love her feel she is too often passed off as a second rate EBJ. She is far more akin to Watts in spirit if not in style, as you say. Many of her works find direct correspondence with her automatic writings which lend another level of depth to her allegories.

    She sooo loved Italy and the early Italians. However, because she and William spent Winters in Florence it sort of took her out of the London loop of exhibition and critical assessment later in life. However, thanks to Jan Marsh and others she is now a part of the late-Pre-Raphaelite/Symbolist canon and her work does now get included in such themed shows (left out of the Aesthetic Exhibition at the V+A and some Italy/PR exhibitions which is a shame.)

    My research partner, Dr. Nic Peeters and I (Nic FAR more than I) have been collecting research on Evelyn and Italy and one of these years we hope to publish it.

    Thanks again for giving a well-deserved shout out to EDM!


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx