The De Morgan Collection: Decoration or Devotion?

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Posted 30th September 2019

Decoration or Devotion?

Sarah Hardy, De Morgan Foundation Curator

Aside from their devotion to each other, William and Evelyn De Morgan were both utterly devoted to their practice. The new De Morgan Collection exhibition at Watts Gallery - Artists' Village, Decoration or Devotion?, compares William's aesthetically driven designs with Evelyn's narrative paintings, to reveal their different motivations and approaches to creating.

William De Morgan was inspired by the huge influx of 'Islamic' and 'Persian' decorative arts from across the Middle East and Asia being collected and exhibited in the late-19th century. The Islamic 'ogee' (double S shape), the jagged saz leaf popularised in 16 th-century Turkish Iznik ware, and the long-necked dragons of Asia, are peppered over the surface of the ceramics.

Owing to his playful imagination and astute comprehension of adapting a 2D pattern for a 3D ceramic surface, William stripped cultural signifiers of meaning for aesthetic gain. The winding neck of an Asian dragon was simply used to cover wide spaces with an interesting pattern, the heraldic stance of a lion allowed a broad, undulating area to be coated in lustre.

Consequently, William's global appropriation of cultural motifs contrast greatly to Evelyn's deeply symbolic artistic development.

Evelyn's 'painted parables' embody her fear for humanity's dwindling faith. Through charged symbols and motifs, she guides her audience towards a Spiritualist life of salvation, virtue and devotion. Her artwork serves a purpose beyond the aesthetic. Whilst a high level of technical skill and perfectionism is apparent, Evelyn's artistic purpose resided in her overwhelming sense of religious duty.

Every element of every painting was considered. Whether a gaze, a pose or a posture, each part can be interpreted as necessary, building upon the overall message of the work. Often, we find Evelyn straying from the traditional depictions of classical stories, legends and myths, centralising the women and situating them as the leaders of their own plots. She is considered an early feminist, and this motive can be seen in her more independent approach to a Pre-Raphaelite style of depiction.

As husband and wife, the De Morgans were one, once described together as 'two of the rarest spirits of the age' (Sir Edward Poynter, President of the Royal Academy) but as designer and painter they were lone, stalwart spirits.

Want to see the new exhibition? Visit the De Morgan Collection at Watts Gallery - Artists' Village, open daily 10.30am - 5pm