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Evelyn Pickering: Pioneering lady artist

Posted 3rd August 2017
Watts Contemporary Gallery

by Claire Longworth,
Curator/Manager The De Morgan Foundation

Mary Evelyn Pickering De Morgan (1855-1919) is often described as the wife of famous Arts & Crafts potter, William De Morgan. However, she was in fact a talented and pioneering female artist, who battled for recognition and respect in the male-dominated Victorian art world.

Evelyn De Morgan studied at the South Kensington National Art Training School before joining the Slade School of Art in 1873, becoming one of the first women to study there. Her talent was honed at the Slade, and she won coveted prizes for her drawing skills in direct competition with her fellow male students. Soon after leaving the Slade, she began to exhibit at the Dudley and Grosvenor Galleries in London, both known for being supportive of female artists.

Her early success may have been aided by her gender-neutral first name. For instance a review in the Guardian (1876) of her first exhibited work states:

'St. Catherine of Alexandria...by an artist named Evelyn Pickering, who it is surprising for more reasons than one to find out is a lady… will not fail to assert its merits as an exceedingly well-posed, richly-coloured, and above all expressive figure.'

This skill for composition and colour can also be seen in another work from this period: Ariadne in Naxos (1877), painted at age 22. De Morgan's early work tended to be in the popular neo-classical style, however by the mid-1880s her approach had evolved to encompass the medieval-inspired subjects and techniques made popular by the Pre-Raphaelites. This style also allowed her to choose subjects through which she could also express her political views.

For instance, The Gilded Cage (1885-1919) contains a figure dressed in medieval-inspired clothing, entrapped in the domestic sphere and expressing frustration and wistfulness to belong to the outside world. Her entrapment is echoed by the caged bird at the top right of the painting, and the work can be read as a commentary on De Morgan's support of the suffrage movement: she and her husband were both signatories of the Declaration of Women's Suffrage in 1889.

Despite patronage from wealthy collectors such as William Imrie and Lord Lovelace, De Morgan struggled to sell her works, particularly as they evolved into less commercial and more esoteric styles and subjects from the turn of the century onwards. Nevertheless, she continued to paint, and in 1916, compelled by the suffering caused by the First World War, she mounted an exhibition of thirteen works for the benefit of the Red Cross and the Italian Croce Rossa, the majority of which had not been previously exhibited.

Following her death, De Morgan's remaining works were sold to benefit St. Dunstan's Charity for the Blind. Her sister purchased a number of works from this sale, forming the nucleus of the De Morgan Collection as it is known today.

The De Morgan Foundation lends works from the De Morgan Collection to museums and galleries across the UK and internationally, including to Watts Gallery – Artists' Village. To find out more, visit their website.