At Home at Watts Gallery

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Posted 1st April 2020

At Home at Watts Gallery

Sarah Hardy, De Morgan Curator

I love giving out our address. Granted, that's an odd thing to look forward to when you're at work, but when it's 'Curator's House, Watts Gallery Estate…' there's something quite lovely about it. Since 2015, the De Morgan Foundation has called the Watts Gallery home. You are probably aware of this partnership through the display in the Gallery of De Morgan paintings and ceramics, but you may never have realised that HQ is on site too.

Tucked away behind the gallery, the De Morgan Office occupies what used to be the sitting room of the Curator's House, when this staff member lived on site. It is part of the original Arts and Crafts building and boasts a redbrick fireplace and two leaded shutter windows which look out over the gardens and let in great shafts of light in the late afternoon. It is certainly easy to feel at home whilst working on site at Watts.

The De Morgan Foundation has moved house many times since its establishment in 1965. Its first home was Old Battersea House, a beautiful, seventeenth century, ten-bedroomed mansion on the banks of the River Thames, just across the water from where artists William and Evelyn De Morgan lived their whole lives. It lived here with Wilhelmina Stirling, Evelyn De Morgan's younger sister, who had formed the collection and established the Foundation to care for it after her death. Old Battersea House was bought by the American publisher Malcolm Forbes, who kept the collection on display there until the 1990s.

The Collection was then moved to displays at Cardiff Castle, Knighthayes Court in Devon, Cragside in Northumberland, the Witt Library at the Courtauld Institute of Art, and many other museums and galleries. Some of the artwork was kept in store during this period, where it was tragically destroyed by a fire in 1991. The Foundation lost 17 oil paintings including one by William De Morgan, one of only two known finished oils by the ceramic artist.

From 2001 – 2015, the Foundation found a home in an old library in Wandsworth, where the whole collection was on display at once, making an impactful, but terribly busy display, with the paintings hung three deep from floor to ceiling.

The Foundation moved to Watts Gallery in 2015, when the Wandsworth Gallery closed permanently. However, I'm not the first from the De Morgan clan to feel at home in Compton. In August 1892, Mary Seton Watts wrote in her diary,

“Mrs De Morgan is here, our only visitor. Signor (G.F. Watts) lay in the niche & talked of the change that might be wrote for mankind, were he but to realise that his present ideal is all for self, self advancement, & chiefly by money getting for self, & instead was to fix eyes upon the grand universal idea of helping all to reach a happier & better state of things. A heaven might really dawn upon earth"

It is wonderful to think of William and Evelyn De Morgan visiting Compton and discussing their big ideas about life and art with each other, then going off to create paintings which depicted their world views. When I was putting together the new De Morgan exhibition 'Decoration or Devotion?' in August 2019, I wanted to ensure that the paintings reflected Evelyn and George's shared views. Earthbound, which shows a miser, draped in gold, desperately gathering his coins and failing to notice the angel of death approaching and his fading spirituality, is a beautiful example.

We can't wait to welcome you to the De Morgan exhibition at the Watts Gallery when we reopen.


Want to find out more about the De Morgan Foundation? Click here to visit their website.


Images:
Front of Watts Gallery
Old Battersea House and Mrs Stirling
The Gallery in Wandsworth
Evelyn De Morgan, Earthbound, 1897, De Morgan Foundation