WW1 Centenary: The New De Morgan Display

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Posted 7th November 2018

First World War Centenary

The New De Morgan Display

Morse Code – a way of communicating using dots and dashes in the place of letters – was widely used in combat during WWI. It can be communicated via light flashes, on-off tones or clicks sent across telegraph and can therefore be used without any specialist equipment. The Morse Code for S.O.S. was widely used to urgently communicate the need for desperate help from those in imminent danger.

Evelyn De Morgan has used this cry for help from the battlefield as the title of her 1916 painting. Standing alone on a rocky outcrop just jutting above story seas infested with demonic beasts, stands a female figure, reaching towards a rainbow sky. The sea serpents represent the war and the stoic figure rising above it represents the passing of the soul of each loss of life. Evelyn has used the literal meaning – Save Our Souls – of this cry for help to depict the true cost of war. Rather than choosing to paint battle fields with thousands of dead, Evelyn is able to depict each individual loss of life.

The painting is also a symbol of hope. The figure reaches towards a rainbow in the sky, which appeared to Noah after the deluge. At a time of such great loss across the country, people looked for solace and peace and this is represented in Evelyn's painting.

S.O.S. (1916) by Evelyn De Morgan © De Morgan Foundation

Evelyn was a meticulous and prolific artist, who carefully planned out the compositions, colours and designs of her paintings before she put paint to canvas. This drawing of a female head from the De Morgan Foundation's collection is a preparatory sketch for S.O.S. It is very clear in this sketch that the female figure is throwing her head back in anguish, a look of pain poignantly depicted on her face. This demonstrates Evelyn's true upset at the horrors of war and the death and destruction it was causing.

Both Evelyn and her husband William were deeply affected by WWI, which they both lived through. The De Morgan Foundation have curated a special display commemorating the centenary of the end of WWI and celebrating the De Morgan's pacifist beliefs and artwork. The display, which includes Evelyn De Morgan's ration book and the preparatory drawing for S.O.S., opens on 7th November.

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