London Museum Challenge #5: The De Morgan Foundation

February 17, 2013 § 1 Comment

The De Morgan Foundation: main gallery

The De Morgan Foundation: main gallery

[2015 update: Sadly, the De Morgan Centre is no longer open; both it and the Wandsworth Museum lost their lease, and the building now stands empty. The Foundation still exists and cares for the works, making them available via loans to exhibitions and other museums; visit their website for more information.]

My London Museum Challenge visits up to now have been solo, so I decided – especially after the last two, which both felt a bit like taking my medicine – to make the next outing more sociable. I suggested the De Morgan Foundation to my friend N, who is also an art historian and curator specialising in things nineteenth-century, and she happily assented – turns out it also had been on her to-do list for years.

Given my interest (both professional and personal) in all things Pre-Raphaelite and Arts and Crafts, I should have made it to the De Morgan Foundation ages ago. In my defence, it’s quite out of the way – Wandsworth has never been on my way to, well, anywhere. But when I actually sat down to work out the route – a 15-minute train journey to Clapham Junction plus a 10-minute bus ride – I felt more than a little silly for having left it so long.

The De Morgan Centre shares a building with the Wandsworth Museum and a very nice little café (this last is an important detail as there is a dearth of them in this area of Wandsworth – and it meant that our visit was bookended by a most civilised lunch and tea). It only occupies two galleries – a large one for the permanent collection and a much smaller one for special exhibitions.

Evelyn De Morgan, Flora (1894)

Evelyn De Morgan, Flora (1894)

The De Morgan Centre is devoted to both De Morgans – the potter William and his painter wife Evelyn – and has the largest collection of both of their works in the world, which is a double-edged sword. Evelyn De Morgan was a follower of Burne-Jones… the problem is that none of Burne-Jones’s followers had a. his talent or b. his subtlety. What this means in Mrs De Morgan’s case, unfortunately, is a lot of mythological and historical canvases painted in a pastel palette with an eerily smooth surface and a level of detail reminiscent of porcelain painting. They somehow manage to feel simultaneously cloying and soulless. The fact that all of the postcards of her paintings in the shop had been reduced to 10p (from 60p) suggests that I’m not the only one who feels this way!

But before you write me off as an unreconstructed Evelyn De Morgan hater, I should also mention the current exhibition. Back in 1990, the warehouse where Wandsworth Council stored the rest of the collection of her paintings suffered a fire and a considerable portion of her work was lost. The Foundation has mounted a show of some of the drawings connected to the lost paintings, and, as is so often the case, I found I much preferred Evelyn as a draughtswoman than as a painter. Her drawings are rather more precise (I could be unkind and say mechanical, but that would be unfair to the better ones) than those of the better-known Pre-Raphaelites, but there’s a subtlety and ambiguity to them that her paintings lack. (Annoyingly, I wasn’t allowed to take any photos, so you’ll have to take me on faith – or go see for yourself.)

William De Morgan, Dragon and Carnation tile panel (c. 1872-1907)

William De Morgan, Dragon and Carnation tile panel (c. 1872-1907)

So much for Evelyn. The main reason I’d been wanting to visit the De Morgan Foundation is William’s pottery, pieces of which I’ve admired in the V&A, the William Morris Gallery, and pretty much anywhere that has even the smallest collection of Arts and Crafts pottery. De Morgan was a great admirer of Islamic pottery and incorporated many of the motifs and colours into his own work, going so far as to experiment until he successfully revived the lost art of lustre glazes. His pots, dishes and tiles are a bright fantasy world of flowers and ships, with serpents struggling with each other, fish slipping and birds flying through carpets of stylised leaves and blossoms. A few ungainly, quizzical-looking dragons and other hybrid creatures suggest that De Morgan, in addition to a staggering talent for design and glazes, had quite a mischievous sense of humour. N and I both wondered whether he might have based some of the more bizarre creatures on the Crystal Palace dinosaurs.

William De Morgan, Peacock punch bowl (c. 1877-1904)

William De Morgan, Peacock punch bowl (c. 1877-1904)

Even if you’ve never seen De Morgan’s work before, if you’ve read A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book it may feel familiar. The character of Benedict Fludd, an Arts and Crafts potter with prodigious talent and some horrifying skeletons in his closet, is apparently based (in terms of personality) on Eric Gill, but to me, at least, the descriptions of his work (at least, the publicly acceptable part of it) are pure De Morgan.

If you’re a fan of William De Morgan’s work, the more obvious place to see it in London is the V&A – but a trip out to Wandsworth is well worth the time and not to be missed.

Tally: 5 down, 18 to go

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