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Spiritualist art collection seeks new home – By Alan Murdie – The unique De Morgan Centre at Wandsworth, South London, which commemorates the artistic works produced by two leading Spiritualist artists from the Victorian and Edwardian era, faces closure at the end of June – for the second time in five years.


The Centre houses some 40 examples of works by Evelyn De Morgan, and fine specimens of her husband’s pottery and tiles. The paintings are highly distinctive and evocative, involving rich use of colours and exploring spiritual, mystical and mythological themes, inspired by the couple’s deep Spiritualist faith. Unfortunately, the decision to relocate the Wandsworth Museum has resulted in a notice to leave being served upon the Centre and it will be closing its doors on 28th June, forcing another hunt for a “location with good amenities and footfall”. The Centre previously had to close to the public for two years in 2009, following the foreclosure of an earlier lease by Wandsworth Council.

L-R: William De Morgan (c. 1890), Sands End Pottery: 
tile panel inspired by Middle East examples. Photo: Michele Ahin – Helen of Troy by Evelyn De Morgan – Cassandra by Evelyn De Morgan

William De Morgan (c. 1890), Sands End Pottery: 
tile panel inspired by Middle East examples. Photo: Michele Ahin Helen of Troy
by Evelyn De Morgan
Cassandra
by Evelyn De Morgan

A generous bequest

The permanent public display of artworks by the De Morgans was originally the dream of Mrs A.M.W. Stirling, who lived for many years at the Old House, Battersea, one of the borough’s oldest mansions (since then also sold and divided up into flats). Mrs Stirling was the younger sister of Evelyn De Morgan and sister-in-law to William, preserving many of their works in her own private collection. In her book Ghosts Vivisected (1958) Mrs Stirling  included several black-and-white plates showing samples of Evelyn’s paintings, but the full scale of her collection only really became known after her death, at the age of 101 in 1965, when her will established the Foundation as a permanent bequest for the benefit of the public.

Aurora Triumphans – c. 1886 by Evelyn De Morgan
Aurora Triumphans – c. 1886 by Evelyn De Morgan
 
   

Paintings for peace,
Spiritualism and womankind

Naturally, the paintings really need to be viewed in colour to appreciate their full skill and beauty. The imagery of many of the paintings encapsulates Evelyn De Morgan’s long-standing commitment to peace and the betterment of humanity.

From the 1880s, with the onset of the Boer War, and later in World War I in 1914, she used her painting to illustrate the fears shared by many about the effects and horrors of war. She also used art as a vehicle to express the couple’s Spiritualist faith and their beliefs on the passage and fate of the soul after death. A number of canvasses show striking female forms and images reflecting Evelyn’s beliefs in the redemptive power of women, as symbols of hope and optimism for humanity and an expression of the eternal and divine feminine principle.

The De Morgans and the paranormal

Evelyn & William De Morgan
    Evelyn & William De Morgan
 

In their faith and work, the couple were greatly influenced by William De Morgan’s parents. His father, Professor Augustus De Morgan, a mathematician, was one of the first scientists to take psychic phenomena seriously. He helped his wife Sophia to publish the book From Matter to Spirit (1863), later credited with helping inspire Sir William Crookes to take up psychical investigation. For their part, Evelyn and William engaged in regular sessions of automatic writing for over ten years, eventually producing a book, modestly entitled The Result of An Experiment in 1909, which contained messages from spirits and angelic beings.

Earlier, William De Morgan had worked with some of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research – Frederic Myers and Sir William Barrett – early in their careers. In the 1870s William De Morgan had a studio in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea. A fascinating incident took place there when a medium named Husk produced one of the most convincing displays of materialisation recorded, one which deeply impressed Sir William Barrett, although he did not publish his account until 1924.

A striking physical seance

Barrett recalled holding a séance in an almost bare room at the studio, furnished with a small deal table about 3 feet by 5 feet, and a few chairs. After dinner Myers brought Husk to the studio by Hansom cab, and the group comprising William De Morgan, his mother and sister, Myers and Barrett sat with the medium around the table. The wrists of all present were loosely joined together by silk thread. Husk went into trance soon after the candle was extinguished by Barrett.

Barrett recalled how “lights, very like fireflies, were seen darting about over our heads, the movement of some objects in the room was heard, and a deep guttural voice spoke to us calling himself ‘John King’.“

Fantastic ducks on 6-inch tile with lustre highlights, Fulham period
Fantastic ducks on 6-inch tile with
lustre highlights, Fulham period
 
   

A violent convulsion of the medium occurred, and Barrett recalled that “right in front of me appeared a clothed human figure from the waist upwards: the lower part of the body might have been concealed by the table. The face was illuminated by a bluish light which seemed to issue from an object held in the hand of the materialized figure.”

Barrett added that “the face was undoubtedly a living one, for I saw its eyes open and close and its lips move; I asked who it was and the guttural voice said, ‘John King’.”

Barrett described the face as “a dark bearded and rather unpleasant face, quite unlike that of the medium.” Barrett asked, “Do you all see the figure? I am going to light the candle.”

The figure vanished the moment the match was struck, and the medium was found in deep trance, lying back in his chair and groaning. Barrett and Myers found it impossible to reproduce the appearance and agreed “it was extremely difficult to explain the phenomena by trickery on the part of the medium.”

The De Morgans’ wider influence

The De Morgans were also influential in supporting and inspiring the sculptress Katherine Maltwood in her early years. She later explored the mystic side of the Arthurian tradition and conceived the Glastonbury Zodiac. Today the De Morgan Centre also holds an archive of books and manuscripts relating to the couple and to Mrs Stirling.

The future of the collection

Speaking of the current situation, the Chairman of the De Morgan Foundation, Paul Jackson stated: “Our priorities at this time are safeguarding and maintaining the collection and its identity for the future, and guaranteeing that public access to the works of William and Evelyn De Morgan continues.”

A number of proposed object loans to other museums and cultural institutions will ensure that a selection of the ceramics and oil paintings in the Foundation’s possession will remain on show.

Alan Murdie is a lawyer and psychical researcher. He is a regular columnist for the magazine Fortean Times and a council member of the Society for Psychical Research.
       

De Morgan work on show elsewhere

Work by Evelyn De Morgan can also be seen in Leeds Library Art Gallery and at the Russell Coates Museum in Bournemouth which is hosting De Morgans and the Sea, a loan exhibition exploring influences of the sea in the works of William and Evelyn De Morgan, until 28th September 2014.

For more information, visit:
www.demorgan.org.uk

 
 


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