Evelyn De Morgan's Spiritual Journey: From Poetry to Painting

 

From a lecture given to the Birmingham and Midland Institute on 24th November 2018.

 

The De Morgan Foundation has, in its archive, a collection of unpublished poems and short stories written by Evelyn De Morgan when she was aged between 13 and 15 years old. It is not known whether she continued to express herself through writing after this age, but no further poems have ever come into the public awareness and, since her estate passed to her brother and sister, who founded the De Morgan Collection, upon her death in 1919, it can be assumed that, if she did continue to write, these works also have made their way into the collection or have been lost or destroyed.

 

My assumption here is the former, that once Evelyn De Morgan had set her mind on becoming a professional artist, she wished to express herself through her art rather than her poems. I offer my reasons for this assumption in this paper by firstly introducing Evelyn De Morgan, then reviewing her poems and finally examining her paintings as an expression of Spiritualism.

 

Evelyn De Morgan was born in 1855 in London, the eldest daughter of Spencer Pickering QC and Anna Maria Spencer-Stanhope. The family was a notable one, through a line of politicians and Yorkshire landowners on her father’s side and from nobility on her mother’s, who were direct descendents of the ‘Coke of Norfolk’ who was an Earl of Leicester, a great patron of the arts in the eighteenth century who lived at Holkham Hall in Norfolk.

 

Her mother was born to the Spencer-Stanhope family of Cannon Hall, Yorkshire, and her brother, Evelyn’s uncle, was the late-Victorian painter John Roddham Spencer-Stanhope. Despite Evelyn’s mother herself growing up in a family of artists, she had conservative views about the place of art in her daughter’s education.

 

 

Evelyn was educated at home by tutors, in keeping with an appropriate middle-class upbringing. She was taught with her brothers, meaning that her lessons were in Latin, Greek, French, German and Italian, as well as classical literature, mythology and the sciences, subjects rarely available to girls of her age. Religion also played a huge part in the Pickering children’s education, taught by pastors who visited the house with the same regularity as the tutors. Art was not central to this early education, rather, it provided yet another appropriate method by which Evelyn’s tutors allowed her to examine the world around her. Drawings of plants, fruit and household items in still-life were all that was available to the young artist.

 

A well educated and extremely well read child, Evelyn De Morgan was well aware of the world around her and of her place in it and was keen to express herself creatively. With art not being an option in her formative years, her self-expression took the form of poetry.

 

Before an examination of her poetry, it must be considered whether Evelyn’s mother or one of her many tutors played a significant hand in directing her writing, resulting in a misreading of her scripts today as something more profound than they are. In her 1922 biography of her sister, Mrs Stirling comments on note books in the Foundation’s collection which contain stories, rather than poetry, as being nothing more than ‘school-room compositions’. One of these books of Evelyn’s writings features her attempts at writing children’s stories which she expresses are for her five year old brother, making her just 13 years old at the time of writing. The story of fairies living in a diamond palace with the powers of invisibility, ends abruptly with the following note in Evelyn’s hand: “The preceding fairy-tale was begun at an early age but was unfortunately never terminated as the authoress was called to more pressing duties.'' showing that writing stories, probably set as a educational task, did not appeal to Evelyn.

 

A second story in the book features a character, Mr De Braunt, who inherited his family estate when he was just ten years old and moved to a large house in London. This echoes Evelyn’s middle class parents lineage and therefore her preface to the piece is of note. She is less than complementary about the privilege and peerage of Mr De Braunt, spelling out her socialist leanings from an early age, she went on to become an ardent supporter of the Suffrage movement. Again, this novel ends abruptly, with the note “This novel begun at an early age was unfortunately never terminated as the author was at that period so fully occupied with poetical and dramatic compositions, that no time was left for the more humble prose.”

 

Perhaps the words of a precocious child, as Evelyn clearly was, evidenced in her review of her own magazine ‘The Reader’ which reads ‘The Reader is the best and cheapest periodical of the present day’, Evelyn’s footnotes to her unfinished children’s stories do suggest her deep frustration at the lack of ‘occupation’ or importance in completing stories for instructive rather than expressive purposes.  

 

Her early handwritten poems, by contrast to the stories, are beautiful. The lines are written in elegant script, with few mistakes, by contrast to the rather rushed and blotted stories. However, the message she delivers through these elegantly penned verses is haunting and profound, showing that she had found an artform worthy to express her own agenda.

 

The tale of Little Gretlein, tells of one young girl’s fateful voyage to find her pet lamb. At breakfast, when she first realises her lamb is missing, Gretlein abandons her meal and heads out into the snow to search for her pet. Starving and cold, she eventually finds the creature dead in a stream. As she realises the snow has obscured her path back home, Greitlin’s grief turns to fear before the seemingly inevitable happens and she dies in the cold.

 

Whilst calling to mind the moralising tales of the Brothers Grimm and being nursery rhyme-like in pace and tone, the underlying theme of the ever present threat of death is quite jarring in this juvenile poem.

 

Evelyn was brought up in a politically minded household where social concerns of the day would have been known to her and it perhaps for this reason that death was a topic of such concern to the young Evelyn. The 1853 - 1856 Crimean War, 1851 Burial Act - which decreed that no more bodies could be buried inside the City of London due to grave overcrowding, the 1853 Cholera pandemic which killed 10,700 Londoners in one year and the incredibly high mortality rates would have been common place discussion in Evelyn’s family home. Furthermore, Evelyn’s family were practicing Christians and the belief in the afterlife - particularly the ascension of the soul to a better world beyond this material one - was one she held true and also explored in her poetry.

 

In her early poems, such as the following untitled short work of 1868 (Evelyn aged 13), it is possible to comprehend Evelyn’s disdain of the modern world and sense of a better world to come in the afterlife.

 

Hail land of darkness

Drear abode of gloom

Where fantoms dwell

And enchantments bloom

 

Dred land of magic

Of funds the home

Where goblins dance

And spirits roam

 

Where spectres grim

Do play their part

And s[or]ceress[es] try

Their magic art

 

Hail! Hail! Hail! Hail!

Thou mighty land

Where enchantment reigns

An unearthly band

 

The physical passing from the material world into the spiritual one, was also an idea upon which the young Evelyn dwelled. As demonstrated in the previous work, she saw sorceresses, goblins and phantoms as being the spirits of the dark land she lived in, she believed angels would be the spirits to guide the souls of the deceased onwards. This undated and untitled poem rather beautifully deals with this idea.

 

My love lies deep

Under the ground

And autumn’s gloom

Is gath’ring round

 

The veiled flaps

Her dusty wings

Shaddows of myths

The north wind brings

 

The place is cold

And dead leaves lie

Sadly cowering

The wintry sty

 

My love was fair

Her eyes shone bright

They lit my soul

Like stars the night

 

Her locks of hair

Were bright as gold

And her lips breathed

Deep joys untold

 

And o’er my soul

Her presence beamed

And like the sun

Life giving gleamed

 

Come mourn with me

For I am sad

For the is gone

That made me glad

 

World let me weep

The hours away

Dream is the night

And dream the day

 

My heart is broke

My heart is flat

For lies my love

Among the dead

 

My love lies deep

Under the ground

The winter winds

Blow cold around

 

The cypress tree

Is covered with snow

Shrouded in white

The graves lie low

 

The snow is soft

And very white

While blows the blast

At dead of night

 

I will lay me down

On the cold ground

Falling snowflakes

Gather around

 

Through the sun sky

Breaks a glad light

Gleams o’er the hills

A hath of light

 

And a spirit

Is descending

Love, life and peace

Gently blending

 

Love in glory

With cro[w]néd brow

I feel thy arms

Around me now

 

Soft thy kisses

Warm thy breath

Vison of love

Angel of death

 

Poetry Evelyn would have been read by her mother and taught by her tutors would have undoubtedly included the works of the great Romantic poets of the day. Wordsworth’s I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud and Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind are all consuming verses which reduce the reader to insignificance by comparison, much how the Romantics saw themselves in comparison to forces of nature. Evelyn’s poetry certainly rouses similar feelings of bleakness and isolation, but her use of the weather is more metaphorical, standing in for the abstract concept of death as omnipresent in many of her poems.

 

In one work which describes the situation of a fleeing criminal, it is the sea which represents eventual peace found in death, as the final stanza reads:

 

‘He stands upon a rocky ledge

A swelling torrent rolls below

He leaps from off the craggy edge

And Death conceals his tale of woe’.

 

In her early poetry, Evelyn De Morgan explored themes that would go one to be central to her artistic career. Death, angels, the changing seasons and a metaphor for life and death and the motif of the sea strongly feature in both her poems and her artworks. It appears that Evelyn outgrew poetry when she was able to turn more seriously to painting. This more illustrative and visually engaging medium was more appropriate for her to widely spread her ideas and fully express herself, demonstrated in her diary entry on her 17th birthday,

 

““At the beginning of each year I say ‘I will do something’ and at the end I have done nothing. Art is eternal, but life is short”.

 

This profound statement echoes her earlier poetry and preoccupation with mortality, which she would not reconcile until much later in her career through her involvement in Spiritualism.

 

Her interest in pursuing a career as a professional artist in order to afford her the full expression of self she so desired, was clearly spurred on by her close relationship with her uncle on her mother’s side, the artist John Roddham Spencer-Stanhope. An early collaboration between Evelyn and ‘Roddy’ as he was affectionately known by the family, was for Cawthorne Church in Barnsley, close to the family’s home. Roddy designed panels for the pulpit, and Evelyn organ screens which feature angels and show her interest in and observance of Christianity. Evelyn also travelled to Italy with her uncle, allowing her access to art of the High Renaissance and she was completely charmed by the work of artists such as Botticelli and Mantegna, making watercolour copies of their work on her travels.

 

Much to the horror of her parents, Evelyn was admitted to the Slade School of Art in 1973, shortly after her 17th birthday.

 

The Slade School of Art was established by Felix Slade, a lawyer and art collector and enthusiast, who supported professorships at Oxford and Cambridge, which are still held by practicing artists, and the Slade School at the University of London, in 1871. The Slade was a radical and liberal alternative to the stuffy Royal Academy. It admitted women on the same terms as men, allowing all of its pupils access to life drawing lessons. Evelyn studied there under Sir Edward Poynter who preferred the French academic tradition of teaching painting by learning drawing first, meaning his pupils took daily drawing classes. Evelyn excelled and soon won a full scholarship for her studies there.

 

 

Evelyn’s early work echoes the Neo-Classicism style favoured by Sir Edward Poynter and her uncle Roddy. These paintings were fashionable and commercially successful when she exhibited them at the Grosvenor Gallery in London, a leading exhibition space for avant-garde artists of the day. She was also clearly influenced by the Aesthetic Movement of the 1860s. However, whilst many working in this style professed that art should exist ‘for arts sake’ or mere decoration, Evelyn used narrative to explore her personal agenda. In Night and Sleep (1878) for example, the central female figure of Sleep spills opium poppies over a barren landscape, hinting at the opium wars which had killed so many, and also at Evelyn’s interest in the idea that, as the night brings sleep, the end of life brings death, but only before the dawn of a new day and a spiritual freedom for the soul.

In 1880, Evelyn De Morgan completed her haunting painting Angel of Death (1880) which was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery. The figure of the greying woman looks up, hopefully at the cloaked figure of death and towards the blue skies ahead. The left side of which represents life is filled with craggy rocks, thorns and a baron landscape, whilst death on the right is accompanied by flowers in bloom and hope of something better.

From about 1900, Evelyn began to more overtly depict themes of Spiritualism. Her marriage to William De Morgan in 1887 had introduced her to his mother, Sophia, a social reform campaigner, abolitionist, anti-vivisectionist and practising medium. Through her links with Sophia, Evelyn’s interest in the soul after death becomes more evident. In The Soul’s Prison House (1889) and The Prisoner (1907) we are presented with a young woman representing the soul, trapped in the prison of the body, with a hopeful sunrise, representing the dawn after death. These paintings hold dual meaning as of course they represent the entrapment of women in a patriarchal society. Many of Evelyn’s paintings celebrate both the rise of the soul through life towards freedom in death and the rise of women towards emancipation. Daughters of the Mist (c.1910) bonds solid female forms in prismatic clouds as they ascend to the point where the light shines from them. Evelyn paints a number of pictures in these bold pastels and they are her most Symbolist style work. In Symbolism, a prismatic rainbow motif represents the soul, so it is clear why this style of painting appealed to her.

Throughout Evelyn’s stylistic development, tools she used as a child to represent her spiritual beliefs through poetry are evident metaphors in her paintings. The Candence of Autumn (1905) is an entrancing painting in which her skill as a colourist is particularly evident. Her deep burnt oranges, blood reds and earthy greens set the tone of the piece which celebrates the changes in nature brought on by autumn. The composition of the painting is influenced by Italian Renaissance paintings which are intended to be read from left to right as one might a sentence, or in this case music, which of course is hinted to in the title, as a candence is a musical ascension. At the left, we have spring, personified by a young maiden and ripening fruit trees. The painting then moves through a fruitful summer to an autumnal harvest and eventually to the swathes of a frosty winter depicted as an electric blue mist across the canvas. This move towards winter and towards death is not depicted as something to be feared, but something to be rejoiced as the song of life ascends and the blue mist draws the eye back to the blue of Spring’s robes and life cycle, or the cycle of the soul through the body to life beyond.

Evelyn De Morgan may not have continued to write poetry in the true sense of her being a poet, but verse does appear in her paintings and she clearly retained an interest in literature, counting Vernon Lee and Alice Kipling as close personal friends. In Life and Thought have Gone Away (1893) which is based on Tennyson’s short poem The Deserted House, Evelyn De Morgan’s canvas is an allegory of the emancipation of the soul upon the death of the body. Deeply religious, the motif of the empty tomb upon Christ’s resurrection is still recognisable by audiences today. Evelyn has used the strong, armour-clad male figure to represent thought and the young women to represent life, indicating her belief that once the body is gone, life and thought remain and will be welcomed by angels to the brightly lit prismatic land ahead.

Evelyn De Morgan’s Port After Stormy Seas (1905) features the sea as a motif for the turbulence of life and the peace found at the port. The title is a quotation from Spenser’s The Faerie Queene –

Sleep after toyle,

port after stormy seas,

Ease after Warre,

death after life doe greatly please.

 

Light, peaceful and welcoming, the bottom left of this canvas is death, whilst the darker, turbulent storms  of life are depicted in the top right of the painting. This work ties together Evelyn’s interest in poetry as a form of expression of spiritual values and her want to express this through motifs of natural forces in her beautiful paintings.

Evelyn De Morgan’s most celebrated painting Flora (1894) is seemingly a pure aesthetic work. Indeed, it is incredibly beautiful, the canvas occupied by the goddess of spring and representation of the Italian city of Florence, which Evelyn new well and loved, spending winters there from about 1889). Her inscription on the canvas is clearly for the patron of the work, Scottish shipping merchant William Imrie, who owned the White Star Line, responsible for ships such as the Titanic, it reads:

I come down from Florence and am Flora,

This city takes its name from flower

Among the flowers I was born and now by a change of home

I have my dwelling among the mountains of Scotia

Welcome, and let me treasure amid northern mists be dear to you.

 

It seems unlikely that Evelyn would respond directly to her patron’s wishes rather than express her personal agenda and so it can be deduced that representing an other worldly, angel-like figure, born of the spring and among the flowers represents rebirth after this mortal life.

 

The Valley of Shadows (c.1910) deals with her distaste for worldly riches. Figures are blinded by their ignorance in the dark valley, whilst only one enlightened figure is able to reject the world around her and choose instead a spiritual richness. In this work, Evelyn De Morgan again uses her richly symbolic visual lexicon to express her spiritualist, but also socialist beliefs. This painting was created by Evelyn at around the same time as her and her husband William anonymously published The Result of an Experiment, which is their volume of automatic writing. This was the commonplace practice of late 19th-century spiritualists who used this method to receive messages from the deceased. In many of the sessions recorded, William and Evelyn are guided to departed souls by angels, who speak favourably of the world they now occupy.

 

One passage in this publication reads:

 

‘It is the best thing on Earth—that incessant struggle. . . . Art is more important than you think. But it must be earnest, grim life earnest-ness that has no tincture of gain in it or love of earth-fame, only the strength of one's arm, and the whole power of one's being is to be given to it ; and to look neither to the right nor to the left, but go straight on doing the best that is in one.'

 

Whether written subconsciously or not, this passage testifies to Evelyn’s belief that through art, spiritual fulfilment can be gained. As demonstrated here, Evelyn De Morgan did not completely abandon poetry, rather she saw her painting as the true form of her spiritual expression, that would outlive her and inspire her beliefs in others.