The Great Cheese Mystery and Other De Morgan Adventures

Natasha Logan joined us for a short volunteering stint in the winter of 2014. She had previous museum experience but we always hope we can offer something new and unique for our volunteers. Reading Natasha's account of her time with us, we think we may have succeeded in this case!

 

I turned up to start volunteering at the De Morgan Centre at an unusual and uncertain point in its existence, just after it had closed to the public in June 2014. The De Morgan Foundation knew it had to relocate from its building in Wandsworth and there was a huge amount of work to be done before moving. 

So it was that I arrived on my first day to find an enormous painting by Evelyn De Morgan being moved and de-framed, and was immediately drafted in to help. Conservators had come in to work on ten of Evelyn’s paintings as part of a large conservation project, helping to stabilise, repair and conserve them before the move. I couldn’t believe my luck – in the Centre for five minutes and already I’d gotten up close with the artworks!

This all-hands-on-deck experience set the tone for my fast-paced and varied volunteering experience, under the generous, expert guidance of the Curator and Museum Officer, Claire and Emma. Almost every day I’d be involved with something completely new and exciting, depending on what was going on and needed doing.

A really great part of volunteering with a smaller museum is being able to get involved directly with the collection, which at the De Morgan Centre mainly means William De Morgan’s ceramics and Evelyn De Morgan’s paintings and drawings. I soon found myself helping prepare various items going out on loan, and as part of the packing up process for the ceramics, I checked a number of large tile panels for any change to their condition and drew (admittedly slightly wonky) diagrams of where any damage was.

For some of William’s other ceramics, I managed to get a 360-degree view of them – quite literally. One of my initially more daunting tasks, as someone with no video-editing experience, was to edit footage of various pots, vases and plates slowly spinning round on a turntable to reveal each vessel in its entirety to the viewer. It certainly makes them feel more real than just looking at their catalogue records online! Have a look at some of them here, on the De Morgan Foundation YouTube channel.

I also helped to de-frame and repack the Foundation's large collection of Evelyn’s drawings – often drawings from life or classical statues, or studies for her paintings. We were removing the frames, as they make it challenging to easily transport and store the drawings, and in some cases were detrimental to the condition of the pieces. This task had the fun side-effect of allowing us to examine the backs of the drawings (some of which had been in their frames for decades) for anything written there, perhaps even in Evelyn’s own hand. Some pencil scribblings did reveal that certain drawings were from Evelyn’s time at the Slade School of Fine Art, while de-framing others showed that the paper was too big for the frame and had been folded over, sometimes cutting off the edge of the picture, which was revealed in its original brighter colours.

As well as its decorative art collection, the De Morgan Foundation has a fascinating archive of letters and papers. Most of the archive was bequeathed by Wilhelmina Stirling, Evelyn’s younger sister, who had kept correspondence going back through several generations of their family. One of my jobs was to go through the archive, re-labelling archival material, checking and updating their records on the Foundation's digital collections management system. Of course, I couldn’t resist the temptation to skim-read many of these letters in passing.

 

 

However, one family letter from an ancestor of Evelyn’s to his mother particularly caught my eye, largely because of the unusual word ‘cheese’... Reading further, it transpired that the writer, along with his family, had gone to visit some family friends and had been given a cheese by the hosts as a token of thanks. However, his mother somehow ended up stealing away his cheese (we shall never know why), taking it back to her own home! Naturally, this necessitated a strongly-worded letter of complaint to his mother, the cheese thief:

In sober reality what do you intend to do with it? For they do not keep very long. This however is a very new one & would perhaps keep if uncut – sometime.  I shall expect to hear your plans on this important subject in your next letter.

The case of the missing cheese wasn’t the only mystery I encountered at the De Morgan Centre. This picture of Evelyn holding an unidentifiable object provoked much discussion – and we still don’t know what it might be. We wondered if it might be a grater of some kind, or something to do with a crafting activity, but ultimately we were pretty stumped... So if you have any ideas then please let us know!

We're really grateful to Natasha for the time she contributed to us. If you're interested in volunteering for the De Morgan Foundation, please take a look at our Volunteering page.