A new collection display opens at the Watts Gallery Artists' Village on 7th November which explores the De Morgans' experience of war.

This display showcases original material from the De Morgan Foundation's archive which give an insight into the De Morgans' lives through WWI and Evelyn De Morgan's wider interests in pacifism, spiritualism and her inclusion of these themes in her paintings.

Whilst neither artist contributed to the war effort (William De Morgan was too old to be recruited), their day-to-day lives were directly affected by the conflict. On display is a letter to Catherine Holiday, wife of William’s artist friend Henry, in which William states that ‘he cannot write for thinking of war!’ despite being on holiday in Bude at the time.

William contracted contagious trench fever in 1917 and did not survive the illness.  Evelyn De Morgan lived until the end of WWI, she died in May 1919. The De Morgan Foundation retains her ration book which features in the display, issued by the Government’s Ministry of Food, which was established in 1918 to ensure that all civilians had fair access to food during the war.

A star work on display is Evelyn's sketch for her painting S.O.S (1916) (right). 

Morse Code - a way of communicating using dots and dashes in the place of letters - was widely used in combat in 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.

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 sadness at the horrors of war and the death and destruction it was causing.