Look Beneath the Lustre: a de Morgan Foundation exhibition at Wightwick Manor, from September 1st 2019.
This exhibition invites us to look more closely at the skill and methods that underpin the striking work of William and Evelyn de Morgan. It consists of a number of works not previously on display in the De Morgan Foundation’s Wightwick collection (in fact, only Port After Stormy Seas (1905) and Cupid and Venus (1878), are unchanged), and offers a different approach, so is well worth a visit. On entering, one is struck by the depth and glow of the colours: this is a striking and vibrant collection, and beautifully arranged to maximise this effect. One of the first paintings I noticed was Evelyn’s The Storm Spirits (1900), in which the spirits of rain, thunder and lightning appear in glowing colours against the muted, darker colours of the storm. In the centre is a peaceful landscape, in front of which the storm is played out. Evelyn’s work is well-represented here, and as part of the remit of exploring the work that lies behind the art, there are a number of pencil sketches for the paintings on display which provide some fantastic insight into the artist’s working methods and the technical skill which lies under the paint. I find it fascinating to see the working behind her highly-finished and richly-coloured oil paintings. The Garden of Opportunity (1892) is another appealing example, displayed alongside a number of pencil sketches and with a rich lustre of its own.
The centrepiece of the room is the lustre ware exhibits, however, including some of William de Morgan’s designs for ceramics and glaze-test tiles, and accompanied by the piercing-eyed portrait by his wife (1909), which also features some of his books in the top right, indicating his fame during his lifetime as a writer. The vase featured in the portrait appears next to it, on loan from the Victorian & Albert Museum, and is a highlight of the exhibition. The exhibition offers panels with information on the making of the lustre ware for which he is now most famous, detailing his method of creating the metallic shine for which his work is known. The ceramics themselves are dazzling – it’s quite difficult to think about the craftsmanship when you are contemplating something so shiny and bright! – but the selection on display encourages visitors to consider the ways in which de Morgan’s formal designs offer something full of life and movement, especially in the pieces which include animals, such as the peacock and antelope, as well as intricate foliage.
Much of the exhibition appears to have been arranged by colour, which is particularly striking: for example, Evelyn de Morgan’s Boreas and the Fallen Leaves (1910-14) is hung in proximity to Demeter Mourning for Persephone (1905) and Love’s Passing (1883-4), which share an Autumnal colour palette. When I visited there were audible ‘oohs’ for the wall of blue tiles, which includes the Galleon tile panel (1882), The Trumpeter (1865-82) and, of course, Peacock (1870-1907). The designs include a number of sea-inspired works, featuring ships and fish, for example.
The exhibition is presented in a coherent order with remarkable instant visual impact. Of course the topic links closely to Wightwick Manor and the Mander family, whose collection of Pre-Raphaelite works included many sketches and drawings, indicating their interest in the skill, methods and craftsmanship of such work, and whose home contains some lustre ware and several de Morgan tiles around the fireplaces.