William and Evelyn De Morgan: ‘Two of the Rarest Spirits of the Age’, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle

The gallery's first post-Covid show is a riveting exploration of one of art's great power couples, says Jamie Taylor
Temporary Exhibition
Jamie Taylor
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Night and Sleep (1878), Evelyn De Morgan
Night and Sleep (1878), Evelyn De Morgan De Morgan Foundation

When you consider art history's great power couples you might think of Gilbert and George or Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. You might not think of the rather unassuming Evelyn and William De Morgan. Described by Edward Poynter, president of the Royal Academy of Arts, as “the rarest spirits of the age”, this exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery explores what made the duo so special.

It seems somehow apt that the work of Evelyn De Morgan heralded the reopening of the Laing after its Covid-19 enforced absence. Painted in a very different time in response to a very different danger, her work is replete with a sense of hope that feels relatable today. Lux in Tenebris is a striking example that greets you as you enter Evelyn's section of the exhibition. Its glowing portrayal of a Christ-like woman, shining through the darkness to offer us peace, feels reassuring as we tiptoe our way back to normality.

I'd expected the experience of visiting a gallery again to be unusual. As a person who has felt the absence of such visits keenly, it was a big moment to be back amongst the work of Burne-Jones and John Martin. I feared that the safety measures in place would render the experience somehow sterile and mediated, lacking the calm and peace of those visits gone past.

I shouldn't have been so worried. I was greeted at the door by a visor-wearing member of staff who took my name and number with a smile. Her evident enthusiasm was infectious and immediately put me at ease. If it hadn't been for the rather fetching pink hi-vis jackets the invigilators were wearing, I think I would have soon forgotten that anything was different.

Signature hues

The exhibition is split over two rooms, the first of which shows William's work. I was immediately struck by the colour scheme chosen for the walls. Greeted by the deep oak-leaf green and golden lustre of an introductory panel, my expectations of a quality exhibition were raised. As I peeked around the corner this was somewhat confounded by the same avocado green you might find in a 1970s bathroom. Yet this choice of colour worked wonderfully, complementing the creams and blues of William's tiles while giving the reds and golds of his plates contrast to really pop.

Fantastical Peacock Plate (1888-1907), William De Morgan De Morgan Foundation

It is this avocado green that links the two galleries with William's dark green being replaced by Evelyn's signature hue of deep purple throughout the second room. This choice feels loaded with significance, especially when you learn through her painting In Memoriam of the colour's association with wisdom, dignity, devotion and peace. These are all qualities that Evelyn's work has in spades.

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The writing throughout was a joy. It was clear, concise and generous with its knowledge. It made little in the way of assumptions about the reader and I never once felt, as someone who knew little about the pair previously, alienated or baffled by the words on offer. It set up clearly the individual personalities of the pair, bringing through William's playful side and Evelyn's dogged determination and spirituality.

I loved the personal insights; particularly how they met at a fancy-dress party, Evelyn dressed as a tube of paint. I was particularly impressed by how much the writing encouraged and challenged me to look closely at the work. Without it I would not have noticed the feathered imperfections on William's Bull Jar or the botched repair job on one of his schemes of tiles. Each label was well paced and memorable, allowing me to dine out on interesting titbits for days. If I have one criticism it is that the writing occasionally ran out of steam and became a little repetitive. This was especially the case when describing William's Islamic influences.

Craft work

I thought the show was curated wonderfully. The contrast between the two artists' work, which, despite their close relationship, is very different, worked well. The objects chosen expressed these differences really nicely.

William's section focused very much on his scientific mind and his playful imagination. This came through especially clearly in the example of his Ouroboros plate, a possible tribute to his mathematician father and inspired by the mythical creature that is often used to express the idea of infinity. An Arts and Crafts ethos shines through his work, as when you notice that the backs of the plates are designed with as much care and detail as the fronts. A real highlight was the Scarlet Macaw and Blue Fronted Amazon Parrot tile panel that gave the exhibit the momentary feeling of being at the zoo. Thomas Bewick was a key influence, and his History of British Birds can be seen alongside the swan plates that it inspired.

S.O.S (1914), Evelyn De Morgan De Morgan Foundation

While I must admit to not enjoying Evelyn's work as much, I feel I was able to get a better sense of her as a person. Much of the work displayed is from later in her life, when financial independence made her confident to speak her mind through her art. S.O.S is a prime example that not only expresses her desire for spiritual salvation over bodily survival but also of her hope for the emancipation of women.

The study for Pro Patria Mori expresses her belief in the futility of war while The Red Cross offers an icon of hope and eventual peace. An undoubted highlight for many will be Our Lady Peace, on show here for the first time since major conservation work, but for me the most powerful object was the rather understated ration book; half unused and kept as a memento after her death in 1919.

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My one wish for this exhibition is that it explored a little more of the artists' lives as a couple, which was covered only sporadically, most notably through their co-authored book on automatic writing.

Overall though I think Sarah Hardy, the exhibition's curator, should be applauded for creating such a riveting and accessible look at the work of the De Morgans. As I left contemplating William's mathematical rationalism and Evelyn's spiritual feminism, I began to understand to what Poynter meant when he described them as "the spirit of the age".

Jamie Taylor is a freelance curator and content writer

William and Evelyn De Morgan: ‘Two of the Rarest Spirits of the Age’ closes on 26 September

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