The Story in Paintings: Evelyn De Morgan 2, 1881 on

Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919), Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund (1880-1919), oil on canvas, 73.7 x 64.8 cm, The De Morgan Centre, Guildford, Surrey, England. Wikimedia Commons.

The previous article detailed the life, career, and early paintings of Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919). This completes my account, covering a selection of her narrative paintings from 1881 onwards.

Phosphorus and Hesperus (1881)

Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919), Phosphorus and Hesperus (1881), oil on canvas, 75 × 59.5 cm, The De Morgan Centre, Guildford, Surrey, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Phosphorus, in its original Greek Φωσφόρος, is the morning star, normally taken to mean the planet Venus when it is bright in the dawn sky. In Latin, it became Lucifer, the bringer of light, and with later associations the devil too. Hesperus, or Ἓσπερος, is the evening star, which is the planet Venus seen bright in the evening sky. In Latin, it became Vesper. Although the Greeks came to realise that they were the same celestial body, they maintained the different legendary figures.

De Morgan shows Phosphorus rising, his torch held up in the air, while the intertwined Hesperus has fallen asleep, and his torch has dropped onto the ground, its flame guttering. Today, two naked bodies with their arms and legs intertwined might easily be read in homoerotic terms, but there is no evidence that this was the artist’s intent.

Hero Holding the Beacon for Leander (c 1885)

Hero awaiting the return of Leander
Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919), Hero Holding the Beacon for Leander (c 1885), gouache on paper mounted on panel, 57.8 x 29.2 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

This refers to the well-known story of Hero and Leander, which I have covered in several previous articles. This classical legend tells of the hapless romance of Leander (man) and Hero (woman). She was a priestess of Aphrodite, living in a temple at Sestos on the European side of the Hellespont, who fell in love with Leander, who lived in Abydos on the opposite side of the strait.

Each night through the summer and autumn Leander swam across the dangerous waters to be with her, consummating their relationship. To guide him across, Hero lit a torch at the top of her tower. One night, a storm blew up, and extinguished the light as Leander was swimming across the rough waters. Leander lost his way, and was drowned in front of Hero. Seeing his corpse, she threw herself from the tower, to die and rejoin him.

De Morgan shows Hero alone, holding her light aloft in a position which is almost identical to that of Phosphorus’s torch, looking out for her lover. Curiously, there is a red thread, wool perhaps, which runs from her clothing, under her left hand. I have not seen this before in a painting of Hero, although there are so many different variants of the story that it may be included in one. It may (as I have suggested previously) be a reference to the thread of life, or that of time.

Hope in a Prison of Despair (1887)

Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919), Hope in a Prison of Despair (1887), oil on panel, 58 x 65 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Black-robed Despair is shown as a woman who is bowed at the window of a prison cell. Enter Hope, who could be male or female, and holds an oil lamp, to bring its light. Hope’s head is surrounded by a halo, suggesting their piety, and that they represent the comfort of religious faith. The miniature relief shown above Hope’s head appears interesting, but is sadly hard to read here.

Cassandra (1898)

Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919), Cassandra (1898), media not known, 97.8 x 48.3 cm, The De Morgan Centre, Guildford, Surrey, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Cassandra was the daughter of King Priam of Troy, who was granted the gift of prophecy, but the curse that no one would ever believe her, even though her prophecies were accurate. The Trojans considered her insane, and she was hidden away. She prophesied the fall of Troy as occurring as the result of Greeks being hidden inside the wooden horse which they left as a ‘parting gift’, and became incensed when she was ridiculed.

During the sacking of Troy, she sheltered in the temple of Athena, but was abducted and raped by Ajax the Lesser, in an act of great violence and sacrilege. She was subsequently taken as a concubine by Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, but was murdered by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus.

De Morgan shows Cassandra lost in deep and disturbing thought, tugging at her hair, as the city of Troy burns behind her, and (at the left edge) Greek soldiers emerge from the Trojan horse. Around her feet are deep red roses, referring to the blood that had been shed. The flames have been composed so as to give the impression that it is actually Cassandra who is burning.

Although a relatively static scene, De Morgan brings together visual references to the story which heighten the drama, and her use of facial expression and body language is very skilled. This is also a moment of peripeteia, although the event marking that is shown in a small but very clear detail.

The Cadence of Autumn (1905)

Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919), The Cadence of Autumn (1905), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, The De Morgan Centre, Guildford, Surrey, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Five women are shown in a frieze, against a rustic background. From the left, one holds a basket of grapes and other fruit, two are putting marrows, apples, pears and other fruit into a large net bag, held between them. The fourth crouches down from a seated position, her hands grasping leaves, and the last is stood, letting the wind blow leaves out from each hand. They wear loose robes which are coloured (from the left) lilac, gold, brown, green, and black.

The landscape behind them contains a watermill and surrounding buildings. At the left, the trees are heavy with fruit and the fields either green or ripe corn. At the right, the trees are barren, and the landscape hilly and more wintry. Soft blue-white patches of mist are visible in the foreground on the right.

This painting shows the procession of time and the changes seen in autumn, reflected in the colours of robes (De Morgan used such ‘colour coding’ elsewhere), the activities, fruits and dead leaves, and the progression across the background. It is unusual for showing time across the breadth of the painting in this way.

S.O.S. (c 1914-16)

Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919), S.O.S. (c 1914-16), oil on canvas, 74 × 47 cm, The De Morgan Centre, Guildford, Surrey, England. Wikimedia Commons.

A light-robed woman stands, her head thrown back and arms outstretched as if being crucified, on a rock in the sea. Her robes are irridescent, containing faint colours of the rainbow. Around her feet is a pantheon of vicious sea monsters, some winged, others snake-like, most toothed and predatory. Above her is a bright light, with coloured halos, against a sky studded with stars.

The well-known radio call to indicate distress, consisting originally of the Morse code letters S O S, was not introduced until 1908, replacing the earlier Morse letters CQD (which were still used by the Titanic in 1912). The distress here is both personal and global, at the horrors of the First World War. Both Evelyn and William De Morgan were pacifists, and she expressed her views of the war in this and other paintings of this time. The figure doesn’t just represent the force of good, but that of redemption, from among the sea of monstrous war.

Angel Piping to the Souls in Hell (1916)

Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919), Angel Piping to the Souls in Hell (1916), oil on canvas, 50.8 x 61 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

A winged angel flies above whorls of heads. The angel holds a golden pipe to their mouth, and plays it. The heads below are shown in an ethereal tube, which swirls around the mountainous background. Most of the faces are distorted in unpleasant emotion, and flames lick around the coils of the tube.

This is an unusual work which is closer to the cryptic paintings of William Blake than the legends popular among the Pre-Raphaelites. Its symbols appear to show the possibility of redemption to those in hell. Painted in the middle of the First World War, it was another expression of De Morgan’s deep spiritual distress at the time.

Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund (1880-1919)

Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919), Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund (1880-1919), oil on canvas, 73.7 x 64.8 cm, The De Morgan Centre, Guildford, Surrey, England. Wikimedia Commons.

The legendary story of these two women was a popular subject for the Pre-Raphaelites, and is quite different from what is now thought to be the historical basis.

King Henry II (1133-1189, ruled 1154-1189) built a house for his mistress Rosamund Clifford at Woodstock, near Oxford. To protect her, it was inside a maze or labyrinth, and the house itself was called Labyrinthus. Henry’s wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, intended to kill Rosamund, so she traced her way through the maze using a thread, until she reached Rosamund. The Queen then gave her a choice of modes of execution: a dagger or the poison which she had brought with her. Rosamund drank the poison and died.

In reality, Eleanor abandoned Henry in the Great Revolt of 1173-4, for which he imprisoned her in Winchester until his death in 1189. Rosamund entered a nunnery at Godstow Abbey in 1174 or later, where she died in 1176.

De Morgan’s powerful painting shows Eleanor at the left, her left hand still holding the red thread with which she had negotiated the maze. In her right hand is the vial of poison which she is about to administer to Rosamund, who is sat, looking dreamily into the distance, at the right. Malevolent bats and faces are shown around Eleanor’s head and shoulders, to indicate her evil intent. Lower down they transform into flying serpents, which are chasing tiny putti adorning the floor. White doves and another putto are flying away to the right, and there are occasional miniature stars around Eleanor. A stained glass window behind shows two lovers about to kiss under a fruit tree.

This is a story of cold and calculated witch-like sorcery, similar to some of the classical legends such as that of Medea (also painted by De Morgan). It is told with sophisticated and subtle use of expressions, body language, and a rich symbolic language which refers to the occult. It is powerful narrative indeed.


I am amazed that Evelyn De Morgan is seldom even mentioned in accounts of women painters, and generally receives little attention (if any) in accounts of the Pre-Raphaelites. Her life, career, and works appear to me to be of great importance, and to merit further study.


De Morgan Foundation and Collection.

Drawmer, LJ (2001) The impact of science and spiritualism on the works of Evelyn De Morgan 1870-1919, PhD thesis, Buckinghamshire New University. Available here.