By the middle of the 1880s, Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919) was an established and individualistic Pre-Raphaelite painter who specialised in classical mythology. She was also a strong feminist, and a signatory to the 1889 Declaration in Favour of Women’s Suffrage. Like many other women artists of the time, she boycotted the Royal Academy, exhibiting instead at the Grosvenor, Dudley, and New Galleries, in London.
She and her husband were also pacifists, and expressed their horror at wars in South Africa (The Boer War), and particularly the First World War.
Hero Holding the Beacon for Leander from about 1885 refers to the well-known story of Hero and Leander. 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, in a thoroughly spiritualist reunion.
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 might be a reference to the thread of life, or that of time.
Her 1886 painting of Medea refers to another of Ovid’s Heroides. She has been abandoned by Jason, and now stares wistfully as she walks along the polished stone floor of her palace. She holds a vial of potion in her right hand: might this be the substance which she impregnated the wedding dress which she sent Glauce, perhaps?
In her Hope in a Prison of Despair from 1887, 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.
Clytie (1887) is another painting on the theme of the abandoned woman, this time not one from Heriodes but Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This water nymph was in love with Helios, god of the Sun, who then deserted her when he fell in love with Leucothoe. When her rival was put to death by being buried alive, Clytie hoped to win back the affection of Helios. She sat naked, taking neither food nor drink, for nine days staring at the sun, following which she was turned into the Heliotrope or Turnsole flower (similar to the sunflower).
De Morgan here hints at the transformation about to overtake Clytie, set against a superb rendering of the western sky at dusk.
Evelyn De Morgan’s Flora from 1894 is a single figure removed from the story told in Botticelli’s Primavera, to which she establishes clear visual links.
Boreas and Orithyia from about 1896 shows Boreas, the north wind, bearing the Athenian princess Orithyia aloft, above quite rugged hills and water. She is carried off to Sarpedon’s Rock where he wraps her in cloud and rapes her.
In 1898, de Morgan painted two prominent women of Troy.
She shows Helen of Troy (1898) admiring herself in a mirror, the back of which bears the image of Venus. Around her are white and red roses for love, and five white doves, two of which are ‘courting’. In the distance are the lofty towers of the fortified city of Troy.
Cassandra (1898) 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.
De Morgan’s The Cadence of Autumn from 1905 is one of her most unusual and brilliant paintings. 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 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 possibly unique for showing time across the breadth of the painting in this way.
As a pacifist, De Morgan responded to the outbreak of the Great War with S.O.S. (c 1914-16). 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, wasn’t 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 war. The figure doesn’t just represent the force of good, but that of redemption, from among the sea of monstrous war.
She followed that with Angel Piping to the Souls in Hell (1916), in which 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.
The legendary story of Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund (1880-1919) was a popular subject for the Pre-Raphaelites, and 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, a powerful narrative indeed.
William De Morgan died in 1917, Evelyn two years later, in 1919.
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.