Artist of Hope at Towneley Hall

by Northern Life

Syrian refugees living in Lancashire and Second World War veterans have shared their experiences of living through war which bring these pictures to life.

Pre-Raphaelite Artist of Hope: Evelyn De Morgan

Pre-Raphaelite Artist of Hope displays Evelyn De Morgan’s symbolic paintings alongside contemporary stories from those who have lived through warfare and from NHS staff who have served on the frontline during the pandemic. It has been curated with the help of community partners including Blind Veterans UK, Child Action North West, local Syrian refugees and asylum seekers, and nurses from Royal Blackburn Hospital.

Study of a Boy for Our Lady of Peace (c.1907) by Evelyn De Morgan (C) De Morgan Collection, courtesy of the De Morgan Foundation.

Their voices are heard against the deeply symbolic First World War paintings of iconic artist Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919). The exhibition explores the way De Morgan’s work presented profound fears and heartfelt hope that better days would come. Syrian refugees living in Lancashire and Second World War veterans have shared their experiences of living through war which bring these pictures to life. There will be an audio guide available in English and Arabic to hear their stories by scanning the pictures with your phone camera through the app Smartify.

De Morgan was an artist who always had hope. She painted until her death in 1919, when it was other global crises such as the Spanish Flu and the First World War that held the World in a vice-like-grip.

Defying the conventions of the deeply conservative Victorian society she was raised in, she dared to be different and studied at the prestigious Slade School of Art, before being invited to exhibit at the exclusive Grosvenor Gallery when she was just 20 years old. This was an astonishing achievement for a woman at the time. Her hope for a feminist future is highlighted in the paintings on display in the exhibition.

Our Lady of Peace [Left]

A knight, dressed in chivalric armour, is about to depart to battle. He is praying in an Italian church when a vision of the Virgin Mary appears to him surrounded by cherubs and rainbows. The knight clasps his hands together, wishing for protection in battle and in hope that his actions in battle will bring peace. De Morgan’s inclusion of this paradoxical concept speaks to her pacifist nature and criticism of war. The rainbow is used by many as a symbol of hope. De Morgan used rainbow paints to symbolise her hope for peace after war. The LGBTQ+ community have used the rainbow flag since the 1970s to represent hope for equality. We all used the rainbow as a hopeful symbol for the end of the coronavirus pandemic last year.

De Morgan knew the pain of loss and grief. She lived through the Boer Wars and First World War, and was horrified at the mechanised killing and destruction. Motivated to use the power of her brush to spread a pacifist message of hope, she was possessed of a strong belief that art should have a moral purpose. She fashioned an artistic response to war using deliberate symbolism rather than realism, so her paintings are relatable today.

Evelyn De Morgan with her Husband William (c.1900) (C) De Morgan Collection,
courtesy of the De Morgan Foundation

Hopeful symbols we recognise – rainbows, light, dawn – make De Morgan’s paintings relevant to our shared experience of navigating the pandemic.
“That hope and strength has been given to us by the loving support of the public. Their use of rainbows to show their support to the NHS and its workers has boosted morale and provided encouragement when needed most.” Vicky Ramsden, Ward Manager, Royal Blackburn Hospital.

To say thank you to our NHS heroes they will be able to enjoy free entry throughout the show.
Forty-five works have been lent by the De Morgan Collection for the exhibition in Lancashire for the first time. Some of De Morgan’s stunning sketches are on display which bring her working process to life and allow us to get a glimpse of how she made the paintings. Towneley Hall’s own mysterious painting Destiny by John William Waterhouse is also on display as it was painted for the artist’s war fund, and a sketch for The Golden Stairs by Edward Burne-Jones is included to showcase De Morgan’s Pre-Raphaelite contemporaries. This exhibition will help us to discover hope as society recovers from a pandemic which brought isolation and fear.

Pre-Raphaelite Artist of Hope: Evelyn De Morgan opens at Towneley Hall, Burnley. Open Saturday to Thursday (closed on Fridays), 12pm – 5pm, last entry at 4pm.
Adults: £5.50 for a 12-month pass | Children (17 and under): FREE| Students with valid ID: FREE | NHS workers free with pass

Night and Sleep [Pictured above]
Floating across the sky, cloaked in dark robes, Night and Sleep languidly hold each other arm in arm. With eyes almost shut, both figures appear to be already half-asleep. Sleep gently scatters poppies from a posy in his arms, which recalls laudanum, a sleeping draft used by the Victorians which was made from a tincture of opium poppy. While the figures, composition and tone of this painting is peaceful, this symbolic inclusion of poppies could be seen as De Morgan’s criticism of the use of laudanum in the treatment of ‘hysterical’ women. De Morgan was an ardent feminist and believed strongly in the equal rights of men and women. She was hopeful for a feminist future and used her painting to embody her social and political views.
Today, poppies are more synonymous with remembering those who lost their lives in the World Wars. Working with the charity Blind Veterans UK on this exhibition has given this painting new meaning. Second World War veteran Maurice responded to the poppies in this painting and reflected on his own time serving in the Royal Air Force.