Obsessions are funny things. They force you to try any approach, no matter how tangential, to resolve the problem, and to spend what seems to anyone else an inordinate amount of time doing so. But even when the obsession has an ending that is startling and unexpected, that can be a strange kind of reward.
It began many years ago with a brief reference in a newspaper article to a particular painting. Although un-illustrated, my interest was sparked by a tantalising impression of the content of the picture. The painting was The Spear of Ithuriel by Evelyn de Morgan, and that was the tiny kernel of information that set me on my journey. As this encounter pre-dated the web, the first step was simple: look up both painting and the artist in a book. You might think this would have yielded quick results, but no; every book I consulted failed to mention the picture, whilst as one of the few female artists working in the late 19th century Evelyn de Morgan herself seemed to warrant only slightly more coverage, relegated to supporting player in the great Pre-Raphaelite and High Victorian art drama of those years.
The lack of exposure seemed to stem from her marriage to ceramicist William de Morgan, of whom I had heard, not least because of his work for Frederic, Lord Leighton in helping to create the vibrant and exotic Arab Hall at his red-brick house and studio in Holland Park, west London. De Morgan’s career clearly eclipsed his wife’s, at least in the minds of art publishers. This was, as I subsequently found, unjust, her vividly-coloured and sharply-defined work deserving to be much better known than was the case back then. I was but grateful that she attracted the attention she did – as plain Mary Evelyn Pickering, she may have assumed an even lower position.
So, I continued my search for any scrap of information on this woman and her peculiarly elusive painting, and it became a kind of ritual for me to flip to the index of every art history book I encountered, in every bookshop and gallery, to see if my curiosity could be satisfied. I always drew a blank, though, and so for a while my interest waned. Recovering that mindset some years on, however, I decided to go straight to the top, contacting the National Art Library at the Victoria & Albert Museum and simply asking whether they had an illustration of this mysterious painting. A few days later, from a nondescript brown envelope, emerged a miracle – a monochrome image of Evelyn de Morgan's The Spear of Ithuriel, together with a few pages of copy from a seventy-five-year old magazine article. At last, some concrete information and, most importantly, something to see.
The title of de Morgan’s work is a reference to Milton's Paradise Lost. Gabriel sends the angels Ithuriel and Zephon to watch over the sleeping figure of Eve in the Garden of Eden, and just in time. Ithuriel discovers Satan, that fallen angel, in the form of a toad squatting next to Eve. At a touch from his spear, Satan’s true shape will be revealed. It is this moment that de Morgan chose to depict in her painting, created between 1889 and 1892.
Even in black and white, with details dulled and flattened by camera and copier and time, it is an extraordinary vision. Surrounded by a cloud of cherubs, Ithuriel fills the frame, arrayed in flowing robes and with an immense triple set of wings spreading out behind him. The eponymous spear is held ready, its point near the beautifully-rendered nude figure of Eve lying across the bottom of the picture peacefully asleep amidst a spray of delicate flowers, but actually destined for the toad, sitting quietly but disconcertingly next to Eve’s head.
It was a striking image, and would clearly have been even more so in real life, since I read in the accompanying notes that the firey colours for which de Morgan was known gave Ithuriel wings of crimson and the cherubs wings of lapis lazuli, the rare blue pigment whose value, the article helpfully stated, quadrupled after World War I.
So, I finally had my picture, but why was this astonishing work not better known? And why was it never shown in books?
Browsing the Courtauld Gallery's shop months later, I came across a lucky find – the catalogue for an exhibition of Evelyn de Morgan's work that had been held at Bournemouth's Russell-Cotes Gallery. Now, it seemed, I might have the answers to my questions at my fingertips. Would all be revealed? I looked inside and sure enough there was The Spear of Ithuriel, and illustrated too, but only in the same monochrome reproduction that I already possessed. It was maddening – why no colour version? There were, after all, plenty of colour plates but also, I noticed, other black and white pictures too, huddled together in a group as though ashamed. I turned the pages carefully, looking for any reference to 'my' painting.
Finally I found it. And was brought up short in shock. For there, in a blunt statement, was the fate of The Spear of Ithuriel: "…destroyed by fire, October 1991". Fire? A fire that destroyed not just The Spear of Ithuriel but also, it appeared, a number of de Morgan's other works, including, tragically, a pastel version of the same subject? Skimming through the catalogue, I saw references to de Morgan's tangled probate, to her sister, Mrs Stirling... and to a fire in a warehouse which consumed sixteen of her paintings as well as a number of preparatory drawings. I closed the book slowly. My quest, begun by chance one far-off day, had come to an end. Further research filled in the detail.
Evelyn de Morgan was born in 1855, the niece of acclaimed painter John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, perhaps another explanation for her minimal presence in modern surveys. She was fascinated by theology, allegory and legend, the last especially where a moral or social message could be found. She pursued these in her work in powerfully unique fashion, with great emphasis on detail, form, colour and scale (The Spear of Ithuriel was her fourth-largest work, measuring over seven feet tall by four feet wide).
Following her death in 1919, Evelyn’s sister Mrs Wilhelmina Stirling assumed control of most of her works in circumstances which remain unclear to this day. Mrs Stirling also became the main source of information about Evelyn, largely through a very partial and controversial biography. Upon Mrs Stirling's death, in turn, Evelyn’s works passed to the newly-formed De Morgan Foundation. Some were kept in storage in the warehouse of art shippers Bourlet's, near Heathrow Airport. In October 1991 a fire tore through the building, destroying the de Morgan works as well as those by other artists, including a modern art collection on its way abroad for an exhibition. The precise circumstances of the fire were never determined; action against the company alleging negligence followed though was later abandoned.
And so the mystery of the seldom-illustrated painting was solved. I like to think that The Spear of Ithuriel survives in an artistic afterlife somewhere, perhaps reunited with its artist, who became interested in spiritualism after the Great War. In fact in a way that is true. With the recent reassessment of Pre-Raphaelite and High Victorian art through the rapid growth in scholarship and more open attitudes to research, leading to hugely popular exhibitions, Evelyn de Morgan’s pictures are now much better known. Happily, the majority survive and many can be seen today in public galleries, including the well-known Flora and Life and thought have gone away in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. They are often illustrated – in full colour, of course – in books.
But the loss of those sixteen paintings does, I think, remind us how precious and irreplaceable art is, particularly where its worth may not have been fully appreciated at the time of its creation. We should not take for granted the thousands of pictures which have come down to us from ages past, some of which have survived hundreds of years of exposure to all the world can throw at them rather than The Spear of Ithuriel's short century. When you next walk around a gallery or browse a catalogue, consider what might be the real reason behind those ‘Whereabouts unknown’ entries. There is a fittingly poignant coda to this story.
For many years after Mrs Stirling’s death much of the Foundation’s collection of paintings and ceramics by both de Morgans remained at Old Battersea House, her former residence, aided by a sympathetic response from wealthy American publisher Malcolm Forbes who had leased the house thereafter. He permitted the collection to remain, boosted by his own interest in art of the same period. But with Forbes’ own death in 1990 and the later sale of his collection, the Foundation had to vacate. After some searching, a former Victorian library in Wandsworth seemed the perfect location and selected works by the de Morgans were duly put on show to the public in 2002.
Sadly the lease of that building expired just a few years later. A public showcase for the de Morgans’ richly-crafted pieces is again being sought, and they remain out of sight once more.
Posted 11 February 2012. With thanks to Catherine Gordon, formerly of the Courtauld Institute of Art Witt Library, and the late Jon Catleugh at the De Morgan Foundation
Evelyn de Morgan's The Spear of Ithuriel (s8.invisionfree.com)
Paradise pursued: A quest