Sunday, 30 June 2013


“The main facts in human life are five: Birth, food, sleep, love and death.” - E. M. Forster

Evelyn Pickering (1855-1919) was born in London, the daughter of upper-middle class parents. Her father was Percival Pickering QC, the Recorder of Pontefract. Her mother was Anna Maria Wilhelmina Spencer-Stanhope, the sister of the artist John Rodham Spencer-Stanhope (a painter within the circle of later Pre-Raphaelites who took their inspiration from the more romantic paintings of Rossetti and Burne-Jones), and a descendant of Coke of Norfolk who was an Earl of Leicester. Evelyn was homeschooled and started drawing lessons when she was 15. On the morning of her seventeenth birthday, Evelyn recorded in her diary, “Art is eternal, but life is short... I will make up for it now, I have not a moment to lose.”

Her early ambition to paint was discouraged by her parents but later she was permitted to become a student at the Slade School and in due course to study in Italy, in Rome and in Florence. Her uncle, Roddam Spencer Stanhope, was a great influence to her works. Evelyn often visited him in Florence where he lived. This also enabled her to study the great artists of the Renaissance; she was particularly fond of the works of Botticelli. This influenced her to move away from the classical subjects favoured by the Slade school and to make her own style. As a young woman she exhibited “Ariadne in Naxos” at the first Exhibition of the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877.

Her mature style, which is distinguished by a precision of detail and a fondness for mythological subjects, was derived in part from her first artistic mentor, her uncle. She was also profoundly influenced by Edward Burne-Jones who was a close friend. Her painting was admired by a circle of fellow-artists. William Blake Richmond said of her: “Her industry was astonishing, and the amount which she achieved was surprising, especially considering the infinite care with which she studied every detail…” George Frederic Watts pronounced her “…the first woman-artist of the day – if not of all time.” Evelyn Pickering married the ceramicist William De Morgan in 1887 and lived with him in London until his death in 1917. She died two years later.

The painting above is “Nyx and Hypnos” of 1878 shows well de Morgan’s mythological genre. In Greek mythology, Hypnos (Ὕπνος) was the personification of sleep; the Roman equivalent was known as Somnus. His twin was Thánatos (Θάνατος – death); their mother was the goddess Nyx (Νυξ – night). Hypnos’ palace was a dark cave where the sun never shone and perpetual night ruled. At the entrance were a number of poppies and other hypnagogic plants and through this cave flowed Lethe, the river of forgetfulness.

Hypnos’s three sons or brothers represented things that occur in dreams (the Oneiroi). Morpheus (from which “morphine” is derived), Phobetor (“one who causes fear”) and Phantasos (from which “fantasy” is derived). Endymion, sentenced by Zeus to eternal sleep, received the power to sleep with his eyes open from Hypnos in order to constantly watch his beloved moon goddess, Selene. But according to the poet Licymnius of Chios, Hypnos, in awe of Endymion’s beauty, causes him to sleep with his eyes open, so he can fully admire his face.

In art, Hypnos was portrayed as a naked youthful man, sometimes with a beard, and wings attached to his head. He is sometimes shown as a man asleep on a bed of feathers with black curtains about him. Morpheus is his chief minister and prevents noises from waking him. In Sparta, the image of Hypnos was always put near that of death.

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