Thomas Marks (TM): Bringing into conversation the two foundations currently exhibiting, why did Cromwell Place feel like a good opportunity for your organisation?
Sarah Hardy, Curator & Manager, The De Morgan Foundation (SH): It's a fantastic opportunity seeing as we are a tiny organisation. A corporate charitable trust means that we can only afford one member of staff, that's me. One of the great appeals was to be part of this network and part of this thriving hub in this artistic community. There's always someone there that you can speak to, that you can rely on. It's given us access to a lot more resources than we would have if it were just us. It feels so wonderful to be part of something like that when you're an Honorary Member, but perhaps more so because it very much feels like a network of people who are sharing some of the reigns and ideals. As well, Cromwell Place, as discussed, gives us access to a very different audience base to the audience that we're used to in the public sector. And of course, one of our aims is to raise awareness and potentially look for benefactor support.
Orietta Benocci-Adam, Artistic Director & Trustee, Sir Denis Mahon Foundation (OBA): Foundations are very different, our foundation does not own a collection, Sir Denis Mahon bequeathed his collection of 17th-century paintings to the nation. The work we continue as a foundation is in collaboration with other museums and partners such as Bowman Sculpture who loaned the Emily Young sculptures. At Cromwell Place we can organise a portion of our exhibition programme and also organise the important events integral to our foundation, promoting young scholars.
TM: It is interesting, Sir Denis Mahon, who was one of the great collectors of the 20th century, it's almost a paradox that in his foundation there aren't objects necessary to work with. However, in terms of the De Morgan Foundation, could you tell us a little bit about what's in the collection, how large is the collection, and how much have you been able to work with museums?
The collection is focused on artwork by William and Evelyn De Morgan; he was an 18th century ceramicist and she was a painter well established in her own right. By the time the two met and married in 1887 their artwork was commercially successful. However, if it hadn't been for Evelyn De Morgan’s younger sister song called Anna Wilhelmina Stirling, the foundation wouldn't exist and we wouldn’t have a collection either. She had the means and the time available to collect, and that is what she did, at a time when Victorian art was incredibly unfashionable in the early 20th century. So she was able to go to auctions and sit with her hand up until pieces became available. She lived surrounded by her collection of around 2000 De Morgan artworks from works on paper through to the ceramics, including individual tiles in addition to great vases that we have on display in the exhibition. She was extremely passionate about her collection, as I think all collectors are, including Sir Denis Mahon of course. Her life's work was also spent in trying to establish a national De Morgan museum that would take the collection at the time of her death. Again, it was incredibly unfashionable to have Victorian painting at that time so what she ended up doing was selling her property to create an endowment and leaving the De Morgan artwork from the property to be looked after in trust. So the De Morgan Foundation was established two years after her death in 1965, in 1967, to go about following up her objectives, which were to care for the collection, and to share it as widely as possible and educate people with its own objectives which we still have today.
TM: What is the average length of time you loan these works out to different institutions for?
SH: Almost 50% of our collection is out on loan at any one time. So the format that we have is quite an innovative way of working, in partnership, rather than having our own museum space. We have three main museum partners, Wightwick Manor in Wolverhampton, Cannon Hall in Barnsley, and at the Watts Gallery in Surrey. By working with these long term arrangements, we have changing exhibitions between spaces. We are also due to have two touring exhibitions, one on Evelyn De Morgan’s pacifism and one on William’s mathematics. Then we plan on touring these internationally as well. So we are showing the collection in quite a new and innovative way outside of that traditional gallery model.
TM: For The Denis Mahon Foundation, let’s think about what you’ve got on display. The exhibition is called Time and Eternal Life, it stretches from antiquities on loan from the Royal Museum in Turin and Chinese antiquities from a private collection. It then moves forward into a different chapter, with works by Alberto Burri and John Latham set against each other in juxtaposition. Then the third chapter with works by Emily Young and other contemporary artists. How did you go about as a foundation deciding this subject for your inaugural exhibition at Cromwell Place, and what lay behind the selection of the artists?
OBA: It started with the concept of time, this is because Sir Denis Mahon was very diversified. His main focus was on historical research in 17th Century painting, but in his lifetime he was exposed to and had interest in cosmology and sciences. The idea of doing an exhibition involving the concept of time was very attractive to us. A large component of our work is championing young scholars, which we do not limit to Baroque or 17th Century, but extend to those focused on a range of different periods of art. So the concept was conceived quite naturally, there was a discussion about what is time, how it is symbolised, quoted, given religious attributes, and different meanings.
OBA: The Egyptian pieces which we borrowed from the museum in Turin was an interesting start to the journey, to think about life and eternity. Then we moved on, focusing specifically on artists who, in the 1960s and 1970s, were very much preoccupied by the concept of time and the therapy.
OBA: Alberto Burri for example drew from disaster, particularly a devastating earthquake in the 1960s in the town of Gibellina, Sicily which left it in complete ruin. Burri was commissioned to render this disaster in an artistic approach, which resulted in Il Grande Cretto, conceived in 1984, a land art project on the site of the ruins. So we decided to preserve these ruins and create a monument for Il Grande Cretto which is one of the most magnificent examples of land art. At the same time, John Latham who’s language of time is very fascinating as well. He was commissioned by the Scottish office to do something with the debris from the coal mines, and therefore approached conservation in an intellectual manner. The forms emulate mountains and the five sisters which also gives attribution to a national monument. These two examples offer different but very interesting concepts of time.
Finally we look at how our contemporary artists view the concept of time. Including the extraordinary sculptures of Emily Young, where Mika Bowman will discuss further on how Emily Young’s work fits into the context of Time and Eternal Life.
Mika Bowman (MB) - Sir Denis Mahon Foundation collaborator: Although she's a contemporary artist, the works themselves are made with incredibly ancient materials. The stones themselves are formed over hundreds and thousands of years, Emily as a free stone Carver, has an enormous respect for this material. By working with that stone, she gives them a sense of immortality by making them into objects and art. They really ask the viewer to think about time, to think about materials that she's using.
TM: With the De Morgan Foundation, all of the works have been made here in Chelsea, as opposed to the works from the Sir Denis Mahon Foundation’s exhibition which spans the globe. How much in the exhibition have you tried to tell that story of local context?
SH: That concept of local was central to the exhibition, was to bring the artwork home as it were. What's so unique about this Cromwell Place is that it was an artist studio. I think that displaying artwork back here really gives it some context, it really helps us to unpick the heritage of the artworks that are on display here. I had just to pick 16 objects that fitted quite small domestic sized rooms that we have here, had to be really specific. One of the works on display by Evelyn De Morgan, S.O.S., was exhibited in her studio in 1960 as a part of a show which raised funds for the British Red Cross. Though the De Morgans opposed the war, and did not contribute in any direct way to the war effort, in her own pacifist way she was able to do something and address the situation directly. As seen in the painting, which depicts something horrific, also has a signal of peace reaching out to this rainbow, of course, symbolising a peaceful future. That painting and exhibition from her studio is a five-minute walk from Cromwell Place.
The Sir Denis Mahon Foundation’s exhibition, Time and Eternal Life returns to public view from 3-20 December, and The De Morgan Foundation’s exhibition, Homecoming: The De Morgan Collection Returns to Chelsea returns to public view from 3-6 December.
You can see what else is on and pre-book your free admission here.