EVELYN DE MORGAN (1855-1919)
The Search-Light
signed with initials 'E De M' (lower right)
oil on canvas
25 x 44 in. (63.5 x 111.8 cm.)
Mrs Russell Barrington, by 1919.
Mrs M. Berryman, White House, Great Chesterford, Essex, by March 1937.
Private Collection, London.
Anonymous sale; Christie's, London, 25 November 1983, lot 86, where purchased by the present owner.
C. Gordon (ed.), Evelyn De Morgan: oil paintings, London, 1996, p. 26, no. 89, illustrated pl. 63.
London, 17a Edith Grove, Exhibition of pictures by Evelyn De Morgan exhibited for the benefit of The British Red Cross and The Italian Croce Rossa, 1916, no. 8.
London, Leighton House, The Collection of Pictures by the late Evelyn Pickering de Morgan presented to Leighton House by her brother and executor the late Spencer U. Pickering, 1919, no. 23, lent by Mrs Russell Barrington.
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Lot Essay

The outbreak of the First World War and the years of devastating and senseless death and destruction that followed inspired artists, poets and writers to document and to try and make some sense of the horror that was unfolding. Whilst many war artists chose to depict the grim realities of trench warfare, in the pacifist Evelyn De Morgan it provoked a series of works that tried to come to terms with the conflict between good and evil. This body of work, which included S.O.S. (fig. 1), The Red Cross (both, The De Morgan Foundation), as well as The Search-Light and The Field of the Slain (see lot 40), was then shown in 1916 in an exhibition to benefit the British Red Cross and the Italian Croce Rossa.

The Search-Light, also known as Desolation and Hope and The Secret Light, was accompanied in the exhibition catalogue by the lines: 'Wielded by an angel, the search light reveals the diabolical source of all the ruin and desolation portrayed in this picture.’ Here, the forces of good (a white robed angel) and evil (a satanic figure with bat-like wings) directly confront one another. The left half of the canvas shows the angel shining her bright search light on the devil, who is recognised as the source of the ruin and destruction below him. Surrounded by flames, he hovers above a ruined landscape of devastated buildings whilst two sorrowful figures mourn their loss. The figures are all draped in classical robes, and the ruins also have an air of the ancient world, creating a sense of timelessness and echoing the eternal nature of man’s appetite for conflict and the damage it causes.

However, the painting is also full of the symbolism of hope for the future. The angel brings salvation with her light which is clearly repelling the infernal forces. A rainbow also pours forth from her, into the outstretched hands of the woman below, symbolising the afterlife and the chance of redemption for mankind in death. At the base of the rainbow stands a visibly pregnant woman, clasping her growing stomach and giving the viewer confidence for the future represented by the new life inside her.

Despite the turbulence of her final years, including the death of her husband William in 1917, De Morgan retained her faith and her belief in salvation until the end. The epitaph on the De Morgans’ joint tombstone reads: ‘Sorrow is only of the Earth, the life of the spirit is joy.’

Evelyn died in 1919, and a memorial exhibition was held at Leighton House later that year, which included a number of works lent by the famous Mrs Russell Barrington, a close friend of De Morgan’s and other leading artists of the day such as George Frederic Watts and Frederic, Lord Leighton. The Search-Light and The Field of the Slain were both amongst the works owned by Mrs Barrington in 1919. It is not known when they left her collection, although the contents of the Barrington seat, Herd’s Hill in Somerset were sold in 1934 after Mrs Barrington’s death.

We are grateful to Sarah Hardy, curator of The De Morgan Foundation, for her assistance in cataloguing this work.

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