Mary Vernon Morgan was a British painter of still lifes and landscapes. Her beauteous array of decorative works celebrate nature at its most radiant.
Born in Handsworth, Birmingham, her early years were spent under the artistic tutelage of father, William Henry Vernon (1820-1909). Vernon is predominantly known for his naturalistic landscapes, which echo the style of the Birmingham School of painters, such as David Cox (1783-1859). His views depict the quieter moments of rural life - country lanes winding through gentle woodland and rivers shimmering under a hazy setting sun.
Studying nature from life was a key tenet of mid-Victorian painting and one can imagine young Mary accompanying her father on rural excursions in the Springtime. Gathering up handfuls of daffodils and snowdrops before returning home to sketch at the family table.
It’s interesting that she chose to focus her time on still life painting - whether this was following guidance from her father, or simply due to an appreciation of the abundant flora in the surrounding landscape. One feels it’s probably the latter, given her natural affinity for the subject, although there was a certain opinion from the academic world that women were most suited to flower painting.
Natural In Her Own Way
It’s always tricky to discuss women in art during the 19th century without referring to the obvious stigma arising from a male-orientated artistic world with its omnipresent core at London’s Royal Academy. As a ‘lady painter’, Morgan’s options were limited unless she felt bold enough to challenge her male counterparts. Women generally worked on the fringes of the artistic world, avoiding history painting, in favour of decorative works, which either celebrated nature or everyday moments within domestic settings.
But, for Morgan, this slightly sneering, patronising viewpoint, also gave her the freedom to paint how she wanted - without the rigours of Academic precepts. E.g. she could focus entirely on presenting a beautiful design of resplendent flowers without justifying the composition or style.
Many of her male counterparts worked in a way that conformed to certain models, such as those created by 17th-century Dutch masters. But Morgan drew upon various influences to create a varied body of works with no discernable pattern.
She presents daffodils arranged on a wooden tray before stained glass, snowdrops and violets set upon a marble ledge, and irises, lilacs and marguerites erupting from a vase. In numerous works, she also uses nature itself as a backdrop to a floral ensemble - such as cliff tops, beaches, and gardens. In a work from 1884, we see a French garden within the Forest of Fontainebleau.
In 1879, Mary married Charles Morgan, who worked as an art master - and her circle of friends grew ever larger. Charles Morgan’s brother, Walter Jenks Morgan (1848-1924), was a skilful draughtsman, and the two artists would create a bond, which resulted in joint exhibitions. It seems that throughout her life, she was surrounded by talented painters as several members of her own family also exhibited alongside her. Perhaps the positive affirmations of her peers provided the catalyst she needed to continue with her artistic endeavours.
In 1883, Mary Vernon Morgan debuted at the Royal Academy with ‘In A French Garden’. The walls were adorned with hundreds of works by leading Academy artists, such as Frederic Leighton RA (1830-1896) and William Powell Frith RA (1819-1909), with the latter exhibiting an insightful work titled ‘A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881’.
William Powell Frith, A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881 (1883)
Here, Frith depicts a smorgasbord of society’s elite gaining a preview of the show two years prior. This merry entourage includes Oscar Wilde and John Everett Millais along with a raft of fashionable women. Millais is on the right examining a work by Lawrence Alma-Tadema. How did Morgan feel when surrounded by the rigours of this palatial, highly contrived setting? And how did they judge her work with its lack of clear historical context?
Over the next forty years, Morgan continued to exhibit at various venues including a further eight at the Royal Academy. She was prolific in Birmingham and became an Associate Member of the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists. Also winning a Silver Medal in Calcutta, India.
The press described her as ‘in the front rank of the flower painters of today’ and lauded her accomplished renderings of vibrant ensembles. In 1905, following a joint exhibition with her brother-in-law titled “Gardens and Flowers; Italy and the East”, a critic described her collection of still lifes particularly favourably.
“The floral pictures are by Mrs Mary Vernon Morgan, who as a graceful colourist is well qualified to do justice to the beautiful objects of her study, while her skill in grouping is of material service . One of the most important of her works represents in realistic fashion a profusely-budding spray of apple blossom, whose delicately varied pink is relieved harmoniously by a background of pale greenish-blue.”
“In addition to these and other groupings, Mrs Morgan exhibits several excellent studies of poppies, lilies, crab blossoms, anemones, daffodils, and other flowers, which, with their stems and leafage, have been painted on a grey of buff ground, and are instinct with decorative charm. Some watercolours, executed on a smaller scale with tender feeling, make attractive presentment of pretty garden subjects.”
Morgan continued to paint well into her seventies, while also taking an active role at the Midlands Art Club - organising a social gathering in 1914 whereby she directed a ‘sketch recital’ based upon a Jane Austen novel. The actresses donned early Victorian clothes, with Mr Neville Bosworth on the piano.
Mary Vernon Morgan produced a delicately handled body of works, which celebrate a variety of British and European flora. The vivid quality of her colouring stands as a testament to her appreciation for nature at its most incandescent.
Born in Handsworth, Birmingham, England to William Henry Vernon ARBSA (1820-1909) and Mary Vernon.
Trained by her father.
Married Charles Morgan (1843-1913).
Known to be exhibiting.
Debuted at the Royal Academy with ‘In A French Garden’. Exhibited nine works between 1883 and 1899.
Living in Handsworth, Birmingham with husband, Charles Morgan, and brother-in-law, Walter Jenks Morgan (1848-1924).
Awarded a silver medal at The Calcutta Art Exhibition, India.
Elected an Associate Member of the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists.
Living in Handsworth, Birmingham, England.
Living in Handsworth, Birmingham with husband, Charles Morgan, and brother-in-law, Walter Jenks Morgan.
Joint exhibition with Walter Jenks Morgan at The Walker Gallery, Bond Street, London.
Living in Handsworth, Birmingham with brother-in-law, Walter Jenks Morgan.
Died in Walsall, England.