The Myth of the Sunflower: Oscar Wilde, the De Morgans and Aestheticism

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Discover why the British aesthetes turned to the humble sunflower to express their beautiful artistic ideals in the late-19th century.

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“There is no flower so purely decorative as the sunflower (…) it is so perfectly adaptable for decorative art (…) because its form is definite and perfect”.

Spoken by champion of the Aesthetic, Art for Art’s sake, movement, playwright and art critic Oscar Wilde. The ‘gaudy, leonine beauty’ of sunflowers became so synonymous with Oscar and the art movement, Punch magazine caricatured him as the embodiment of a sunflower. Such did this flower become the symbol of Aestheticism, in the 1880s a sunflower was named after him and a craze for planting them swept the UK and the USA.

The sunflower, and the myths and ideas wrapped up in its form, have inspired artists and designers for centuries, reaching a particular peak in late 19th century Britain. In this talk, I will examine the representations of the sunflower in the current Aestheticism exhibition ‘Look Beneath the Lustre’ at Wightwick Manor and discuss how works by the De Morgans' fit into the wider fashion for sunflowers in art, literature, design and many other fields during the late 19th century.

From William De Morgan’s sunflower tile designs, to Evelyn De Morgan’s Clytie and The Bells of San Vito paintings, to William Morris’ Sunflower wallpaper, Edward Burne Jones’ stained glass windows, Thomas Jekyll’s metalwork designs, G. F. Watts’ sculpture to Christina Rossetti’s nursery rhyme and the colour of the ‘Greenery Yallery’ of the newly opened Grosvenor Gallery, where Evelyn De Morgan and other pioneering artists exhibited their work, sunflowers were the height of fashion and the symbol of a movement.

Hannah Squire

Hannah Squire, BA, MRes (University of Birmingham), is an Art and Literature historian, researcher, writer and curator. She is currently working on an English Literature MA exploring the activism fiction created by members of the Women Writers’ Suffrage League in the early twentieth century.

Her research interests include women and LGBTQ+ lives in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with a focus on their artistic and literary output. Until 2020, she was Assistant Curator, National Public Programmes at the National Trust, working on national campaigns to create curatorial content focussed on inclusive histories.

Before this she worked at Wightwick Manor for over three years, where she curated the second only solo exhibition of Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal's art and poetry, Beyond Ophelia in 2018 and in 2019 co-curated the Look Beneath the Lustre exhibition of Evelyn and William De Morgan's work also at Wightwick.

She has also been a volunteer at Wightwick for over ten years, and is currently working on some exciting digital projects with the Pre-Raphaelite Society.

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Organiser The De Morgan Foundation

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The De Morgan Foundation and the De Morgan Collection

The De Morgan Foundation owns an unparalleled collection of ceramics and oil paintings by William and Evelyn De Morgan. The husband and wife duo were key proponents of the Arts and Crafts Movement in the late 19th and early 20th Century.

The De Morgan Foundation is a registered, independent charity that receives no revenue funding from the government. All income goes towards managing the care of the De Morgan Collection, loans, tours, research and educational activities. We rely on the generosity of our Friends and supporters to enable us to carry out this important work.

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