The eldest daughter of Percival Pickering, Q.C., of Cannon Hall, Barnsley, Evelyn De Morgan showed a formidably precocious talent. Braving parental disapproval, she entered the Slade in 1873 at the age of seventeen. Two years later, having won the Slade scholarship, she left to study in Italy, and in 1877, still aged only twenty-one, she was invited to contribute to the first exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery, founded that year as a liberal alternative to the Royal Academy and immediately perceived as the flagship of the Aesthetic Movement. She continued to show at the Grosvenor until 1887, when she transferred to its successor, the New Gallery; at no stage would she exhibit at the R.A. She was influenced by G.F. Watts, Burne-Jones (the star of the Grosvenor), and her uncle on her mother's side, J.R. Spencer Stanhope. She also owed a profound debt to the early Italian masters, whom she continued to study on regular visits to Florence. Stanhope had settled there in the 1870s, and a further link was forged by her marriage in 1887 to the potter William De Morgan, since it was necessary for them to spend the winters in Florence on account of his delicate health. At home they lived in The Vale, Chelsea, where they were neighbours of Ricketts and Shannon.
Evelyn De Morgan's paintings seldom appear on the market. Her studio was dispersed by Christie's after her death, but much of her work was subsequently acquired by her younger sister, Mrs A.M.W. Stirling, who established the De Morgan Trust (now Foundation). This divides its holdings between Old Battersea House in London and two National Trust properties in the country.
Portraits by De Morgan are particularly rare, most of her work being of a literary, religious or allegorical nature. She did in fact exhibit a number of portraits at the Grosvenor Gallery, all of female sitters: Marjorie Mure in 1880, Miss Winifred Bulwer in 1881, the present picture in 1883, and Mildred and Freda Spencer Stanhope in 1887. Today, however, only two other portraits seem to be known, both likenesses of her husband (De Morgan Foundation and National Portrait Gallery; see Catherine Gordon and others, op. cit., nos. 40 and 77, both illustrated).
The present picture, signed with the initials of the artist's maiden name, is not only a great rarity; it is also characterised by a conceptual restraint and a delicacy of sentiment which are not always found in her more imaginative compositions. The sitter was born Elizabeth Margaret King, the daughter of Charles John King of Chadshunt in Warwickshire. The Kings were a well-known local family, one of whose ancestors, Captain James King (d. 1784), had accompanied Captain Cook on his fatal last voyage in 1779. On 15 August 1878 Margaret (as she was generally known) married William Donaldson Rawlins (1846-1920). Seemingly a relation of Stuart Donaldson, headmaster of Eton, William had certainly been educated there and at Trinity College, Cambridge, before being called to the bar in 1872. He enjoyed a distinguished career as a barrister, published a number of legal works, and was Mayor of Holborn 1906-7. The Rawlins' son, Francis, also made a name for himself, but as a molecular physicist and radiologist interested in the structure and conservation of paintings. Sir Kenneth Clark appointed him Scientific Adviser to the National Gallery, and in his autobiography described how Rawlins, 'a railway-train addict', proved invaluable during the war, always knowing 'what lines were available and what hours were free for a special train' when pictures had to be moved out of London (Another Part of the Wood, 1974, p. 275.)
The portrait dates from five years after the Rawlins' marriage, but it is not clear why they chose Evelyn Pickering to paint it. Perhaps they had admired her work at the Grosvenor. Margaret is dressed with extreme Aesthetic simplicity; she might be one of the maidens tripping down Burne-Jones's Golden Stairs (Tate Gallery), that Aesthetic fashion-plate exhibited at the Grosvenor in 1880. Or perhaps there was some Eton connection. Evelyn's younger brother, Percival Pickering, had attended the school 1871-6, although this was too late to have encountered W.D. Rawlins, who had taught there briefly in 1868-9 on coming down from Cambridge. Yet another possibility is that the commission was the outcome of some neighbourly meeting. The Rawlins took a house in Wimpole Street on their marriage in 1878, and the Pickering family had settled at 48 Bryanston Square in 1875.
The sitter's pose is reminiscenet of that of Dorothy Dene, Leighton's muse and model, in the portrait of her painted by G.F. Watts in 1888 (see L. and R. Ormond, Lord Leighton, 1975, pl. 194). Although Watts was by far the more senior artist, it is not inconceivable that he was the borrower on this occasion.