All fired up - Museums Association (2023)

“I was going to wear my William Morris dress for you today but I thought that was a bit too much,” says Sarah Hardy, who’s been the curator-manager of the De Morgan Foundation since 2018. Hardy has been captivated with the arts and crafts movement since her A-Levels.

“One of the modules that we did was pattern and rhythm and that’s when I started looking at the artist William Morris’s wallpapers, and that was it – I became obsessed,” she says.

She has worked for the De Morgan Foundation since 2013 when she started volunteering at the independent charity, which owns, cares for and exhibits the De Morgan collection. It’s a tiny organisation with a very large remit – the collection comprises about 800 pieces of ceramic and 800 drawings and works on paper.

The works are by the pre-raphaelite painter Evelyn De Morgan, her husband, the arts and crafts artist William De Morgan, and Evelyn’s uncle, John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, who was also a pre-raphaelite painter. The foundation works with three main partners – the Watts Gallery near Guildford, Cannon Hall in Barnsley and Wightwick Manor in Wolverhampton.

In fact, the foundation has just acquired one more item via a pioneering project supported by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, which is run by the Museums Association. The object is a three-handled William De Morgan vase made in the 1880s. It is being de-accessioned by Buxton Museum and Art Gallery and re-homed by the De Morgan Foundation.

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Buxton Museum successfully applied to the collections fund for a grant to support a wider project to find new homes for more than 2,000 pieces that are no longer part of Derbyshire County Council’s Museums Loans Service collection, which closed last year. So Buxton Museum used the grant to keep these objects in the public domain where possible, and worked with Hardy to to do just this with the De Morgan vase. Visitors can now see it on display at Cannon Hall.

Whether it’s negotiating loans, running education programmes, managing finances or overseeing membership, Hardy has a lot on her hands.

Finding a way

“The collection, running three sites plus two touring exhibitions and our ambitious loans programme, that’s all down to me,” says Hardy. “I don’t know what you’d ever truly call my job – the post arrives addressed to me as the membership secretary, education officer, director – they’re all me. I am the only paid member of staff that the foundation has.”

How she came to have this position is a convoluted story, she says. When she finished her BA in social science in 2010, Hardy was set on being a teacher and went straight off to work as a house mistress in the all-boys boarding school of St John’s College School in Cambridge. Her role included looking after the choristers who sang in the college’s renowned choir.

Hardy was all set to do a PGCE, when she decided to change tack after taking the children on school trips to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

“Classic me,” she says. “I thought, well, this is fun, maybe I could do something in a museum. It really triggered my desire, so I went to see the head of education, Julia Tozer, and asked to do some volunteering.”

Tozer said the museum didn’t take volunteers but Hardy persuaded her to take her on. “So I volunteered on my one day off a week that I had with St John’s and went to the Fitzwilliam to make a visitor trail around the arts and crafts collection, which I believe you can still do there.”

This volunteer placement completely reignited Hardy’s passion for Victorian art, so much so that she went back to study a master’s degree in the subject at the University of Manchester.

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After her master’s, she moved to London in 2013 to work in visitor services at the National Gallery. “I wanted to support my front-of-house work with work that wasn’t public facing, and the way you do that is volunteering.”

So, alongside her gallery job, Hardy began volunteering with the De Morgan Foundation in the same year, when the De Morgan Centre still existed in Wandsworth, London.

It all stems from art

“I offered to write them an education programme,” she says. “It’s called Sublime Symmetry, and the idea comes from William De Morgan’s wonderful lines of symmetry and how he constructed his patterns using basic geometry and then filled them with floral motifs. “I thought if we break that down to basic geometry then that’s a nice way for schools to come and enjoy the collections. After all, when do you ever get a maths trip to a visual arts gallery?”

The De Morgan Centre closed in 2014 due to the discontinuation of its lease by Wandsworth Council, so Hardy’s work suddenly increased because there was a lot more hanging on her Sublime Symmetry education programme.

The scheme launched with the help of grant funding from the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, the Art Fund and London Mathematical Society.

With about £100,000 under her belt, Hardy actually had enough to launch a touring exhibition under the same title. The Sublime Symmetry exhibition first opened at Towneley Hall in Burnley in 2016 and has been touring the UK ever since. It is at Bournemouth’s Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum until 2 February and then goes to the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle.

Hardy had achieved all this while still volunteering for the foundation, by then working full time as a registrar at the National Gallery. “I would work my full-time hours, then use my days off and all my annual leave to work more,” she says. “I was just hell bent on doing it.”

She says that getting the Sublime Symmetry exhibition off the ground was tough. “It was a hard slog managing a touring exhibition around a full-time job, but that level of work is part of our industry – people do full-time jobs, volunteer and also work as freelancers. I was living in central London and earning the wage of an assistant job in a museum. There is no way you can drop your hours, because you couldn’t afford to live there. It’s scary.”

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Sublime Symmetry was such a success that Hardy was able to work with the De Morgan Foundation trustees on creating a paid role for herself there. She was obviously successful.

But although Hardy now has just one job, she can’t stop planning new projects. “A real ambition of mine, which we’re writing into the foundation’s new 10-year plan, is to do more community curation,” she says. “I’m very aware that we’re seemingly quite a closed collection, but the De Morgans’ pictures and ceramics are so open to interpretation and telling different people’s stories.”

The De Morgan Foundation is run by one member of staff and four volunteers, supported by a board of trustees. First registered as a charity in 1970, the foundation’s remit is to care for the De Morgan Collection and provide public access to it.

The collection comprises work by the Victorian artists and husband and wife William and Evelyn De Morgan. Evelyn painted pre-raphaelite scenes, while William often made patterned ceramic tiles and vessels. The collection also holds works by Evelyn’s uncle, the pre-raphaelite painter John Roddam Spencer Stanhope.

More than half of the ceramics and paintings in the collection are on display at any one time. The foundation works with three main partners – the Watts Gallery, near Guildford in Surrey, Cannon Hall in Barnsley and Wightwick Manor in Wolverhampton. The Watts Gallery is an independent museum, Cannon Hall is run by a local authority and Wightwick Manor is a National Trust venue.

The foundation has recently acquired an 1815 three-handled vase by William De Morgan from Buxton Museum and Art Gallery. The foundation’s flagship education and exhibition programme, Sublime Symmetry, tours to the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle in March, then the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Liverpool in September this year.

Whether it’s narratives around Victorian England, mathematics, the art of the time, or fantastical tales around the cheeky monsters that William De Morgan invented, there’s plenty to be inspired by. It is certainly what relit Hardy’s fire.

Sarah Hardy at a glance

Sarah Hardy has been the curator-manager of the De Morgan Foundation since 2018. She has an MA in art history and visual studies. She began her museum career in visitor services at London’s National Gallery.

That same year, 2013, she began volunteering at the De Morgan Foundation. She set up an education programme and left her post as registrar at the National Gallery for her new role at the foundation in 2018.

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The De Morgan Foundation at a glance

The De Morgan Foundation is run by one member of staff and four volunteers, supported by a board of trustees. First registered as a charity in 1970, the foundation’s remit is to care for the De Morgan Collection and provide public access to it.

The collection comprises work by the Victorian artists and husband and wife William and Evelyn De Morgan. Evelyn painted pre-raphaelite scenes, while William often made patterned ceramic tiles and vessels. The collection also holds works by Evelyn’s uncle, the pre-raphaelite painter John Roddam Spencer Stanhope.

More than half of the ceramics and paintings in the collection are on display at any one time. The foundation works with three main partners – the Watts Gallery, near Guildford in Surrey, Cannon Hall in Barnsley and Wightwick Manor in Wolverhampton.

The Watts Gallery is an independent museum, Cannon Hall is run by a local authority and Wightwick Manor is a National Trust venue. The foundation has recently acquired an 1815 three-handled vase by William De Morgan from Buxton Museum and Art Gallery.

The foundation’s flagship education and exhibition programme, Sublime Symmetry, tours to the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle in March, then the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Liverpool in September this year.

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