Jeanne Rathbone

Wihelmina Stirling Battersea House and De Morgan Collection

Posted in Wilhelmina Stirling Old Battersea House and De Morgan Collection by sheelanagigcomedienne on March 17, 2021

Wilhelmina Stirling was a a Battersea character, an author and founder of the De Morgan Collection and resident of Old Battersea House for decades and is one of my Inspiring Battersea Women. It was a such a shame that Wandsworth Council let go of the De Morgan Collection which it had inherited from the Borough of Battersea.

She was born in London in 1865, Anna Maria Diana Wilhelmina Pickering was the youngest daughter of Anna Spencer-Stanhope and Percival Pickering, Q.C. (1810-1876). She was the younger sister of Evelyn De Morgan. Over her lifetime Mrs Stirling assembled a substantial art collection that featured their work. When she died at the age of ninety-nine in 1965, she bequeathed her collection to be looked after in Trust for perpetuity.

Battersea House , the building was known as Terrace House until the 1930s. It was built for the “naval administrator”] Samuel Pett and was most likely completed in 1699. Battersea Council almost demolished the house in the 1920s and built St. John’s estate on the grounds of the house in the 1930s. In 1931 Mrs Stirling persuaded the council to lease it to her and to grant her lifetime tenancy of the building. She moved in with her husband Charles Goodbarne and she renamed it Old Battersea House.

Under her tenure the house served to house a collection of art by her sister, the Pre-Raphaelite painer Evelyn De Morgan and Evelyn’s husband, the potter designer William De Morgan and used the house to display their collection of paintings and pottery. This collection is now kept by the De Morgan Foundation.

Wilhelmina married Charles Goodbarne Stirling (1866-1948) in 1901, William De Morgan gifted the couple a leopard and stag dish as a wedding gift. Wilhelmina and Charles were huge collectors of art and antiques, with both delighting in hosting tours of their home Old Battersea House.

A Charger with a leopard and a deer on the bank of a river, painted by Charles Passenger, 1888-97 (ceramic) by Morgan, William De

Wilhelmina kept carefully documented records of all the treasures, one of them being a black oak cabinet by Morris and Co. hand decorated by William De Morgan in oils, of George and the Dragon. This cabinet is currently at The National Trust property, Standen House and Gardens used to display some of William De Morgan’s ceramics.

Mrs Stirling was an accomplished and prolific writer. Her most well-known work is her biography William De Morgan and his Wife (1922) which is the starting point for all researchers interested in the De Morgans today. Her other books deal with various subjects such as spiritualism and the lives and reminiscences of the British landed gentry.

I thoroughly enjoyed he book The Merry Wives of Battersea which featured the women who lived in the Battersea Manor house over the centuries.

Mrs Stirling also shared the progressive political ideals of many members of the Arts and Crafts movement. A letter from Emmeline Pankhurst in  the archives of the De Morgan Foundation) to Mrs Stirling, written in May 1911, says

“We all feel very grateful to you for having unearthed and published such a valuable piece of evidence that women voted prior to the Reform Bill of 1832.  Your help and interest lead me to think that perhaps you may some day ere long find time to come here and see something of our great organization.  I am sure that you will be pleased to see what progress is being made not only in the getting of the vote but in the work of preparing women to use it wisely when it is won. I am very truly yours, E. Pankhurst”

Mrs Stirling loved giving tours of the house, during which she would talk for hours on the artwork she exhibited and tell anecdotal stories regarding the house itself. For over 30 years she was the custodian and curator and her tours of the house could last as long as five hours and she continued to welcome visitors to her home well into her later years.

Previous curator Claire Longworth said “Even now I regularly hear from people who have fond memories of trips to visit the eccentric lady and her wonderful home; descriptions of Mrs Stirling, frail, but elegant, bedecked in jewels and vibrantly dressed in purple or red velvet dresses”

In 1961, at the age of ninety-six, Mrs Stirling was featured in a short film made by the director Ken Russell for the BBC’s Monitor television series. In the 17-minute long black and white film Old Battersea House, Mrs Stirling takes the visitor on a tour of the house and talks passionately about her support of the ideals of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.  While her manservant, Mr Peters, carries around a large lamp to illuminate the dark corners of the house, she tells stories about the alleged sightings of ghosts and a toad who modelled for the devil in one of her sister’s paintings. The programme gives glimpses of Mrs Stirling’s eccentric character and the wonderful possessions with which she surrounded herself.

There is a charming reference to Mrs Stirling and De Morgan tiles in Penelope Fitzgerald’s Booker prize winning short novel Offshore about houseboat dwellers at Chelsea Reach on Cheyne Walk. She is one of my Inspiring Battersea Women. Fitzgerald had lived on one with her husband and children and it sank twice! This excerpt features two young sisters Martha and Tilda who, mudlarking on the shore near St Mary’s Church not far from Old Battersea House, find two tiles and take them to a Chelsea antique dealer. Martha knew they they were De Morgan tiles and their value!

The building was listed on 28 June 1954 and became derelict after her death in 1965. It was acquired by Malcolm Forbes in 1970 and housed some of his family’s valuable art collection.until 2011

I visited Battersea House just before it was sold to Forbes and I have spoken to Battersea people who remember her and have said what a wonderful character she was. The collection then moved to West Hill Library supported by the Hintze family hedge funders. The De Morgan Foundation opened the Centre to the public in 2002; however the local authority’s decision to terminate the charity’s lease as part of a cost cutting drive means that the Centre has to close. In 2007, Wandsworth Borough Council made the unpopular decision to close Wandsworth Museum and two local libraries due to a reduction in central government funding. The De Morgan Centre which was based in West Hill library was also given notice to leave. There was yet another campaign and objections by the local people and the amenity societies. It was shameful of the Council to lose such an asset. It then relocated to the Watts Gallery and we have seen it in all three places.

Sarah Hardy the Curator of The De Morgan Foundation came to give a talk in St Mary’s Church which is very close to Old Battersea House on the De Morgans. She currently gives and organises guest speakers talks on Fridays at 12.00 which are delightful.

This following is from the De Morgan website Mrs Stirling was born in 1865 and during her near hundred year life span she saw many changes; politically, socially, and artistically. Sir John Betjeman described  her as reminiscent of Miss Haversham, sitting in her faded pile, surrounded by the objects of a past life. However, this isn’t the image of Mrs Stirling which I have come to know and love over my ten years as Curator here at the De Morgan Foundation.

Mrs Stirling was an ambitious writer, publishing her first book of fairy tales by the age of 25, and she went on to author more than 30 other books during her career. She was an anti-establishment thinker and member of the Rationalist Press Association. A determined advocate for women’s rights – her efforts in this regard earned her letter of thanks from Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the Suffragette Movement. She was an enthusiastic historian and passionate collector and propagandist for her sister and brother-in-law’s work.

Mrs Stirling’s voice is still strongly heard here at the De Morgan Foundation. The main remit of our charity is (as per her wish) the “provision and maintenance of the collection for a public audience”. Her plummy clipped Standard English pronunciation (as heard on the infamous Ken Russell documentary filmed in Old Battersea House) often reverberates through my head as I relay her anecdotes to new visitors to the collection. Mrs Stirling’s hand written catalogues which detail her collection are invaluable in tracing the provenance of the works of art and bring to life her dedication as a collector. What I often find surprising, is not the lengths to which Mrs Stirling went to purchase pieces, but that so much of her collection was donated to her by others who supported her vision to create a collection of national importance. For instance a series of Peacock and Thistle tiles were given to Mrs Stirling by a Mrs Bullivant whose husband had acquired them over a number of years from an antique dealer and a gold lustre Peacock Plate was given to her by the Earl and Countess of Bathurst. Hand written labels also adorn many of the actual objects, giving further anecdotal information – for instance on the back of a ruby lustre plate decorated with bees Mrs Stirling writes “Said to be one of the first… if not the first plate made by William De Morgan and given to his Uncle Henry Frend” and on a palate knife she inscribes in indelible ink (a curatorial no-no today) that it was given to her sister by the Royal Academician G.F. Watts.

Mrs Stirling’s visionary efforts to preserve her sister and brother-in-law’s work during the 1920s to 1960s, when appreciation of Victorian art was at an all-time low, means the nation owes her an extraordinary debt and it is a great honour to continue her legacy of preserving the collection and facilitating public access to it. 

The published books of A.M.W. Stirling include:

  • The Adventures of Prince Almero (1890, as A. M. D. Wilhelmina Pickering)
  • Queen of the Goblins (1892, as A. M. D. Wilhelmina Pickering)
  • A Life Awry (1893, as “Percival” Pickering)
  • A Pliable Marriage (1895, as “Percival” Pickering)
  • The Spirit is Willing (1898, as “Percival” Pickering)
  • Toy-Gods (1904, as “Percival” Pickering)
  • Annals of a Yorkshire House, from the Papers of a Macaroni & His Kindred (1911)
  • Coke of Norfolk and His Friends: The Life of Thomas William Coke, First Earl of Leicester of Holkham (1912)
  • The Letter-Bag of Lady Elizabeth Spencer-Stanhope (1913)
  • Macdonald of the Isles: A Romance of the Past and Present (1914)
  • A Painter of Dreams, and Other Biographical Studies (1916)
  • The Hothams; Being the Chronicles of the Hothams of Scorborough and South Dalton from Their Hitherto Unpublished Family Papers (1918)
  • Pages & Portraits from the Past, Being the Private Papers of Sir William Hotham (1919)
  • William De Morgan and His Wife (1922), called “biased, limited and sometimes erroneous” despite its “valuable insight”[2]
  • Life’s Little Day: Some Tales and Other Reminiscences (1925)
  • The Richmond Papers from the Correspondence and Manuscripts of George Richmond … and His Son, Sir William Richmond (1926)
  • Fyvie Castle: Its Lairds and Their Times (1928)
  • The Ways of Yesterday; Being the Chronicles of the Way Family from 1307 to 1885 (1930)
  • Life’s Mosaic: Memories Canny and Uncanny (1934)
  • Victorian Sidelights (1954)
  • The Merry Wives of Battersea and Gossip of Three Centuries (1956)
  • Ghosts Vivisected: An Impartial Inquiry into Their Manners, Habits, Mentality, Motives and Physical Construction (1957/58)
  • A Scrapheap of Memories (1960)

Here is a list of her books.

Mrs Stirling died in August 1965, just a few days before her one hundredth birthday.

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