Adrian Morris

Painstaking painter who exhibited rarely

When Yoko Ono met John Lennon in November 1966, she and her then husband Tony Cox and their three-year-old daughter Kyoko were living as the guests of an artist friend in London, Adrian Morris. "The original weekend stay turned into several months," remembers Morris's widow, Audrey. "They proposed - unsuccessfully - making their film of bottoms at the house, even offering Adrian the incentive of being one of the film's directors."

Adrian Grant Morris, painter and teacher: born London 18 May 1929; married 1956 Penelope Dendy (one son; marriage dissolved 1961), 1963 Audrey Baker (one son, one daughter); died London 6 December 2004.

When Yoko Ono met John Lennon in November 1966, she and her then husband Tony Cox and their three-year-old daughter Kyoko were living as the guests of an artist friend in London, Adrian Morris. "The original weekend stay turned into several months," remembers Morris's widow, Audrey. "They proposed - unsuccessfully - making their film of bottoms at the house, even offering Adrian the incentive of being one of the film's directors."

Adrian Morris was not an artist who sought commercial attention. For him selling a picture was like cutting off a limb. His work has rarely been exhibited in the half-century since he was a student and his exhibitions can be counted on less than two hands. Even so, he was highly regarded by perceptive peers who knew his pictures.

One was the painter Michael Wishart, who met Morris at the Anglo-French Art Centre, in St John's Wood, in 1947-48. In his 1977 autobiography, High Diver, Wishart recalled Morris as "the most obviously promising student" there, who was "unhurriedly developing into a very original artist indeed. I know of no other painter of my age whose work is more likely to interest posterity."

A year later, Wishart extended his eulogy in an article for Harpers & Queen about Morris's 16 paintings in the "Hayward Annual '78" exhibition. This was an important mid-career outing for the painter, then physically and artistically isolated in a London suburb.

Wishart was in a unique position to chart the "secretive" Morris's enigmatic pictorial language. For Wishart, like the Symbolists Morris was striving "to evoke, not to describe." He recalled how in the 1950s Morris had begun

a series of aerial (and ethereal) landscapes in tempera. Dry, coloured vaguely as the sphinx, reminiscent of the desolate parched estuaries of Africa seen by a bird in flight, these sublime works suggest a lunar loneliness.

In the 1960s, "traces of human life began to appear in Morris's desert, as alien tower blocks are now arising among the pyramids". Wishart continued to outline Morris's development, through Planet (1965), a "placidly shimmering sphere" that "put an end to Morris's cosmic speculation"; through two major paintings, Military Storage Area (1966-67) and Devastated City (1967), "a vulture's eye view of Hiroshima"; to the paintings at the Hayward, that "recall Sartre's masterpiece La Nausée - at once hyper-astringent, poetic and profoundly moving", and "a new series of paintings, Refugees . . . the tragic victims of our insatiable barbarism".

In one of several catalogue notes, Morris explained that for him "painting has been an attempt to create an environment in which life could exist". Critics such as Sarah Kent recognised that this was not easily accessible work, demanding as it did a concentration of effort from the viewer.

He was born Adrian Grant Morris in London in 1929 (though he never showed as anything but Adrian Morris), the youngest of three brothers. His father, Arthur, was curate at St John's, Smith Square, his mother, Alison, of French descent. From when he was aged three until 11, the Grant Morrises lived in East Quantoxhead, Somerset, where his father had a living. It was an idyllic childhood in a beautiful rectory, with picnics on the Quantock hills and fossil collecting on the nearby beach.

Adrian's mother took him and his brothers to America early in the Second World War, where his father's aunt had houses in New York and on the Hudson. Adrian attended the progressive Putney School, in Vermont. His best friend was another artist-to-be, Bradley Phillips, who recalled that, at 14, Morris was already permitted to paint full-time. "To its eternal credit the Putney School allowed highly motivated students to pursue their artistic intellectual obsessions virtually unhindered." A painting rival was Noel Davis,

and they seemed to lead enviable lives, always excited and involved with some project, no matter what adolescent social and sexual agonies they were experiencing.

Morris is recalled at this time as spellbound, passing days crawling on all fours among the piles of Surrealist magazines which littered the floors of the Wittenborn bookstore in New York. The watercolours on cardboard that he produced as a result prompted the Putney School art teacher Walter Kamis to collect his work and bring it to the attention of John L. Sweeney, poetry professor at Harvard, author of books on Henry James and Dylan Thomas, and one of the first to recognise the genius of Robert Lowell.

Sweeney became Morris's aesthetic mentor. When, at 15, Morris entered hospital with a complicated mastoid condition, Sweeney kept him supplied with books on art and Surrealist literature. Later, Morris studied the work of Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, André Masson and Jean Hélion and, above all, Giorgio de Chirico's "heroic" period, a cardinal influence. He frequented Peggy Guggenheim's gallery Art of This Century. Charles Duits, protégé of André Breton, admired Morris's work at a small exhibition in Sweeney's apartment. Morris was offered an exhibition at the Anglo-American Centre in New York.

Through Sweeney, Morris met T.S. Eliot. The poet was the Grant Morris family's constant companion on the return voyage to England in 1947, strolling the deck arm-in-arm with the beautiful and elegant Alison, signing her copy of the Four Quartets, to which Morris's pictures have been likened for their rhythmic and mysterious qualities.

Back in London, at the Anglo-French Art Centre, Morris was taught by Oscar Dominguez, André Lhote and Jean Lurçat. It was there that Wishart first saw the 17-year-old painter "seated before an astonishing drawing which recalled Odilon Redon and Blake, another important influence".

Morris served his non-commissioned two-year National Service in the Royal Horse Guards, partly in Germany. He liked the routine, although a need for discipline and tidiness did not come easily to him, and he was often in the guardhouse.

After studies at L'Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris, 1950-51, he spent four years at the Royal Academy Schools. Daily he took the same place in the life room, an immaculate figure with a stiff white collar, known to his friends as Lord Whatman, after a superior drawing paper. This was his short-lived dapperly dressed period.

In 1955, the year of his solo show at the St George's Gallery, Morris's work was included in the series "Artists of Fame and Promise" at the Leicester Galleries and again there in 1957 in the Winter Exhibition. It was 12 years before he showed again, in "The Poetic Image", at the Hanover Gallery; there was a further nine-year gap before his inclusion in the Hayward Annual in 1978.

Between 1957 and 1989 Morris taught art and pottery part-time at various London secondary schools, including Dick Sheppard School at Tulse Hill. Meanwhile, his technically superb oil-on-gesso panels slowly evolved with painstaking effort. He would return endlessly to pictures, making almost imperceptible changes, striving for perfection.

His widow recalls:

We joked about the way that people would remove things from Giacometti's studio and threatened to do the same with his paintings, otherwise he would be working on them continuously. Adrian's work was so much part of him that to expose it to anybody outside who would not really understand it was more than he could contemplate.

Although the artist Morris was private, intense and serious regarding his work, as a person he was gregarious, open, trusting and without guile. He had a wide circle of friends and was a member of the Chelsea Arts Club, a generous giver of parties with an eclectic mix.

His work continued developing in isolation, the palette - always noted for his use of earth colours, such as beige and brown - becoming darker, with less use of reds and blues. After the Hayward Gallery exhibition he showed rarely, never again having a solo exhibition. Lately he had become more interested in exhibiting, and at least one major West End gallery has expressed interest in his very particular images.

David Buckman



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