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

Suggested Topics
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Louis van Gaal would have been impressed with Darren Fletcher’s performance against LA Galaxy during Manchester United’s 7-0 victory
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
Isis fighters travel in a vehicle as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Life and Style
fashionLatex dresses hit the catwalk to raise awareness for HIV and Aids
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform