Obituary: Alberto Morrocco

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The Independent Online
ALBERTO MORROCCO was by far the finest portrait painter of his time in Scotland. Portraiture has been problematic for much of the 20th century, but he brought to it his practicality, the straightforwardness of his training, and his own vivid warmth and directness.

Portraiture is a social business. The greatest portrait painters have always been genial, open people, putting their sitters at ease, and Morrocco was born to it. One of his finest portraits is of the late Lord Cameron, done in 1974. It is a simple, forceful and direct painting, and it seems entirely appropriate that it was done in Raeburn's studio. Raeburn too was a genial, charming man.

Portraiture was only part of Morrocco's output. He painted constantly and like Bonnard, who had a significant influence on his work in the 1950s, he painted best what was closest to him: Vera in the kitchen, or in the bedroom arranging her hair, children round the table, all painted with a delicate, Impressionist touch. For a while in the Sixties Picasso, Modernism, even abstraction had a place in his art. But his instinct was to celebrate. Braque became a dominant influence and, as travel became easier and he discovered the land of his ancestors, his subject matter became more exotic and his colour more vivid.

Most typical of his later work are sunlit scenes beside the sea, or luscious still-lifes bright with the jewelled red of water melons and the sharp yellow of lemons, the background bright and warm. These paintings are often touched with humour, and the composition is simplified to allow his delight in it all to shine through unencumbered, just as his delight in life itself shone through him to illuminate all those lucky enough to know him as a friend.

Alberto Morrocco was a man of great charm: warm, friendly and open, flamboyant even, but only because of an overflow of energy. With an inquiring gaze and a fine Roman nose, his intelligence and humour were immediately striking. As fitted the Scottish son of Italian immigrants, he combined the best of Scottish directness with Italian warmth, courtesy and generosity of spirit. Throughout his long career as a painter, these qualities were reflected in his art.

He was born in Aberdeen. His father, Domenicantonio Morrocco, had come to Scotland as a young man and kept an ice-cream shop. His name was actually Marrocco, but the signwriter spelt it Morrocco in letters a foot high on the cafe front and so it stuck. Alberto himself never thought of it till he had difficulty getting a passport because he did not spell his name as it was written on his birth certificate. His mother, Celesta Crolla, had come to Scotland as a young child and so she spoke Scots and he never really learnt to speak Italian though he made several attempts.

At the age of 14 he went from school to Gray's School of Art in Aberdeen, by his own account and with typical modesty, not because he was a child prodigy, but because in those days if you wanted to go to college when you were 14 "nobody would stop you". At Gray's he came under the influence of James Cowie and Robert Sivell, both dedicated to an almost Renaissance approach to art, based on drawing. They taught by example and his early work shows how deeply Cowie influenced him, though he also worked closely with Sivell on a series of murals for the Aberdeen University Students' Union. He always remained a superb draughtsman. But he was adventurous too and discovered Picasso for himself; he was even sent out of the classroom for daring to try Cubism.

The Second World War saw him enlisted in the 51st Highland Division, but posted to Edinburgh Castle along with an assorted group who were all, like him, in his own phrase, of "doubtful origin". He spent the war making imitation wounds, painting numbers on helmets and entertaining the troops with on-the-spot caricatures. It nearly led to a music-hall career, but the Army would not let him go. Demobbed, he returned to Aberdeen, where he taught part-time till in 1950 he was appointed Head of Painting at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, Dundee. It was a post that he held till 1983.

If he painted throughout that time with unfailing energy, he was also a great teacher. And, if in recent years the painting department in the college has made its mark, he laid the foundation. He was unfailingly professional, saw art not as the expression of some vague, unfocused creative urge, but as a practical business that also naturally engaged the human spirit.

He carried his staff and students along with his enthusiasm and it was typical of him, as one former colleague recalls, that he burst into the class in a sleepy studio one afternoon, declaring, "Let's celebrate. It's Michelangelo's birthday!", and carried the whole class off to do just that, ably supported by his wife Vera. In their lovely house overlooking the Tay the hospitality was always warm.

Morrocco exhibited regularly, latterly with one-man shows every two or three years, either at the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh or at the Thackeray Gallery in London. His work is in public and private collections throughout Britain.

Alberto Marrocco (Alberto Morrocco), painter and teacher: born Aberdeen 14 December 1917; Head of School of Painting, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, Dundee 1950-82; ARSA 1952, RSA 1963; RSW 1965; RP 1977; OBE 1993; married 1941 Vera Mercer (two sons, one daughter); died Dundee 10 March 1998.