The naked artist: Desmond Morris turns from body language to brush strokes

If his fledgling career as a surrealist artist had taken off, he might never have become a zoologist. But when he found he could not make a living from his paintings, Desmond Morris turned towards his other love - animals.

If his fledgling career as a surrealist artist had taken off, he might never have become a zoologist. But when he found he could not make a living from his paintings, Desmond Morris turned towards his other love - animals.

He went on to write The Naked Ape , which sold 18 million copies, and introduce the concept of body language in Manwatching , its successor.

Yet Morris never gave up the ambition of his early career when he once shared billing in a London gallery with the great surrealist Joan Miro. Indeed, he has exhibited his works every now and then since the 1970s, building a strong following among fans for whom Morris is one of the last surviving surrealists.

But a nagging suspicion that he still had one great work inside him eventually prompted him to devote the year 2004 to trying to produce it after four previous attempts failed.

Always a great admirer of the work of Hieronymus Bosch, he visited and studied all the artist's surviving masterpieces and took the precise dimensions of his Temptation of St Anthony as a template.

He then embarked on creating his own surrealist triptych in which the biomorphic beings that have populated his paintings since the 1940s would gather in a grand assembly.

The resulting magnus opus, entitled The Gathering and on sale for £70,000, was unveiled yesterday at the Mayor Gallery in Cork Street, London, to the evident delight of Morris, who turns 77 next month.

"Most of the time I'm never quite satisfied but this is the one painting I've ever done with which I'm completely satisfied. Manwatching and this triptych are the two things I will look back on and say I'm really pleased with," he said. "I can roll over and die now."

His art remains a little-known facet of one of Britain's best-known zoologists. "People often go into a gallery and say, 'This must be a different Desmond Morris. We can't believe it's the same one,'" he said.

Yet his art matters to him as much as his science. "I'm half analytical and objective while the other half is intuitive and subjective. This year, I've painted 40 pictures. Last year, I wrote three books. For me, it's a perfect balance."

Morris held his first exhibition, in Swindon, Wiltshire, where he grew up, even before he went off to study zoology at Birmingham University and then Oxford, the city where he lives today. He was already influenced by the surrealist movement which had begun in the year of his birth, 1928.

He knew that he wanted to use his knowledge of science "to invent my own world but obey biological rules," he said. "But if the surrealists hadn't existed, I probably wouldn't have had the nerve to do it. They showed me there was a way in which you could create another world."

In 1950, he had his first London show, at the London Galleries which was also exhibiting Miro, who became a friend. "I was the youngest of that group of painters, the surrealists, but my show in London was almost the last before the movement died out. After the Second World War, people just weren't interested so I appeared at just the wrong moment. When that gallery closed down, I was left high and dry. But I had this other obsession in my life, which was animals, so I became a professional zoologist and went on television and wrote lots of books on animals and humans. That's the career where I've become fairly well known, but my painting never stopped."

Yet, after 1952, he showed none of his art for 22 years, until he was persuaded to exhibit once more when he realised works he had once given to friends were beginning to turn up in the London auction houses.

The huge success of projects such as The Naked Ape , a frank study of human behaviour from a zoologist's perspective that was published in 1967, simply bought him years of time when he would retire from public life to the Mediterranean and paint.

Questioned as to whether Morris's art was as significant as his zoology, Andrew Murray, co-owner of the Mayor Gallery, pointed out that the London galleries were Britain's leading centre of surrealism in 1950. "When they had someone like Miro and then they also picked Desmond Morris, it shows he was obviously well looked-upon."

Nearly all the other surrealists are long dead, leaving Morris's zoomorphic creations looking almost strangely out of time and place, yet it is hard to begrudge Morris the satisfaction of achieving a lifetime ambition.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
News
people
News
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the Apple Watch for you? Well, it depends if you want it for the fitness tech, or for the style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace