Harry Morley

PAINTER-PRINTMAKER HARRY MORLEY ARA is best remembered nowadays for the figure paintings in oils and tempera that he exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts from 1915. Morley’s mythological and classical figure compositions helped establish his reputation and attract critical approval: his subjects included the ill-fated satyr Marsyas who dared to challenge Apollo to a music contest (RA 1924. Tate, purchased by Chantrey Bequest); the beautiful Hylas, servant and companion of Heracles, abducted by water nymphs (RA 1923); and the Trojan mortal Paris, called upon by Zeus to proclaim the fairest among Hera, Athena and Aphrodite (RA 1926, Brighton Art Gallery). The Bible also provided Morley with rich narratives – Ruth and Boaz (1921), The Adoration of the Shepherds (RA 1921) and The Finding of Moses (RA 1928) – as did so-called romantic themes such as The Night Passeth, the Day Cometh and The Coming of Spring (both RA 1921), and Vanity (RA 1923). However, while Harry Morley devoted much of his career to the retelling in paint and print the legends of ancient Greece and Rome, his own story has never until now been told.

Following their exhibition-publication collaborations dedicated to the work of Royal Academician printmakers Sydney Lee, Stanley Anderson and Charles Tunnicliffe, Professor Robert Meyrick and Dr Harry Heuser are now engaged in a reappraisal and cataloguing of the graphic works of Harry Morley ARA RE RWS (1881-1943). Their research draws on previously-untapped family archives: an extensive collection of artworks, sketchbooks, correspondences, diaries, ledgers, photographs, and press cuttings.

The Etchings and Engravings

The 1920s and 1930s marked for Harry Morley a period of success and public recognition. It was during this time that he was most active as a printmaker. Meyrick and Heuser’s catalogue raisonné of prints will comprise a critical essay together with fully-illustrated, documented and annotated entries for all 114 of Morley’s little-known etchings and drypoints (made 1919-25) as well as his 45 line engravings (made 1928-42). Until now, no catalogue of Morley prints has been attempted.

Harry Morley Bacchanal
Bacchanal (engraving, 1932)

When in 1919 Morley first took up etching at the suggestion of his friend and contemporary Malcolm Osborne RA RE, he looked for subjects to the Bible (Tobias and the Angel and Samson Finding the Jawbone of an Ass, both 1920, and Christ at Emmaus 1922) and to Greco-Roman mythology (Vulcan Expelled from Olympus 1921, The Fall of Phaëton 1922, and Lapith Surprised by Centaurs 1923). Morley needled the copper plates swiftly and with assurance. Rarely did these experimental designs progress through different states. As an extension of his drawing practice, the medium was used to express his thoughts and explore compositions. Etching was for him a personal pursuit. As such, the etchings were printed in small editions and rarely exhibited.

When in 1928 he was persuaded by his younger friend and Osborne’s assistant Robert Sargent Austin RA PRE to turn his hand to line engraving, Morley soon discovered that, according to John Christian, the medium’s precision better ‘suited his strong sense of form and taste for classical themes’. Published in editions of 60 by his agents P. & D. Colnaghi, the line engravings proved to be more commercially successful than the etchings. As an engraver, Morley once again took inspiration from classical myths. Venus and Cupid (1928), The Young Bacchus (1929) and The Infant Mars (1930), as well as depictions of Persephone (1929), Sylvia and Susannah (both 1930), are among his finely-wrought compositions. The engravings reflect the Arts and Crafts influence of his student days as well as his knowledge and appreciation of Italian Quattrocento art.

Together with Stephen Gooden, William Washington, Robert Austin and William Morgan, Morley is credited with re-establishing the art of line engraving in Britain. The clarity of line and restrained simplicity of engraving lent itself to Morley’s idealised figures and elegantly arranged compositions. The artist took his narratives from classical myths, and stylistically borrowed from antique statuary and fifteenth century Italian paintings, yet his engravings – centred on monolithic figures with clearly defined outlines, curvilinear forms and stylised draperies – exhibit a distinctly modern Art Deco sensibility.

In addition to mythological subjects, Morley’s engravings offer insights into Italy and a rural way of life during the late 1920s that was fast disappearing: its townscapes, festivals, pilgrimages and peasant workers. For several years Morley spent each Spring travelling and working in Italy. In 1928, he and his wife Lilias stayed with artist-friend Job Nixon sharing his studio in Anticoli Corrado. The following year, Robert Austin joined the Morleys at Anticoli. In search of interesting subjects the two men accompanied villagers on the annual two-day pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of the Madonna della Figura, Sora in the Lazio hills. In a letter dated 28 May 1929 to her daughter Beryl, Lilias described how she had watched by moonlight from her bedroom window as the pilgrimage set out into hills ‘most beautiful with clouds in the valleys all white and ghostly’. Church bells were ringing and ‘rockets and bombs’ were ‘going off at intervals’. She ‘could see in the mists the lights of the torches of other bands of pilgrims more distant’ and hear ‘their singing as they wound their way along the road’.

The Young Bacchus (small)
The Young Bacchus (engraving, 1929)

Without Artistic Pose

In the first of his six articles on the ‘Theory and Practice of Figure Painting in Oils’ for The Artist magazine, published between September 1936 to February 1937, Morley focussed on the challenges of ‘becoming a “modern” painter on the foundation of study of the Old Masters’. Citing Rubens, Rembrandt and Reynolds, Morley took reassurance and validation in the knowledge that many great painters before him had assimilated from the past. Writing on innovation in art, he proposed that since ‘originality is not the first among the artistic virtues […] one should never be afraid of emulating a greater than oneself’.

During visits to Italy between 1905 and 1908, Morley studied paintings by Pinturicchio, Pietro Perugino, Paolo Uccello and Sandro Botticelli. He believed himself to be the first artist of ‘recent years to base his work on the [early] Italian tradition’. Morley was not alone among artists during and following World War I who looked to another time and civilisation. As curator-historian Simon Martin points out ‘the art of Ancient Greece and Rome, as well as its mythology and literature, gave them a language and narrative through which to express their social and artistic concerns for the twentieth century’.

Hylas and the Nymphs, tempera 1923 copy
Hylas and the Nymphs (egg tempera on gessoed wood, 1923)

Whereas for Morley abstract art was a ‘dead end’ and modern art was ‘divorced from life and the accumulated experience of the ages was abandoned’, Italian Quattrocento painters showed ‘sincerity’ and ‘sound workmanship’. He believed them to be first-class craftsmen ‘without any special “artistic” pose’. The ‘stylisation of the primitives’ he attributed to a time when forms were ‘generalised and handed down from age to age’. In paint or print, Morley learned like those artists he emulated to create a sense of space without the illusion of spatial recession. In the work of the ‘primitives’ he came to appreciate the value of front lighting ‘to emphasise linear forms’ in decorative work without the ‘complication of cast shadows’. Render fine form in space, he advised readers of The Artist, enhance it with good colour, and ‘we cannot be far wrong’.

As John Christian points out, the artist’s ‘strong sense of monumental form and spatial clarity’ may also reflect his early training as an architect. With its academic coolness and detachment, Morley’s work is distinguished from the narrative purpose and sentiment of the Pre-Raphaelites. Art historian William Gaunt attributed that detachment to the ‘aloofness of idealism’. As Gaunt points out in his March 1925 article for The Studio, Morley took the ‘imperfect tradition’ for his model and made it ‘his business to evolve something original out of the incomplete’. Morley alighted on the Renaissance, resting on ‘an art obviously capable of the highest development – that of the Early Florentines’.

Mindful that for his contemporaries the painting of nudes was ‘limited to the bedroom, the bathroom and the bathing-beach’, Morley turned to ‘unfashionable’ classical subjects. Sir William Smith’s ‘ever-useful’ A Smaller Classical Dictionary (London: Dent, 1910) provided him ‘enough description from which to work’ and elaborate upon. A good story notwithstanding, he cautioned readers that a painter is not a ‘historian or an archaeologist, and that his primary purpose is not to tell a story. His main business is with the pictorial aspect of the subject in hand’.

Unpretentious compositions, strong of form and firm of outline, called for an appropriate technique. As well as aesthetic and narrative influences, Morley was also inspired by techniques of the past. Egg tempera – or oils on top of tempera painting – became his preferred medium. Though he did not slavishly follow their recipes or technical specifications, Morley learned much from Christina Jane Powell Herringham’s translation of The Book of the Art of Cennino Cennini: A Contemporary Practical Treatise on Quattrocento Painting (London: George Allen and Unwin 1899) and his friend Maxwell Armfield’s A Manual of Tempera Painting (London: George Allen and Unwin 1930). Morley admired the technical achievements of the past, followed new research on the science of traditional painting techniques, and insisted that ‘craftsmanship does count and always will’.

In her 2005 essay for Joseph Southall 1861-1944 published by the Antique Collectors Club, Abbie Sprague claims that the revival of British interest in tempera painting had begun in 1901 with the formation of the Society of Painters in Tempera. The Society held some of its meetings in Morley’s studio. John D. Batten, the painter-activist Mary Sargant Florence, Francis Ernest Jackson, Maxwell Armfield and Joseph Southall were among the regular attendees. As the medium became better understood, the 1920s saw a ‘Tempera Revival’ in British art. However, it was only after the Royal Academy of Arts’ ground-breaking Italian Art at the Exhibition at Burlington House (1 January – 20 March 1930) that the Academy accepted contemporary tempera paintings in its Summer Exhibition. Morley’s tempera The Young Bacchus was one of thirty-six tempera paintings shown that first year.

Coursers (engraving, 1931)

Harry Morley: A Biographical Sketch
Leicester, 5 April 1881 – London, 18 September 1943

In 1897 Harry Morley enrolled to study architecture at Leicester School of Art. Three years later he was awarded a scholarship to continue his training under Professor Beresford Pite at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in 1901. He won an RCA scholarship in 1903 which enabled him to visit Italy for the first time. Later that year, with £150 from his father Thomas Morley, a Leicester hosiery manufacturer, he was articled to Beresford Pite whose architectural practice was on the RCA campus. Morley also attended the mural painting department and evening life classes. In 1905 he was awarded an RCA Travelling Scholarship in Architecture as well as the RIBA Owen Jones Studentship and Travelling Scholarship for the Study of Colour Decoration. These awards allowed him to spend long periods in Italy between 1905 and 1908. There he came to admire early Renaissance painters.

Now resolved to become a painter himself, Morley gave up architecture and attended open studios in Paris during 1908: at the Académie Julian, Académie Colarossi and Académie de la Grande Chaumière. He returned to London and began a career as professional artist. On 6 September 1911, Morley married Lilias Swain (Hyde, Cheshire 3 January 1880 – London 30 January 1973) at St Philip’s Church, Earl’s Court Road, Kensington. The couple honeymooned in Florence, Venice and Paris.

Lilias was teaching calligraphy and embroidery at the Royal College when she and Morley became engaged. She had studied design there under William Lethaby. She was trained in lettering and illumination by Professor Edward Johnston and went on to become his first assistant. She studied embroidery under Grace Christie (1872-1953) whom she assisted after her graduation. Lilias shared digs in Chelsea with fellow RCA student Sylvia Pankhurst who, like Lilias, was from Manchester.

A weak heart and lifelong asthma excluded Morley from active service during both wars. The Morleys lived in Earl’s Court and from 1918 in Kensington. In 1923, Thomas Morley purchased for his son, wife and their two daughters a four-storey terraced house on Pembroke Road. Here he established home and studio. The couple had two daughters, Elinor Beryl (7 September 1912 – 26 September 1998) and Julia Morley (2 September 1917 – 16 May 2008), both of whom went on to train at the Royal Academy Schools. Julia Morley won a scholarship to study mural painting at the Slade School of Art and became a professional painter and muralist.

The Morley family holidayed in Italy in the Spring and during August each year in addition to sketching holidays to countryside or coastal regions of England and Wales. They were often joining – or joined by – artist friends. John Christian points out that his watercolours, which looked back to Philip Wilson Steer and the English landscape tradition with a ‘strong sense of place, technical assurance and characteristic integrity’, were noted for their ‘freedom and spontaneity’. As Lilias Morley recalled, ‘when working in watercolour he worked very rapidly and with great concentration, completely oblivious to anything going on around him. If a first attempt did not please him he tore it up and immediately painted another one of the same subject’.

Despite the worldwide economic recession following the Wall Street Crash of 1929, Morley continued to paint and engrave throughout the 1930s. From September 1932, he taught painting and life drawing two days a week at St. Martin’s School of Art and took on portrait commissions to supplement his income. Morley’s friend and Keeper of the Royal Academy Schools, Sir Walter Westley Russell RA employed him as visiting teacher.

Late in 1940 Morley’s home and studio were bomb damaged and left uninhabitable. He and Lilias relocated to live with his newly married daughter Beryl and her husband Captain John Castle. They shared a small cottage in Wool, Dorset near the Army Fighting Vehicle School at Bovington Camp where Castle trained soldiers to drive tanks.

The Ministry of Information provided Morley with a permit to make drawings of the Camp. Other commissions followed including one to record the destruction at Southampton docks. Morley also completed a number of short commissions for the War Artists’ Advisory Committee and recorded undergoing repairs to damaged vessels at Falmouth. These paintings are now in the Imperial War Museum. At Wool, Morley had his first heart attack. The couple returned to Kensington in 1943. Weakened by a series of heart attacks and bouts of asthma, he died in September that year.

Lilias remained at 4 Pembroke Road until her death in January 1973. Morley’s studio remained largely undisturbed during this time. When Lydia Russell died in 1944, Sir Walter Westley Russel, Keeper of the Royal Academy Schools (1927-42), lodged with Lilias Morley in rooms at the top of the house. He died there in April 1949. Carel Weight RA, Professor of Painting at the Royal College of Art, rented Morley’s studio to the rear of the property accessed from Pembroke Walk.

Professional Affiliations

The ethos and camaraderie of artist groups appealed to Harry Morley. He was an active member of the following societies and institutions:

Member of the Society of Graphic Art
Member of the Art Workers’ Guild
Member of the Society of Mural Decorators and Painters in Tempera
Member of the Royal Society of British Artists (RBA)
Associate Member of the Royal Watercolour Society (ARWS)
Associate Member of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers (ARE)
Faculty of Engraving at the British School at Rome
Fellow of the Royal Watercolour Society (RWS)
Fellow of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers (RE)
Master of the Art Workers’ Guild
Associate of the Royal Academy of Arts (ARA)
Member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters (RP)
Vice-President of the Royal Watercolour Society (VPRWS)

Illustrated Books

Edmund B. d’Auvergne
The Nightside of Paris (Werner Laurie, 1909)
Richard Penlake
A Book of Modern Palestine (London: Thomas Nelson, 1910-13?)
Edward Verrall Lucas
A Wanderer in Florence (London: Methuen, 1912)
Alfred H. Hyatt
The Charm of Paris (London: Chatto and Windus, 1913)
Alfred H. Hyatt
The Charm of Edinburgh (London: Chatto and Windus, 1913)
Charles Tennyson
Cambridge from Within (London: Chatto and Windus, 1913)
Edward Verrall Lucas
A Wanderer in Venice (London: Methuen, 1914)
Edward Hutton
Cities of Sicily (London: Methuen, 1926)
Edward Verrall Lucas
A Wanderer in Rome (London: Methuen, 1926)

2 Replies to “Harry Morley”

  1. Who can identify an etching by Harry Morley that I have? It depicts an older man playing a guitar and a younger man playing a mandolin.


    1. Thanks for your message. It appears you have Morley’s October 1928 line engraving “The Duet”. At Anticoli Corrado that year, the Morleys readily mixed in with the locals. They took part in festivals and pilgrimages, visited Anticolian homes and on warm evenings socialised in the piazza where they ate, supped wine and vermouth, danced and made music. The Morleys’ landlady Maria Splendori, her husband Luigi and their children became close friends. Lilias Morley took daily Italian lessons with their daughter Vittoria Splendori. In a diary entry dated 16 June 1928, Lilias noted that ‘Harry and Job [Nixon] had a model’ in the studio. It was Vittoria’s brother Mario Splendori, ‘a tall beautiful fellow’, posing with his mandolin.


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