Edward Morris (1940–2016)

By Timothy Stevens

WHEN EDWARD MORRIS, who died on 29th May, retired in 1999 after more than thirty years at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, he was the doyen of regional gallery curators, widely admired for his rigorous professionalism and deeply appreciated for his kindness to colleagues. Born in Bognor Regis on 10th August 1940, after reading history at Cambridge, Morris tried a career in insurance in the City but found it uncongenial and enrolled for an Academic Diploma at the Courtauld Institute of Art. He joined the Walker Art Gallery in 1966 as Assistant Keeper of Foreign Art, becoming Keeper the following year.

Morris’s arrival was well timed. Hugh Scrutton, the Director, had persuaded a reluctant Liverpool City Council to increase the Gallery’s curatorial posts from three to six, primarily to compile a fresh inventory and prepare permanent collection catalogues on the exacting model established by Martin Davies at the National Gallery in London. Mary Bennett, the Keeper of British Art, had finished the new inventory and was working on her pioneering exhibitions on the Pre-Raphaelites. As funds for publishing catalogues had already been secured, the foundations were laid for Morris’s outstanding achievement as a cataloguer.

Almost immediately Morris had a Pauline conversion. The gift in 1967 of a version of Ary Scheffer’s Temptation of Christ, bought in Paris by the Liverpool collector John Naylor, ignited his interest in nineteenth-century French art – the subject of his future groundbreaking book French Art in Nineteenth-century Britain (2005). The same year the American scholar Seymour Howard, researching Bartolomeo Cavaceppi, the Roman restorer of and dealer in antique statues, came to see the Ince Blundell marbles, lovingly assembled by Henry Blundell but then little regarded and almost all in store. Morris and the present writer were entirely persuaded by his compelling exposition of their historic importance and artistic merit, and within days Blundell’s great busts by Carlo Albacini were on display. The Blundell marbles were a major feature of Morris’s splendid sculpture gallery, established in 1988, a classic rehabilitation of important works that had been consigned to store by changes in fashion. Henceforth a doughty champion of the collecting activities of Henry Blundell and his son Charles, Morris strove tirelessly to secure both the purchase in 1995 of the latter’s old-master drawings and their publication.

Led on by his abiding interest in historic collectors from the Northwest, Morris became an advocate of rediscoveries in art, although it was sometimes hard to judge if he was entirely serious, as in his scholarly account of George Goddard’s painting Wolves: The Struggle for Existence (1879) and its links to Darwin. His meticulously researched The Liverpool Academy and Other Exhibitions of Contemporary Art in Liverpool, 1774–1867: A History and Index of Artists and Works Exhibited (1998), written with Emma Roberts, brought the study of regional exhibition culture to a new level of refinement, and was heavily drawn on for this year’s popular show at the Walker on the Liverpool Pre- Raphaelites.

While encouraging staff to develop expertise, it was never the Walker’s way to promote scholarly seclusion. The Gallery was deeply committed to serving its varied audiences, especially through a continuous and wide-ranging programme of temporary exhibitions. The staff worked as a team, with tasks allocated according to priorities and specific expertise. Newly arrived colleagues were allocated a project on which to cut their teeth. Morris’s was to organise a memorial show for John Edkins (1931–66), a Liverpool Art School lecturer, a task discharged with the aplomb that would characterise all his administrative work. While it cannot be said that he was ever a fan of contemporary art, his temporary exhibitions always cut fresh ground. A characteristic example, done as so often on a shoestring, was that celebrating the 1976 Bicentenary of American Independence, American Artists in Europe, 1800–1900. This show presented well-known figures such as West, Whistler and Sargent alongside the neglected Mather Brown, Washington Allston and George Hitchcock, whose freshly cleaned Maternité (1889) was a revelation.

The 1970s were financially straitened times for Merseyside. As funding both to mitigate the Walker’s inadequate environmental conditions and provide additional display space was unlikely to materialise, preventative conservation was given priority. Morris promoted a higher standard of picture care, including such essential but unglamorous tasks as glazing and back-boarding. He considered the return to a denser picture hang more democratic than the spacious displays customary since the 1950s, which left stores overflowing with works stigmatised as the official art of yesteryear. Morris strongly believed the curator was not a nanny, there to enforce a modern canon of approved exhibits, and that visitors should be offered scope to form their own opinions.

In 1977 Morris’s new foreign catalogue of the collection appeared. Typically, in addition to the easel paintings included in the 1963 catalogue, its parameters were expanded to include every type of material and technique, from works on paper and sculpture to silver and Chinese ceramics. His approach was even-handed, with information meticulously marshalled. Morris was quite unafraid to admit the limitations of his knowledge, maintaining that publication was the most effective way of remedying these as it would encourage others to write in with their own critical information – as they so often did.

To its eternal credit, in 1978 Merseyside County Council assumed responsibility for the cash-strapped Lady Lever Art Gallery at Port Sunlight and combined its administration with that of the Walker. Apart from major building repairs, the two outstanding challenges were to update the Gallery’s collections management and restore its former position as a much-loved and visited amenity. Morris’s curatorial experience and his natural sympathy for the outstanding Merseyside collector Lord Leverhulme made him the ideal person to lead this project, and he did not disappoint. The misguided dilution of the founder’s pervasive influence was reversed, and Leverhulme’s personal vision again took centre stage. New specialist catalogues began to appear, by outside experts such as Geoffrey Waywell and Martin Robertson on the Hope and other antique marbles and vases, as well as by the Gallery’s own curator Lucy Wood, whose catalogues of furniture set a new standard for the genre. The Lady Lever Art Gallery was back on the map, not only with the expert but also with the wider public, and visitor numbers soared.

When Mary Bennett retired in 1987 after completing her catalogue of the Pre-Raphaelite works, the torch for the later Victorian and Edwardian paintings passed to Morris. His catalogues of those at the Walker, at Sudley House (1996) and in the Lady Lever Art Gallery (1994) are distinguished by the way quotations from contemporary reviews are marshalled to evoke the period sensibility and original context of often forgotten works, despite the occasional feeling that much fascinating information was consigned to the footnotes.

Retirement brought no let-up in productivity. The viability of systematic research on public sculpture had been tested by the Gallery in 1976–77 with a job-creation survey of works on Merseyside. Morris’s rare combination of professionalism, modesty and generosity made him a wonderfully effective Chairman of the Editorial Board of the National Recording Project of the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, which has published eighteen volumes since 1997, with more in preparation. In addition to his roles as lead editor and fundraiser, he was a major contributor to the volumes on the Northwest, drawing attention to such overlooked works as J.A. van der Ven’s Eve (1841), explaining how it reached Bootle Town Hall, its present location, and identifying the Monument to Thomas Wilson-Patten (c.1820–26), in St Elphin’s Church, Warrington, as a documented work by Lorenzo Bartolini.

In 2005 Morris’s outstanding French Art in Nineteenth-century Britain was published, a panoramic survey of a major subject that had not previously been systematically investigated. It reveals his view on how the arts might be organised in order to flourish. A key theme of the book is the difference between the opportunities available to aspiring French and British artists, particularly in their training. Morris believed the French approach delivered better results for all involved, not least the public. He also admired the way France organised its museums, and The Walker Art Gallery Liverpool, 1873–2000 (2013) was in part written to reveal the shortcomings of museum arrangements in Britain. He aspired to the highest standards in his own work and, with scarcely more than the occasional kindly nudge, always encouraged junior colleagues to aim high.