An Artist in Peace and War
By Eirwen Jones BA
Carmarthenshire Historian, Volume 15, 1978
The best-known artist to have come from Llandilo was Carey Morris (1882-1968). He was a contemporary and friend of such distinguished British painters as John Nash and Frank Brangwyn (after whom the Brangwyn Hall in Swansea is named). The following biography is an edited version of an article which first appeared in the local history journal The Carmarthenshire Historian in 1978, written by the late Eirwen Jones. Miss Jones, also from Llandeilo, knew Carey Morris personally and had access to his private papers in order to write her article.
Carey Morris, artist, was born in Llandeilo, the son of Benjamin and Elizabeth Boynes Morris on May 17, 1882. He died on November 17, 1968 and was buried in Llandeilo churchyard.
The family was an established one in the locality. Their painters' and decorators' business was well known. The home was hospitable and cultured and the children achieved academic distinction.
Carey Morris attended the National School and later the Llandeilo County School. He claimed, with strong personal pride, that his name was one of the first on the school register. His literary, musical and artistic talents were developed in the school and he spent long hours at his home in a section of Rhosmaen Street, then known as Prospect Place, practising his drawing. The writer has had access to the artist's collection of personal papers and it is interesting to reflect, in the light of later decades, how he managed to develop his talents, in spite of the rigidity of the school system of his time. As an adult, he looked back and criticized adversely the systems that prevailed in the art schools of his youth. He wrote:
These schools were started in England and Wales after the Great Exhibition of 1851 which praised the merits of British craftsmanship. They were designed to raise the standard of art but the system is so stereotyped, so uniform that, instead of encouraging art, it has stultified art in both countries. It is a system which, starting in the elementary schools, permeates upwards like a noxious leaven. A child learning to draw under the Board of Education system would have to be a very great artist to maintain his individuality and to throw off in later life the shackles imposed upon his mind.
When I was a boy, I was taught drawing by the Board of Education system. The method then was that everything should be drawn from copies, all outlines had to be put in by a series of dots and the spaces between, afterwards joined up with lines from dot to dot. It seems incredible that such a system should be dignified by the name of drawing. It included niggliness and timidity and tended to stamp out any real talent the budding draughtsman might possess.
Although I was only a child, I instinctively rebelled against this method and, holding my pencil as I hold my brushes, I refused to make the dots and drew boldly in line. Corporal punishment was then in vogue, and for drawing as my instinct compelled me, instead of in the wrong way forced upon us by the Board of Education, I was so severely beaten that my father withdrew me from that school. The incident is more important than appears at first. The system arouses the contempt of the Continental Nations.
He went on to study at the Slade School, London, under Professor Tonks, the famed anatomist who gave up medicine to become Slade Professor of Art at the University of London. Here Carey Morris was to excel in the study of anatomy, both surface anatomy and that of bone and of muscle. These minute and painstaking studies were to bear fruit later, especially in his portrait studies, giving them unerring three-dimensional qualities together with an uncanny air of personality which were later acclaimed by experienced critics.
After the strenuous and rigid discipline of the Slade School, life at the Newlyn School of Painting, Cornwall, was a happy relief. He lived in close and harmonious affinity with the artist colony. Carey Morris and his wife Jessie Phillips Morris were to return there again and again. Friendships made there proved life-long. Tales of the Cornish men and women coloured Carey's conversation to the close of his life.
Many of the Cornish personalities became perpetuated in his paintings, such as Saunders the Postman and Gillieboo his dog. The beauty of the landscape appealed to him and the clarity of the light made painting a joy. Some of his pictures show his ingenuity in choosing titles. The Last Farm in England -this was Escalls at Land's End, a study which was exhibited at the Royal Academy. Well-known is his study Woman at the Well. This was made at the farm at Land's End. He found there a curiosity, a well sunk in the farmhouse itself. The inmates had no need to go outside to draw water, for the well was at hand inside the walls in a little white-wash ed room of its own. This rare type of inside well was known as a peath.
Carey Morris and his wife transferred to London. He had his studio in Chelsea in Cheyne Walk, and Mrs. Jessie Morris became an editor and journalist. Their coterie of friends was various-artistic, literary, musical. Carey Morris's first love was the 'cello ; he was a popular member of ensembles at the currently fashionable conversaziones. Frequent visitors to the studio in Cheyne Walk were artists such as William Orpen, John Nash, Ethelbert White, Dod Proctor, Mr. and Mrs. Stanhope Forbes, Frank Brangwyn, Evan Walters, Sir George Clausen and Sir Herbert Herkomer. Many were the tales of these artists which Carey Morris told in his puckish way. He was a raconteur without rancour. He related how Sir Herbert Herkomer was once asked by a Welsh admirer what he thought of Welsh art. He replied brusquely,
Madam, there is no Welsh art. Carey Morris remarked that Herkomer was a German genius who owed his first encouragement to a Welshman, Mr. Mansel Lewis, who bought one of his earliest pictures for 500 pounds. He might well have added,
You will never have any Welsh art while you support foreign artists and starve your own. If Wales desires a National Art then she must encourage her native artists. Italian art did not begin with Raphael and Michelangelo. Art is like a tree that must be nurtured and tended; it may bloom for many generations until at last the perfect flowering comes. Remember however that but for the previous blossomings there would be no mature perfection.
There were frequent visits to Llandeilo, and the Towy Valley proved in many ways an artist's paradise. One of his best-known pictures, The Welsh Weavers, showed two members of the Edwards family of Rhosmaen working at their craft in their cottage home around 1910. It was a picture with a strong human appeal and its reproduction by the Anglo-American Publishing Co. ensured its wide circulation on both sides of the Atlantic.
War came to interrupt these halcyon days. At the outbreak of the First World War, Carey Morris enlisted. Later he was commissioned in the South Wales Borderers. He served in the trenches in Flanders, where he was severely gassed. As a result he spent many months in war hospitals, mainly in the Isle of Wight and at Liverpool. His health remained sadly impaired for the rest of his life.
Reticent in person about his war experiences as are ever those who suffered greatly from them, nevertheless Carey Morris's personal papers and memoirs throw interesting light on scenes seen through the eyes of an artist. One feels that had Carey Morris his canvas and palette at hand he would have depicted a scene much in the style of Breughel, capturing the wealth of colour, light and vivacity. Soon, all too soon, the scene had changed, as the following extracts show.
A Royal Engineers officer came to our compartment for a chat. From him we gathered that Poperinghe was our stopping place. On approaching this town, it was still dark. Our new friend diverted our gaze to what appeared like fireworks (Verey Lights) in the distance.The front line is yonder and that is where you are going,he said.
In the distance we could hear the booming of guns and with some apprehension our friend exclaimed,Did you hear that? There is a heavy bombardment going on. Some poor fellows are catching it in the neck.
We reached Poperinghe about 8 o'clock, cramped and aching, having been in that wretched train since 4 p.m. on Sunday. We crossed the road to the officers' club where we had a very welcome breakfast which we ate ravenously…
Everything on both sides was being hurled over. Heavy shells, shrapnel, machine guns and rifle-fire and trench mortars. It was hell let loose. We were all on the firestep peering into the gloom for any sudden attack… (Details of the carnage need not be repeated).
The intense bombardment lasted five hours but this sort of thing was a daily occurrence. This one incident should be enough to deter anyone rushing into war again…
When I arrived at Brieuleu I had already walked about 7 miles on a rough cobbled road and my heels were quite sore. It was past midnight and I felt very thirsty. There wasn't a soul to be seen anywhere. I didn't expect to see civilians as there were none, the village having been reduced to ruins.
At last I saw a chink of light in one of the houses. I turned in there and found a young artillery officer writing. He made me welcome and supplied me with some hot tea. I stayed with him for some time as I had walked about 12 miles since three o'clock in the afternoon and needed rest. Eventually I took my departure and soon rejoined my Company on the other side of the canal bank. Directly afterward Captain Galsworthy had to visit Brieuleu but returned quite soon. He told me that as he entered Brieuleu he heard the scream of a shell which fell on to one of the houses in the street and into a room where a battery major and a young artillery officer were sitting, killing both outright.
For a few minutes I could hardly speak. Then I told him I had been resting for a few hours in that very room chatting with the young artillery officer, now dead, on my way back.
There were other instances of imminent danger. These experiences left a deep mark on his personality. From his silence and reticence one became aware that he was conscious of an over-ruling Presence saving him at the eleventh hour.
His skill as an artist was once marshalled to undertake a gruesome commission.
We remained at Laires for a few weeks. Our company officers' mess was in the house of a carpenter, wheelwright, undertaker and farmer rolled in one.
One morning while I was having my breakfast, the landlord asked whether there was an artist in the company. Captain Gals worthy turned to me and said,Here's a commission for you, old boy. I asked the landlord what he wanted and he informed me that he had a coffin to make for a great sportsman in the village and that the gentleman had expressed a desire to have a picture of a hare sitting on its haunches with landscape painted as large as possible on the coffin lid.
I said I would do it with pleasure if I could find some paint and brushes I had somewhere in my valise. I eventually found them but I was a bit stumped for a hare as a model. The landlord then took me to the backyard and showed some rabbits in hutches. I made a rough sketch of one of the rabbits and turned it into a hare by drawing the ears and hind legs larger. My range of colours was limited as I had lost my tubes of paint while attempting to sketch in Boesinghe village, which was too dangerous a job as the shells were continuously dropping in the Street.
I managed to get some ordinary paint from the carpenter and having got all my materials together, I proceeded with my work of art. The news that an artist was painting a picture on the lid of a coffin spread like wildfire through the village and shortly there was a crowd outside pressing hard against the window and endeavouring to catch a glimpse at the artist working on such a gruesome and unusual canvas.
I managed to get a fairly good representation of a hare which looked quite effective against a big sky and trees. When it was complete the carpenter invited the villagers to view the work of art. It was like a one-man art exhibition.
Slowly the villagers left the room but one old man lingered on and when he was about to leave I asked the carpenter, 'When is the owner of the coffin to be buried?'
He isn't dead yet. There he is, going out now, said he, pointing to the old man leaving the house.Yes, he is a great sportsman. I do not remember the number of times he has been in prison for poaching.
When the training was over, we began our long march back to the salient. By this time a serious illness came upon me and I left the battalion at Proven and returned to 'Blighty' where I spent the next 12 months in hospital and in this way missed the great offensive of July 30 1917. A few weeks later Company Sergeant-Major Jack Williams of B Company won the Victoria Cross for great gallantry.
In efforts at recuperation there were long visits to Llandeilo. Considerable and meticulous thought was devoted to the needs of the family business. With the succeeding years, sorrow and tragedy were to bring their sombre colours on to the canvas of his life throwing into relief that which was honest, simple and good.
In some ways out of his milieu in other ways he was literally at home in Llandeilo. He had many friends in the town and district he was a congenial companion, a first rate raconteur, the drama of his words being heightened by gentle mimicry. His brother, Robert, was an insatiable local historian and geologist and many were the conferences and dissertations between the devoted brothers. Their combined interest in genealogy led them into many by-paths of research.
During the 1920s he was director of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition of the National Eisteddfod of Wales and as an artist conferred with others in developing this side of the nation al festival.
An artist is essentially a man before his time. He saw much room for improvement in the Gorsedd ceremonies which were being introduced and he spoke and wrote freely on the subject. With piquant humour, he saw something incongruous in the sight of be-spectacled, be-robed bards riding precariously in a bus over an undulating eisteddfod field. He urged strongly for more dignified and better organised bardic ceremonies. He succeeded in convincing the authorities concerned that resonant trumpeters rather than blaring brass bands were more appropriate for proclamation ceremonies.
During the inter-war years he spent much time in the homes of the Welsh squirearchy and he must have been among the last of a long line of artists who worked under the direct patronage of this social class. A record of his life at that time would have made fascinating reading to both the social and local historian. Much time was spent in different parts of Wales, North and Mid Wales, Llandaff and Pembrokeshire. There were long sojourns in present day Gwent at the home of Sir Joseph Bradney, an expert in heraldry and genealogy and author of the monumental work, The History of Monmouthshire.
Carey Morris became at this period a prolific writer on matters of art and national interest. Many of Carey Morris's writings were published, among them Personality as a Force in Art. He wrote trenchantly, some of his opinions reaching out to the metaphysical.
Every beautiful and sincere picture even if painted by an obscure artist whom the world does not account great, contains a living quality, he wrote.
It changes every day according to the light, the moods of those who look at it and most of all through that mysterious quality of its own. It becomes a companion and a friend.
What is it that gives to a picture this mysterious quality? It is the personality of the artist who painted it and the personality of the subject. If a landscape, it contains the varying moods of nature during the time it was being painted and the artist's reactions to those moods; if a portrait, it reflects more than one mood of both sitter and artist.
The power of concealing several moods in one portrait is proportionate to the genius and sympathy in the artist's own personality. His moods are also contained within it.
This confirms my belief that personality never dies. It lives on in a man's work and if it can be so alive long after his physical body is laid in the grave, is it not reasonable to suppose that the essence of his individuality is still alive? Human beings have different tasks to perform in the world; some have been destined to plan great works which have been too heavy a burden for their physical span of life, but their personalities are still alive, inspiring others to build on the foundation which they have laid. Is it not reasonable to suppose that personality 'the dweller innermost' then relives to inspire others?
In Art and Religion in Wales he challenged the current attitude of Welsh Nonconformity towards art in general and pleaded for a wider acceptance of the beautiful as a fitting element in religious practice. His piquant humour was evident in his observations.
It is remarkable how incidents make strong impressions on the mind of a child to be pondered over, but not understood for many years-incidents slight in themselves, which yet have a certain psychological importance.
When I was a boy, it was a familiar sight to see itinerant vendors displaying most gaudy and highly-coloured reproductions of religious pictures to the simple country folk. The vendors were invariably sons of Israel and the pictures were obviously Roman Catholic in sentiment; the subjects were the Madonna and Child and the Crucifixion, very gaudily coloured and the general effect considerably heightened and made most attractive to the people by a liberal supply of gold and silver tinsel decoration. As a boy, these pictures and the itinerant visitors fascinated me. Some years later it struck me a most remarkable sight-Jewish vendors selling Roman Catholic pictures to Nonconformists!
He was always the champion of young artists and called for support for them on a national and on an individual basis.
He was an ardent champion of the crafts. He wrote Craftsmanship Must Not Be Allowed to Die, in which he considered what future generations would think of the artists and craftsmen of his own generation and how the former achievements of our own crafts might be restored, a consideration which led him to say with deep feeling,
If we want to produce craftsmen our education authorities should consider this matter more seriously. It is astonishing how ignorant educated people may be on the use of such a simple instrument as a two-foot rule. To hold certificates and not be able to read and use a two-foot rule is a preposterous position.
His interest in Wales and in its cultural activities remained paramount. He was called on to illustrate books. Among the best known were his illustrations of a translation of Bunyan's The Pilgrims' Progress by Tegla Davies, and he found pleasure in illustrating books for children written by his wife. On occasions he co-operated with his wife in writing about.
Back in Llandeilo, and with much responsibility in the family business, Carey Morris was still closely identified with art. He was commissioned to paint numerous portraits. Of special interest to him was the designing of a flag which the town of Llandeilo sent to its namesake in New South Wales, Australia. Ever a friend of children, he found special delight in painting portraits of them.
Carey Morris's canvases, his portraits, his landscapes and his studies have established for themselves their own particular niche not only in Britain but in many countries in the world. To those who knew him well, it was the canvas of his own life, in its subtle tones and nuances which had the greatest glory. Wales can be proud of one of her most dedicated artists. The words of A. C. Swinburne in Super Flumina Babylonis form his epitaph
Unto each man his handwork; unto each his crown the just Fate gives; Whoso takes the world's Life to him and his own lays down; He, dying, so lives.