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George Morland

British, 1763 - 1804

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Henry Robert Morland (1716-1797), a failed portrait painter and picture dealer, himself the son of a mediocre artist, bred his son George from infancy to the family profession. An early biographer corroborates other accounts of George's upbringing: "[He] was confined from day to day, and from year to year, in an attic apartment, where he was incessantly employed in copying drawings or pictures, or making drawings from casts."1 Dawe adds that "from an over anxious regard to his morals" the boy was not permitted to study at the Royal Academy,2 but Morland the elder may simply have had little regard for the future commercial value either of classical academic training or its concomitant, the painting of history pictures. As a friend of Reynolds (1723-1792), Benjamin West (1738-1820), and Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), Henry Robert Morland well knew that the prosperous middle class was not yet ready to purchase ennobling history pieces but eagerly bought up mild landscapes and instructive genre scenes. Young George was made to study and copy pictures by the Dutch masters and shipwrecks by Joseph Verner (1714-1789), while he himself chose to study Stubbs's (1724-1806) Anatomy of the Horse and later copied fancy pictures by Gainsborough (1727-1788). By 1775 he had achieved such a degree of competence that his father entered his twelve-year old son's work in the exhibition at the Free Society of Artists as by "Master George Morland, ten years old," capitalizing on the vogue for "discovering" untutored geniuses, popularized by the writings of Rousseau and exemplified a few years later by the brief fashion for "the Cornish Wonder" John Opie (1761-1807).3

At fourteen, in 1777, George was exhibiting at the Society of Artists and at the same time bound apprentice to his father. There he stayed, in near incarceration, until 1784, exhibiting continually at the Royal Academy and the Free Society of Artists. In 1784 his apprenticeship expired. There followed several years of experiment and indecision. He drew from the model on three occasions in 1784 at the (forbidden) Royal Academy, traveled to Margate and Calais with a patroness to seek work as a portrait painter in 1785, married the sister of the engraver William Ward (1766-1826) in 1786, and saw the birth of a stillborn son in 1787. His earliest dated work, from about 1786-87, is St. Valentine’s Day (18 x 13 1/2", London, Victoria and Albert Museum), part of a series of paintings on the "Progress of Love" executed in collaboration with Francis Wheatley (1747-1801), whose success as a painter of sentimental genre no doubt influenced Morland's decision to take up this most lucrative and fashionable branch of painting.

The period from 1786 to 1790 constitutes the first brief phase of Morland's career when he established himself as a painter of moral and domestic genre (The Squire’s Door, c. 1790, 15 1/4 x 12 7/8", New Haven, Yale Center for British Art) and English fêtes galantes (St. James's Park, 16 x 19", Upperville, Virginia, Paul Mellon Collection, and A Tea Garden, 16 x 19/s", London, Tate Gallery, both 1789 ). He also took up the tradition of the moralizing progress in emulation of Hogarth (1697-1764), beginning in 1786 with a series of six pictures called "Laetitia" or "A Harlot's Progress," showing the path of a young girl from innocence to vice, and finally (and here Morland is very much of his own time and very unlike Hogarth) to repentance. His Continental reputation was established in the late 1780s through prints after his subjects of children at play such as Blind Man’s Buff (1789, 27 1/2 x 20 1/2", Detroit, The Detroit Institute of Arts) or Juvenile Navigators (1789, 24 x 30", location unknown).

This period as a genre painter lasted only four years. Around 1790, possibly because he sensed that the commercial appeal of the cult of sensibility had drawn to a close and a new fashion for the picturesque had dawned, he began to paint landscapes and rustic low-life subjects, beginning in 1791 with the exhibition of Inside of a Stable (58 1/2 x 80 1/4", London, Tate Gallery) at the Royal Academy to huge critical acclaim. From this year until his death in 1804 his stock in trade was the depiction of tumbledown farmyards, harmless gypsies, happy peasants, bumbling farmers, picturesque smugglers and fishermen, and shipwrecks in the style of the highly popular Swiss painter Philipp de Loutherbourg (1740-1812). As David Winter has shown, even within the relatively short span of a decade's work on such subjects there are two distinct periods: works painted from about 1790 to 1794, which constitute Morland's "best period," having a freshness and vitality absent from the later works; and works painted after 1794, when drink, debt, and poor health led him to turn out carelessly executed parodies of his own earlier style.

Morland's methods of painting and distribution were revolutionary. As an oil painter, he worked with the best available materials but without sketches or even preconceived compositions, inventing as he worked, so that the finished product, often the labor of only a few hours, had the spontaneity and bravura of a Continental oil sketch. He copied as much as he could from life, bringing donkeys, pigs, and straw into his studio, or waylaying passers-by to pose when the color of their cloaks suited his artistic purpose.4

With a chronic dislike of patrons ("Oh d--n Lords, I paint for no Lords")5 he fell into the clutches of a series of middlemen who hung around his studio, paying him a few pounds' drinking money for a picture painted in Camden Town or Paddington, then selling it immediately for double the price to dealers or engravers in Bond Street and Covent Garden. This system, which presumed an unlimited demand for Morland's productions brought about by the vogue for the picturesque and the craze for English prints in England or France and Germany, changed the relationship between English painters and their clients. For the first time the painter could, in theory, paint the subjects he chose, in the size and colors he selected, and expect to sell the picture at once to a dealer. The burden of finding a purchaser then fell to the businessman.6 Furthermore, under this system the necessity to exhibit at a public institution was eliminated, and thus it was the owners of Morland's paintings who submitted them to the Royal Academy and the Society, of Artists, not Morland himself.

But this system hardly meant complete freedom for the artist. Because his works were meant for engraving, a publisher would buy only images appealing to the broadest (or lowest) public taste. Morland and his like were confined to inoffensive, undemanding subjects with particular preference given to scenes of moral edification, children at play, or views of peasant and farming life. Likewise, pictures could be smaller because their purchasers came from the middle and merchant classes and lived in smaller houses than patrons of a generation before. Finally, complexity of technique or surface finish were not necessarily considerations in a painting whose value lay largely in its quick and successful translation into black and white by an artisan, often unknown to the artist.

Morland himself is an unforgettable character. His father's severity left him unable to submit to authority or discipline of any kind. Dawe tells us that ''he seemed to pride himself in doing every thing which his parents had represented to him as pernicious, and the more he could throw off his juvenile fears the more he thought himself a man."7 In practice this led to behavior so extreme that he takes his place alongside the Prince of Wales, William Beckford, and Lady Hamilton as one of the great comic figures of the late eighteenth century. To begin with, he was drunk at all times; he rarely washed or changed his clothes. Morland usually dressed up like a jockey or groom, in costumes described by Hassell as "whimsical," "eccentric," "ridiculous," "finical, fantastical, and grotesque."8 These get-ups gained in their visual effect if, like Hassell, one met the painter in Paddington, on a summer's morning, carrying a baby pig in his arms.9 He lived in squalor but surrounded himself with food and wine in a studio filled with friends, wrestling, boxing, or pelting passing coachmen with blobs of paint. At the bottom of his garden at Winchester Row in Paddington in the early 1790s, Morland maintained a menagerie of horses, foxes, goats, dogs, squirrels, guinea pigs, and dormice.10

All this seems to have fascinated his contemporaries, but after about 1794 it began to affect his health and interfere with his work. Near the end of Morland's life Collins described him as besotted and squalid; cadaverous hanging cheeks, a pinched nose, contracted nostrils, bleard and bloodshot eyes, a bloated frame, swelled legs, a palsied hand, and a tremulous voice."11 Morland died in a sponging house in Eyre Street Hill, Cold Bath Fields, in October 1804, age forty-one.

To briefly sum up his whereabouts in London during a short life: he lived in North London, near or in Camden Town from the time of his marriage until about 1791 when he moved to the rural village of Paddington; in 1792 he f1ed with his wife to Enderby in Leicester but returned to live in Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Square, Bloomsbury. By 1794 he had begun a life of constant peregrination to avoid his creditors. He had visited the Isle of Wight on and off since at least 1789 and spent several months there in 1799. On December 30, 1799, he was arrested for debt and committed for two years to King's Bench Prison where, under the "rules," he lived in a furnished house while working to pay off his bills.

Richard Dorment, from British Painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art: From the Seventeenth through the Nineteenth Century (1986), pp. 228-230.

1. Francis William Blagdon. Authentic Memoirs of the Late George Morland ... London, 1806, p. 4.
2. George Dawe. The Life of George Morland, with an Introduction and Notes by J. J. Foster. London 1904, p. 4.
3. For a summary of Morland's development see George Dawe. The Life of George Morland, with an Introduction and Notes by J. J. Foster. London 1904, pp. 4-6; David Winter. George Morland (1763-1804). Stanford, California, 1977, passim.
4. George Dawe. The Life of George Morland, with an Introduction and Notes by J. J. Foster. London 1904, p. 40.
5. Francis William Blagdon. Authentic Memoirs of the Late George Morland ... London, 1806, p. 8.
6. See David Thomas's essay in London, Arts Council of Great Britain, George Morland: An Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings, 1954, pp. 5-6; Burke, 1976, pp. 390-91.
7. George Dawe. The Life of George Morland, with an Introduction and Notes by J. J. Foster. London 1904, p. 17.
8. J. Hassell. Memoirs of the Life of the Late George Morland; with Critical and Descriptive Observations on the Whole of His Works Hitherto before the Public. London, 1806, p. 9.
9. Ibid., p. 21.
10. George Dawe. The Life of George Morland, with an Introduction and Notes by J. J. Foster. London 1904, pp. 58-59.
11. William Collins. Memoirs of a Picture. 2 vols. Vol. 2, Memoirs of a Painter. London, 1805, vol. 2, p. 133.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:
John Raphael Smith, A Descriptive Catalogue of Thirty-Six Pictures Painted by George Morland . .. to Be Engraved by Subscription by and under the Direction of J[ohn] R[aphael] Smith (London, [1792]); William Collins. Memoirs of a Picture. 2 vols. Vol. 2, Memoirs of a Painter. London, 1805; Francis William Blagdon. Authentic Memoirs of the Late George Morland ... London, 1806; J. Hassell. Memoirs of the Life of the Late George Morland; with Critical and Descriptive Observations on the Whole of His Works Hitherto before the Public. London, 1806; George Dawe. The Life of George Morland, with Remarks on His Works. London, 1807; "Memoir of George Morland," Arnold's Library of the Fine Arts aud Journal of Literature and Science, n.s., vol. 1, no. 3 (January 1833), pp. 161-71; Ralph Richardson. George Morland: Painter, London, 1763-1804. London, 1895; Ralph Richardson, George Morland's Pictures, Their Present Possessors, with Details of the Collections (London, 1897); J. T. Nettleship. George Morland and the Evolution from Him of Some Later Painters. London, 1898; Julia Frankau, An Eighteenth Century Artist and Engraver John Raphael Smith: His Life and Works, 2 vols. (London, 1902); George Dawe. The Life of George Morland, with an Introduction and Notes by J. J. Foster. London 1904; Martin Hardie, "George Morland I: The Man and the Painter," The Connoisseur, vol. 9 (July 1904), pp. 156-63; Marrin Hardie, "George Morland II: The Engravings," The Connoisseur, vol. 9 (August 1904), pp. 199-207; George C. Williamson. George Morland: His Life and Works. London, 1904; J. T. Herbert Baily, "George Morland," The Connoisseur, extra number, no. 1 (1906); Walter Gilbey and E. D. Cuming. George Morland: His Life and Works. London, 1907; George C. Williamson. George Morland: His Life and Works. London, 1907;
David Henry Wilson, George Morland (London and New York, 1907); Francis Buckley, George Morland's Sketch Books and Their Publishers (Uppennill, 1931); Walter Shaw Sparrow. A Book of Sporting Painters. London and New York, 1931, pp. 61-70; Joseph Burke. English Art, 1714-1800. Vol. 9 of The Oxford History of English Art. Edited by T.S.R. Boase. Oxford, 1976, pp 390-91; David Winter. George Morland (1763-1804). Stanford, California, 1977; John Barrell. The Dark Side of the Landscape: The Rural Poor in English Painting, 1730-1840. Cambridge, London, and New York, 1980, pp. 89-129.

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