Dr Desmond Morris artist and anthropologist
Born on the 24th January 1928 is a zoologist, ethologist and popular author on the topic of socio-biology. He is also a son of Swindon! Well – Purton – but that’s close enough for government work. His parents were Marjorie (née Hunt) and children’s fiction author, Henry Morris.
Dr Morris’ grandfather was none other than the founder of the Swindon Advertiser newspaper, William Morris. There’s some useful info about him here on the Swindon Heritage blue plaque site. Do not confuse this William Morris with he of Kelmscott Manor and the arts and crafts movement. They’re not the same person.
1933 saw the family move to Swindon itself.
Dauntsey’s, a boarding school in Wiltshire formed the seat of education for the young Desmond. Then, later, 1946 saw him enter the army for two years of National Service, at length becoming a fine arts lecturer at Chiseldon Army college.
Morris the artist
Aged five, Morris moved to Victoria Road in Swindon and attended the now-long-gone Swindon high school on Bath Road. There he displayed an obsession for art.
At the age of 20, Morris held his first one-man show of his own paintings at the Swindon Arts Centre and created a furore. Some forty-four years later he returned to Swindon for a major retrospective. Desmond, whose surrealist works have been exhibited all over the world, said at the time: ‘People think my painting is a hobby, but it isn’t. I was doing it long before the other stuff and it’s more important to me than anything else.’
In 2002, Swindon council acquired – with £1,000 each from the Friends of the Museum and Art Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum – a Morris original. Girl Selling Flowers is a collage of colourful imagery with a gorgeous pair of ruby red lips at its heart. Desmond painted it when he was eighteen after returning to Swindon from London’s Petticoat Lane market. Said Morris of this work: ‘I wanted to capture the colour and noise from hundreds of market stalls. Diana, who was a couple of years younger than me, was my girlfriend at the time. ‘I decided to incorporate her into the painting. Those big red lips symbolised Diana – they were her logo. These days stars have surgical treatment to get lips like that but Diana’s were natural.’ He added: ‘I have very vivid memories of Diana’s lips.’ Indeed, who wouldn’t!?
Come 1950, he held a surrealist art exhibition with Joan Miró at the London Gallery. Also, in 1950, Desmond Morris wrote and directed two surrealist films, Time Flower and The Butterfly and the Pin.
Going ape – Morris the zoologist
Meanwhile, back with this anthropology interests, in 1951 Morris began a doctorate at the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford in animal behaviour.
In 1954, he earned a Doctor of Philosophy for his work on the reproductive behaviour of the ten-spined stickleback.
Come 1956 Morris moved to London as Head of the Granada TV and Film Unit for the Zoological Society of London where he studied the picture-making abilities of apes. The work included creating programmes for film and television on animal behaviour and other zoology topics. He hosted Granada TV’s weekly Zoo Time programme until 1959 where he hosted and scripted 500 programmes. He also made 100 episodes of the show Life in the Animal World for BBC2.
By 1959 he’d left Zoo Time to become the Zoological Society’s Curator of Mammals. In 1964 he delivered the Royal Institution Christmas Lecture on Animal Behaviour.
Publications and more TV
Morris’s books include The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal, published in 1967. Anyone of a certain age is familiar with that title! This study of human behaviour from a zoologist’s perspective became a huge, international bestseller.
The book sold well enough for Morris to move to Malta in 1968 to write a sequel and other books. In 1979 he undertook a television series for Thames TV, The Human Race, followed in 1982 by Man Watching in Japan, The Animals Road Show in 1986 and then several other series.
National Life Stories conducted an oral history interview (C1672/16) with Desmond Morris in 2015 for its Science and Religion collection held by the British Library.
His grandfather William Morris, an enthusiastic Victorian naturalist certainly had much influence on him during his time living in Swindon.
Diana Dors and Desmond Morris
It’s well known that Dr Morris enjoyed a youthful relationship with film actor Diana Dors – then Diana Fluck – and used to row her over to an island in a lake. That area later became Queen’s Park. It seems that Ms Fluck taught the young Desmond to jitterbug.
The Swindon Museum and Art Gallery collection holds a vibrant and colourful surrealist painting of Diana in its collection. You can see it here in this Swindon Advertiser article. And see his own work here in his surrealist art gallery.
Patron of the Friends of the Museum and Art Gallery
Desmond is patron of the museum and art gallery friends and he recently gave the group a simply wonderful talk via the magic of Zoom. Here’s the blog all about the talk on the Friends’ blogspot.
And here is a Zoom link to the fab talk from Dr Morris: