Thursday, March 28, 2024

Desmond Morris, surrealism, The Naked Ape and Richard Jefferies

Embed from Getty Images

The Rest is History podcast on history's greatest monkeys was a disappointment in that there was no mention of the Barbary ape that bit King Alexander of Greece in 1920 and caused his death - perhaps it didn't go to the right school? - but it was invaluable for another reason.

Because it mentioned that Desmond Morris is still alive and living in Ireland at the age of 96. This led me to look at Morris's remarkable career and discover that his grandfather was a school friend of Richard Jefferies, about whom I wrote my Masters dissertation many years ago.

Morris's book The Naked Ape was a bestseller, and a scandal to some, in the Sixties. It sought to explain human behaviour as the result of the conditions under which we evolved, annoying both the religious right and the cultural left.

His qualifications for writing the book were that he had a doctorate in zoology and had worked for the Zoological Society of London in various capacities for some years. He was also, alongside David Attenborough, a well-known presenter of natural history programmes on the BBC.

But before all that he had enjoyed a radically different career. In his early twenties Morris was one of Britain's foremost surrealist painters.

All of which explains Getty's caption for the photo above:

16th December 1966: English zoologist Dr Desmond Morris at home. Morris, who has been the curator of mammals at London Zoo since 1959, leaves in the new year to take up an appointment as director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Morris is a keen artist himself and the walls of his home are decorated with many of his own contemporary paintings. 

There is a full chronology of Desmond Morris's life on his website.

Morris came from Swindon - if you saw him in the Seventies it was often on a chat show where he was paired with the town's most famous daughter, Diana Dors.

Desmond Morris's great grandfather was William Morris (not that William Morris), who founded Swindon's first newspaper and was an importance influence on the young Richard Jefferies.

Walter Besant wrote in The Eulogy of Richard Jefferies:
His chief literary adviser in those days was Mr. William Morris, of Swindon, proprietor and editor of the North Wilts Advertiser. Mr. Morris is himself the author of several works, among others a "History of Swindon," and, as becomes a literary man with such surroundings, he is a well-known local antiquary. 
Mr. Morris allowed the boy, who was at school with his own son, the run of his own library; he lent him books, and he talked with him on subjects which, one can easily understand, were not topics of conversation at Coate. 
Afterwards, when Jefferies had already become reporter for the local press, it was the perusal of a descriptive paper by Mr. Morris, on the  "Lakes of Killarney," which decided the lad upon seriously attempting the literary career.

Richard Jefferies died in 1887 at the age of 38. If he had lived to 79, he could have dandled the infant Desmond Morris on his knee.


Crewe Gwyn said...

I once went to an exhibition of Morris's surrealistic work. There was also a work by one of the Spanish surrealists. It was definitely a touch of Premier League - Division 2.

A Rambling Ducky said...

Division 2 is still better than almost everybody who plays football.

Anonymous said...

I was once told (by someone who was in a position to know) that "The Naked Ape" only came about because of a chance meeting between Desmond Morris and the publisher Tom Maschler at a party. Neither knew each other, and in making small talk Morris spoke about his work, and Maschler latched onto the phrase "naked ape" and said it would be a great title for a book. Morris thought that it was a bit trite, and when pressed into writing the book was still of the opinion that it wasn't properly "academic" enough. Nevertheless, Maschler knew what would sell, and the book was so successful that Morris became a tax exile - in Malta, if I remember correctly.