Peter Morrell’s 1957 self-portrait shows the artist aged about twenty-six (he was born in Newton Abbot, Devon in 1931), appearing diminutive in perspective and fragile-looking within the confines of what appears to be a huge, empty barn or warehouse structure. In 2001, he commented on a photograph of the painting: ‘I painted it in my Battersea [London] studio… This was an ex-hayloft, part of a cobbled stable yard, then used as a taxi lock-up garage… I had that place when I was at the Royal College of Art and most of my best work was done there… This 13 x 33 foot space was 25 shillings a week including electricity. The picture makes me look very vulnerable.’
Morrell’s posture is tentative and awkward, his slim shoulders oppressed by the weight of huge, empty space around him. His boyish face, with its shock of thick, black hair and huge, emphatic dark eyes, looks lost and gaunt. The grid of rafters and beams above appears hard-edged and impersonal, though warmed by yellow light. Yet there is a certain dignity in the artist’s central, full-frontal pose.
There is an affinity between Morrell’s bleakly coloured self-portrayal and Alberto Giacometti’s near-contemporaneous sketchy oil paintings of grey, haunted people stranded against abysmally dark backgrounds.
Morrell had studied at Kingston School of Art from 1952-6, and at the Royal College of Art, London from 1956-9, where his tutors included John Minton (‘not to be missed was a Minton criticism of the sketch club or the summer composition exhibition. I can feel it as I write this, his enthusiasm, his infectious fullness of life’), Roger de Grey, Carel Weight, Ruskin Spear and Roger de Grey.’
Morrell says, ‘I had my first show of [large and rather minimal colour-field] paintings at the New Art Centre, Sloane Street during 1964.’ He relates these to his interests in ‘landscape, the arcane, grid structures, Celtic myth and, overall, colour and texture’. His ‘previous work [had] more of a landscape connection, and Cornish painters between 1950-60 had a lot of influence on me – Hilton, Blow, Lanyon, Nicholson, as did Tapies, Burri and others. I had met Hilton and knew Sandra Blow quite well during my final years at the Royal College. I spent time in Cornwall with both artists.’