Tim Morris

– Tim Morris – Studio Potter & Artist: 1941 to 1990 –

Tim MorrisLeading South African Studio Potter & Artist.

Founder member of the Association of Potters of Southern Africa, now Ceramics South Africa. This page is a memorial to his life, work and legacy. We welcome comments, anecdotes and photos.

Born on 14 March 1941 in Windsor, Berkshire, England, elder child of Major William and Patricia Morris, Tim  Morris(Timothy William) recalls his first interest in art when he was 11 years old “…and from this age until I went to public school I painted from imagination or from cards or reproductions of flower, still lifes, etc. I also painted neat little homes in cosy Sussex sunlight.

I remember studying a few art prizebooks of my parents and took an interest in using all the pencils from H to 6B!”1 Many years later he told a journalist that art “… was the only thing that my friends and teachers ever praised me for.

Academically I had already decided I would never succeed and personality wise I was rather withdrawn in those days.”2 At primary school he was called “Dim Tim”3 (in fact, Tim was dyslexic) but at Lancing College he proved all and himself wrong by writing his ‘A’ level [Advanced Level General Certificate of Education, the standard entry qualification for British universities] on art in 1957, one year before writing his ‘O’ levels in English literature, geography and elementary mathematics with other “O” levels in Scripture knowledge and English language following in 1959. There were, Tim  Morris told a journalist, happy interludes at private and public schools “which were not obsessed with fagging and queering.”4

In private notes written in the late 1960s about his art education at school, Tim Morris commented: “At public school I continued to paint. I tried hard at watercolour painting which for a long time hindered my application of oil paint. I took A Levels before my Ordinary Levels and enjoyed painting murals on various school buildings [such as the walls of the library at Lancing College in West Sussex where the “Temple of Mars” from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales was painted, as reported in The Evening Argus, 12 February 1958] …to start a mural now would be a terrible task. Somehow I believed this confidence was only due to the lack of competition for when I went to Brighton Art School the situation changed. Here drawing and on a small scale broke any confidence I had. From that day onwards the way I have done under my own incentive has always been far better and sincerer than any work at St. Martin’s [The St. Martin’s School of Art, London] where I moved to after a year.”

Tim MorrisTim attended the St. Martin’s School of Art from 1960 to 1962 where he studied water-colour techniques and received his National Diploma in Design, majoring in painting. Amongst his fellow students were David Hockney, Joe Tilsen, Peter Koker and Elizabeth Fritsch. During this time, “persuaded by a reputable portrait painter” he participated in exhibitions by the Royal Society of British Artists and the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours. The 1959 Summer Salon of the Royal Institute Galleries listed two works by Tim: “Castle of Ludovic II of Bavaria, Neuschwanstein” at a catalogue price 15 Guineas and “Shoreham at Dawn” priced at 30 Guineas. In October 1960 there was a single work exhibited by the New English Art Club: “The Albert Bridge, Battersea” with a catalogue price of 50 Guineas. Three works were included in the March 1961 exhibition of the National Society at the Royal Institute Galleries, one being a portrait study “Nicolette Morris” which was not offered for sale and two other pieces: “Clay Mines in Cornwall” at a catalogue price of 35 Guineas and “Folkestone Harbour”, priced at 30 Guineas. Later in 1961 in he exhibited “Solliers Ville, South of France” with a catalogue price of 15 Guineas with the New English Art Club.

Upon graduating from St. Martin’s, Tim enrolled at London University for a teacher’s training diploma. He attended the university from October 1962 to June 1963. He confessed to the Sunday Times journalist Len Ashton that St. Martin’s and London University were not such happy experiences: ““I hit the 1950s Bridget Riley pop art. Not my scene. Part of my difficulty in adjusting to art school arose from the fact that I’d been brought up so conservatively. Tweed jacket and cavalry twill. But people don’t survive on matric or university. They survive on understanding themselves.”5

Whilst doing his teacher’s diploma at London University, the lecturer Bill Newland encouraged in Tim an interest in ceramics and advised him to enrol at the Central School of Art, London. Before doing so, he spent July 1963 teaching pottery at Catford School, London.

At the Central School of Art he studied pottery under many of Britain’s acknowledged masters; Ruth Duckworth (with whom he also worked for a short time as her “skivvy”)6, Ian Auld, Kenneth Clark, Dan Arbeid, Gordon Baldwin and John Colbeck. In those years he was “… very strongly influenced by people such as Dan Arbied, Hans Coper, Lucie Rie, John Colbeck and Ruth Duckworth. That was in 1964 and I suppose that it was really the end of the traditional stoneware era in colleges, excepting for Harrow.” 7 About the Central School of Art he would write that: “Having come from the country and for that matter a country art school, I found that Charing Cross Road and Soho seeped into the building far too often with little in the way of benefit to offer.” By 1969 when he visited Britain “… the whole funk scene had started and it was then already passe, in the college context, to be following in the Leach-Cardew style.”

The training at the Central School of Art laid the foundation for Tim’s pottery “… with the skills and understanding to produce high temperature ceramics that followed the Anglo-Oriental aesthetic…”8 Fourteen members of staff attended to the 30 ceramic students and “…. I was able to absorb numerous approaches to this art form, from practising artists in clay who use the medium as an individualistic expression whether for utility or sculptured ware.”9 However, he found the staff “… far too over-intellectual, creating in most students the ability to think ‘big thoughts’ and due to technical shortcomings never reach a similar standard in work.”10 He graduated in 1964.

Some time later Tim wrote an unpublished essay on “Training of the artist” in which he advocated that “… opportunity must be provided for the development of a high standard of technological skill in some work where an individual taste may add to the result. It should not be necessary to provide a stimulus for work – what the training should supply together with the atmosphere and facilities for expression is ‘signposts and shortcuts…” and urged that there “… is the need to relate an activity to historical and sociological understanding; which means the student must have read and studied way outside the obvious limits of his craft.

Then came an opportunity to work as site artist under the renowned British archaeologist, Dame Kathleen Kenyon, at a dig in Jerusalem, Israel. Timmade drawings of pottery “fresh from the ground”11 and could see and study comprehensive collections of ancient Middle-East pottery and clay vessels, dating back to the pre-pottery Neolithic period of Jericho. The realisation that exceptional utilitarian pottery, unglazed but yet so elegant, was created millennia ago undoubtedly had a profound influence on him.

In 1965 Tim’s father offered him the use of the family summer seaside cottage at Hermanus and there for a while he continued with his portraiture while exploring the possibility of starting a pottery studio and workshop. He made contact with Hyme Rabinowitz at Rabinowitz’s Eagles Nest studio: “Already there was the drive to ‘get on with it’ in his chosen profession, and not just play around.”12 It was at Hyme’s studio where he met the potter Helen Martin (Dustan) and the two decided, somewhat spontaneously, to establish a studio together. The undercapitalised project got underway in the Orchards suburb of Johannesburg with the backing of a group of hopeful students and some inventive improvisation. The partnership lasted two years. Tim then secured an appointment as lecturer at the Johannesburg College of Art for 1966 and 1967.

He was drawn, writes Susan Sellschop, to the contemporary British art styles which were influenced by the Pop movement initiated in the U.S.A. in the 1960s “but realised that he could build a stable career from working in high-fired stoneware and porcelain, making utilitarian wares that were still in style in South Africa at that time.”13

Tim moved to the farm of the furniture designer John Tabrahams in 1967. At Larsens Farm, just outside of Johannesburg, he installed himself in the servants’ quarters and built a studio with an oil kiln in the cowshed. By now his work was beginning to attract attention and he was building up what he terms his “audience”.

In February 1968 he participated in a group exhibition at the Cape Town gallery of the South African Arts Association and in the same city was represented in the “Index 68” craft exhibition. His first major exposure in a commercial gallery in South Africa came in 1969 when Helen de Leeuw offered him a one-man exhibition at her gallery in Hyde Park, Johannesburg. Her craft gallery and shop, frequented by craftspeople and people interested in handmade objects, showed the work among interesting furniture, fabrics and other objects giving it context within the field of contemporary interior design. This was followed in the same year by a one-man exhibition at Linda Goodman’s Gallery in Hyde Park which “finally affirmed his decision to remain in this medium for which he had developed so much affection.”14 The pots for this exhibition were taken still hot from the kiln to the gallery and left indelible rings on the back seat of Tim’s car.15

He briefly returned to Britain for his wedding to his English bride, Vicky, in 1968 but the marriage was short-lived and Tim returned to South Africa in 1969. He found his soul mate in Marlene, one of his pottery students, and married her in 1970 and set out to build a home and studio on property in the Muldersdrift region. Lynne Wagner described it as a “rambling, white, steep-pitched studio-home which was built with the aid of two assistants and a patient wife… [Ngwenya Studio, as it was named] was simple, spacious and effective. It consisted of five sunny rooms housing the clay processing, showroom, kiln room, throwing room and working areas. The 5m³ kiln was separate, set unobtrusively into the main building. Morris fired once every three weeks as a rule, but this could peak up to weekly firings. Two assistants helped with the clay processing and slabbing, kiln packing and other manual activities. Most of his output was produced on a custom-built electric wheel which was set very low to allow him to pull large pots. Apart from slabbing, he did virtually no hand building except when working on sculptures. He fired twice, keeping glazes down to basics. Decoration with three high-clay ‘house’ glazes and a few oxides (iron, cobalt-rutile) was used with a sense of economy.”

Gail de Klerk’s assessment of studio pottery in the early 1970s was that “… many studio potters were establishing themselves and their work was dominated by the Anglo-Oriental genre of functional pieces with minimal decorative elements.”16 Tim thought the era and the country “… an exciting place to work in as the horizons for expression in pottery, whether domestic or experimental, are various. In the U.K. a great deal of pottery is made, a large percentage being domestic work of a very fine quality. However, the opportunity to make a living from the production of decorative non-functional pottery is limited. It is, for example, interesting that you [Linda Goodman] are prepared to hold a ceramic show in your gallery which provides clay as an artistic medium to be seen in a fine art context: not that I am adverse to domestic pottery being sold in craft orientated shops as well.”17

Tim’s own work in that era was described by John Dewar as: “His shapes are decided, direct and complete in themselves, and further embellishment of a minimal design in glazes, some illustrative, have just enough meaning.” Dewar considered Tim’s free-standing sculptural works as: “… symbolic and in some instances interlocking, are technically extensions of slab-pot making.”18 Few of the sculptural pieces found buyers and most, says Marlene “… ended up as doorstoppers.” Tim had to revert to his functional work. In 1972, Tim was quoted as saying of his work “…that he has not arrived, that if he produces one work of value in his life it is not enough.19

A string of solo, partnered and group exhibitions followed, amongst others in April 1972 at the Ou Johannesburg Gallery; in September of the same year at the Kunskabinet in Windhoek (Namibia); in 1973 at the Tatham Art Gallery, Pietermaritzburg along with Marietjie van der Merwe, Rabinowitz and Andrew Walford and at the end of the year at the Goodman Gallery. (In all, Tim had 18 exhibitions in successive years at the Goodman Gallery.)

Of his life, lifestyle and work, Tim said in 1973: “I am sitting here because I want to sit here… You don’t have to take stock answers when you are working on your own. I am basically the sort of person who feels that life is short enough as it is and I have never wanted to be employed by anyone else. I know I am very limited, and I know if I got a normal job I would be restricted by people as limited as I am. So I prefer to be my own master. If I have to be mediocre I can do it without fitting into patterns of travelling to work and being obliged to work to a timetable…”20 In another interview published in the same year, he added: “I’m afraid I’m not brave enough to go out on a limb and produce something I believe in. The point is that I really don’t believe in anything. At 32, I don’t have any strong conviction. But I do enjoy what I am doing. Basically I don’t believe in humanity at all. A few people do the right thing, which only another few recognise. Everyone else follows like sheep. In a way I admire people with great convictions.”21

The Ngwenya Studio as described by Chris Patton, was seldom without a constant flow of friends, followers and buyers “…. dropping in and out, being greeted by Baska (Baskaville), the great Dane and shouted at by Cyril the parrot. Some came to buy, some to watch and listen as he worked, it was a place of life activity and industry.” As Patton recalls: “He loved music, which was always in evidence in his studio when cricket wasn’t being broadcast! He had a system where he could throw pots and watch cricket on television through a hatch between his studio and the living room, and that’s not easy.” Marlene was the anchor in Tim’s life and held the reigns in the studio: “… a tower of strength and reason, doing all the organizing and paperwork and basically running the show releasing Tim to concentrate on what he did best, his ceramics. Creativity and order do not always go together. He could not have achieved what he did without her.”22

David Walters who worked in Tim’s studio during 1969 said of his work and lifestyle: “Tim needed to produce a lot of pots, and he needed to make money. He was impatient too, at one stage, decorating his pots on the wheel as he was throwing them. He had loads of energy – up early, doing the physical work of packing kilns – and we often went out to dinner while the oil kiln was firing – and then back to the pottery to check on progress. He was exhausting… He needed people, he enjoyed their adulation, he loved selling people pots, and the studio was a high energy, popular place… and of course he attracted oddballs who basked in his giving nature.”23

It was the initiative of Joyce Keyser (Horvath) in 1973 to invite Gordon Wales, Charlotte Katzen, Sammy Liebermann and Peggy Simpson to her house to discuss starting a club or place where potters could get together, over a cup of coffee, to chat and exchange ideas.24 Tim was also approached and along with Marlene became founder members of the Association of Potters of Southern Africa (APSA), now known as Ceramics Southern Africa. APSA set itself the task to “foster the art of craft pottery and ceramics and to encourage the development, appreciation and recognition of craft pottery”. It also established regular and national exhibitions and competitions.

He attracted young potters to his studio and would teach them willingly and often for free. Chris Green and David Walters were some of the novices who benefitted. David Schlapobersky and Felicity Potter found in him a mentor and guide: ”We do what we do because he did what he did”.25

An unglazed sculpture by Tim titled “He was a fisher of men” was exhibited at the 1974 International Arts and Crafts Fair in Florence. The only other South African entry was a tapestry by Beteinah Bgema of Rorkesdrift. In 1975 he exhibited at the William Humphreys Art Gallery, Kimberley and in December that year he joined Esias Bosch, Thelma Marcuson, Rabinowitz and Walford for a group exhibition at Gallery S, Nelspruit.

Tim admired and lavished praise on his contemporaries. He rated Green as the “best thrower in the country”, lauded Walford and Digby Hoets for the quality and sincerity of their work, referred to Bosch as “God” and bemoaned the loss of a potential master potter when Neville Burde first returned to his family’s business and then emigrated to the U.S.A.

Tim started to shift his attention to unglazed stoneware and also experimented with fine forms in porcelain. More exhibitions followed such as at the Waterkant Gallery, Cape Town in 1977; in 1980 at The Look-out Art Gallery, Plettenberg Bay and two more in August 1981. The second of those was at the Sandown Gallery, Sandton where he exhibited his watercolours and where he invited Wendy Goldblatt to join a ceramics tour to Japan, organized by Maarten Zaalberg: Goldblatt recalls: “A group of about twenty travelled from Fukuoka in the South of Japan right up to Tokyo visiting Living National Treasures and seeing wonderful pots wherever we went. We had many discussions on all aspects of ceramics as we visited various studios, Tim was always there to share his knowledge with everyone and he was a great fund of information. Travelling with Tim was a wonderful experience; he was so enthusiastic and excited by the whole trip and always fun to be with. Every day, he was up earlier than any of us, often out alone, sketching and painting watercolours. It seemed he just couldn’t get enough of the landscape and atmosphere of Japan.”26

At last Tim was able to see Hamada’s pots in real life: “When we were in Japan, I saw some of Hamada’s pots. Now I had seen hundreds of photographs of his work but none of them told me how vibrant and powerful they are. The plates look big, in fact they are enormous and vibrant! You don’t realise this until you see them. Travelling helps me to grow and keeps me visually stimulated.”27

In 1982 he exhibited at the Potchefstroom University, at the Beuster-Skolimowski Gallery, Pretoria and joined Susan Annandale, Bosch, Hoets, Lesley-Ann Hoets, Barry Dibb, Dina Prinsloo, Rabinowitz and Marietjie van der Merwe for a group exhibition at the Yellow Door, Cape Town. The exhibitions in 1983 included shows at the Ivan Solomon Gallery, Pretoria and De Leeuw’s exhibition space in an old carriagehouse in Parktown,. There was a time when Tim had exhibitions lined up two years in advance.

In the mid-1980s, Tim was still hosting workshops. Jeni Rabinowitz recalls her first “and most profound, as well as lasting, impression of meeting of Tim at a Saturday afternoon gathering of Johannesburg potters late in 1975, outside the old Potter’ Shop in Hyde Park Corner. There, sitting cross-legged on the floor was a handsomely bearded man, his eyes dancing and hands sweeping the air. He sang the sad lament of a dedicated pottery teacher. Very articulate, direct, but with a certain gentleness, he outlined the life cycle of the average pottery student. After six lessons, the acquisition of a wheel, another three, a dinner service proudly displayed, then begged-for lessons by the bored housewife next door who in turn started her own teaching after five lessons and whose students started their own classes after three. All a bit exaggerated of course, but necessary to emphasise the diminishing of well-crafted pots until their reputation was completely lost. Such was his concern and love of ceramics, fed by a deep need to highlight standards and quality.”28

When, in 1985, Rabinowitz was recovering from multiple bypass surgery and subsequent colitis during which time he was unable to fire his big kiln,Tim came to the rescue and canvassed for donations with which a gas kiln was purchased so that Rabinowitz could continue his work.29 Of this, Rabinowitz wrote that: “Tim… was a good example of “’the good that men do’”.30 An earlier example of the “good” of Tim was his involvement with Schlapobersky and Potter to establish a pottery studio at Cresset House, a Camphill school and training centre for children in need of special care, in Halfway House: “Not only was he willing to share his time and expertise with us… but in a flash he was instrumental in facilitating a fund-raising exhibition at the school in aid of the new pottery workshop… A number of prominent personalities and emerging artists and craftspeople responded with enthusiasm to Tim’s invitation to take part in the exhibition; among them were people such as Eduardo Villa, Cecil Skotness, Tessa Fleisher and Digby Hoets.”31

Tim and Marlene were the leading forces in establishing the Crocodile River Arts and Crafts Ramble in July 1987 to attract visitors and buyers to the craftsmen and artists living and working in the Muldersdrift area. The ramble was inspired by the success of Walter’s and Ian Glenny’s Midlands Meander in kwaZulu Natal which showcased the work of local craftspeople and artists in that region. Within a year the ramble offered access to 30 artists and 18 galleries, amongst them the sculptors Johan van Heerden, Michael Fleischer and Mickey Korzennik, Mona Smit who did appliqué, Ben Smit working in wrought iron, the weaver Jenny Lotter, the silver and goldsmith Tessa Fleischer, knifemaker Owen Wood, Patton with his reduction stoneware and Sarie Saunders who specialised in raku and unglazed ceramics.32 The craftsmen and artists of the ramble were honoured with a group exhibition at the RAU Gencor-Gallery, Johannesburg in 1988.

Unbeknown to so many, Tim’s lifelong struggle with bipolar disorder was reaching a critical point. Hoets and his wife Penny would later write: “As anyone who ever met Tim knows, he was a brilliant showman and raconteur who could keep friends and audience thoroughly entertained. His demonstrations drew large audiences to his studio. He had the sense of humour and breadth of knowledge that sometimes and fortuitously results when a good brain encounters a good British education and is compounded by a wide circle of highly diverse and interesting friends. But in Tim’s case the downside came when the audience left and Tim increasingly withdrew into a dark and distant place, which ultimately claimed his life.”33

Behind the scenes, wrote Jenny Hobbs “… he was an intensely serious, hardworking and dedicated artist whose innate modesty made him adept at deflecting praise.”34 Ashton recalled how Tim was dismissive of himself at his exhibition of watercolours at the Pieter Wenning Gallery in 1975 when he said: “You can explain that I’m a lying, hypocritical socialite. All of which is partly true.”

What Tim said to Ashton about his painting would most probably also apply to his pottery: “It’s not significant to me whether I sell my pictures or not, because I’m going to go on painting, anyway. One’s ego is terribly important, of course, but the pictures are simply adorations of what I see around me. An intelligent art critic would probably say ‘unresolved’ or ‘charming’. But who the hell cares? I don’t like to complicate painting. I’ve done some abstracts, but when I sit down and look at them I think: ‘Who do you think you’re kidding?’”

Thank you for spending time on our Tim Morris pages.