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Ronald Morgan, Artist

July 20, 2017
by the gentle author

Today I present another extract from my new book EAST END VERNACULAR, Artists who painted London’s East End streets in the 20th century to be published by Spitalfields Life Books in October. Click here to preorder your copy

‘I like the East End, it has a nice feel to it’

This is my portrait of Ronald Morgan in the studio at his flat in Bow where I visited him recently. Ronald has lived the batchelor life in an attractive art deco block of flats in Bow for forty years and it is furnished as if he had only just moved in, yet the piles of discarded sketches which litter the floor of his quiet studio at the rear of the building more than testify to his prodigious output in this time.

I discovered Ronald Morgan’s work through his painting of a Salvation Army band standing in the rain at the junction of Parnell and Tredegar Rd in Tower Hamlets’ art collection and I was fascinated to discover that he is a long time resident of the borough, even though leads a quiet life devoted to painting and keeps a resolutely low profile in the East End.

“I was born in 1936 near Cannock in Staffordshire. When I was about twelve my parents bought me some watercolours and I dabbled about in an amateurish way. When I was fifteen, I went to Walsall School of Art and I was there doing graphic design, we called it ‘commercial art’ in those days. I left the School at eighteen and couldn’t get a job as a graphic designer, so I had to work in an industrial drawing office, drawing machinery, that sort of thing. I was a junior draftsman.

The principal of the School of Art invited me to join the Walsall Society of Artists of which he was the secretary, so I became a junior member when I was eighteen. I mentioned to him one day that I was going to submit some work to the Royal Academy Summer Show. ‘My boy, you’ll be wasting your time and money,’ he informed me, ‘I am a graduate of the Royal College of Art and a close friend of Henry Moore – he was the best man at my wedding – and I’ve been submitting pictures for forty years, but never had one accepted.’ What an idiot! Anyway, I was undaunted so I sent in two drawings and they were both accepted, and one got shown in the exhibition. When he found this out, he was so annoyed. Instead of saying, ‘Congratulations!’ he didn’t speak to me again for a whole year, and next year I sent in three pictures and got two in the show. I was showing there every year after that.

After working in the drawing office, I got a job in a local government planning department – doing illustrations, that sort of work. As I was exhibiting so many times in London, coming down by train all the time, I thought, ‘I might as well live there.’ So I applied for several jobs and eventually I got one working for the London Borough of Haringey. The chap in charge saw my watercolours and said, ‘Could you do something like that for us?’ So I said, ‘Yes, certainly,’ and I moved down here. I got digs in Hornsey and, after four years, I moved to Hammersmith Council. It was a similar sort of thing, the boss saw my work and said, ‘We’d like you to do some work like that for us.’

All these years, I was painting in every available moment of my own time. I paint on location, so I’d go out with my easel and I took trips abroad around Europe. Now it is more difficult because I am eighty-one, and carrying an easel and paint box around is quite heavy. I still work very hard and I’d never give it up, even though I feel very tired sometimes. I do a lot of walking though and I still paint out of doors, I was painting the other week in Richmond by the Thames. Turner painted there, he was a great painter – one of my favourites.

I won quite a few awards including the Lord Mayor’s Art Award in 1974, for a street scene in Islington. It is nice to sell pictures – it gives you confidence, you know. I sell on the internet occasionally through the Royal Society of British Artists. I sold a picture of Venice to a woman in Hong Kong a few weeks ago!

From Hammersmith, I applied for a job at the drawing office in Tower Hamlets when the Town Hall  was here in Bow. I became the senior draftsman and I thought, ‘I’d love to live in the East End.’ I like the East End, it has a nice feel to it. So I came and painted a lot in the streets around here. I painted several Salvation Army bands including one in Whitechapel, where it all started. I have painted kids playing football in the street in the East End. I painted all along the Regent’s Canal and the River Lea. I was painting down by the River Lea twenty years ago on a very windy day. A gust of wind almost blew my easel over and I grabbed hold of it, but my picture had gone – into the river – three hours work wasted! It just floated away.

I have lived in this flat for about forty years. I paint full time now, every day of the week. I just love painting streets, I put my easel up and paint. When you see a subject under certain lighting conditions – bright light or evening light – it’s so exciting. I have even got people to pose for me in the street. I say, ‘Madame or Sir, could you stand there for about ten minutes while I paint you?’ and they’ve done it.

The worst thing is when someone gets out of their Porsche with a cigar and says, ‘I’d love to buy your painting.’ This happened to me at Putney, the man said, ‘I live just down the road and I’ve always wanted a picture of this stretch of the river.’ So I said, ‘As a favour, you can have it unframed for £300.’ He said, ‘£300 for a small painting like that!’ I wanted to say, ‘If you can afford a Porsche, you can afford three hundred quid for a painting.’

I have lived in London for about fifty years and I have seen a tremendous amount of change. When I first came, there were all these lovely old buildings. They were ancient and falling apart some of them but marvellous to paint, whereas now they have been replaced by modern developments which are not so attractive. I still enjoy the East End and I love to paint the river, I think I have painted whole of this end of the river right down to the coast.”

Salvation Army Band at the junction of Parnell and Tredegar Rd in Bow, 1978. Painted from sketches made a few years earlier, before the houses were demolished.

Painting copyright © Ronald Morgan

Reproduced courtesy of Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives

Take a look at some of the other artists featured in East End Vernacular

John Allin, Artist

Pearl Binder, Artist

Roland Collins, Artist

Anthony Eyton, Artist

Doreen Fletcher, Artist

Barnett Freedman, Artist

Elwin Hawthorn, Artist

Rose Henriques, Artist

Dan Jones,  Artist

Leon Kossoff, Artist

Jock McFadyen, Artist

Cyril Mann, Artist

Peri Parkes, Artist

Henry Silk, Artist

Albert Turpin, Artist

Click here to preorder a copy of EAST END VERNACULAR for £25

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Jim McDermott permalink
    July 20, 2017

    What a wonderful commitment to his work Mr Morgan has. And he looks very well for it. If he’s still doing unframed ‘favours’ for £300 I might raid the piggy bank.

  2. July 20, 2017

    Ronald the ‘quiet man’ has lived ‘forever’ in London and knows his way around town & the Thames, and am sure he has the right work-ups for his brand of art not shown here. Pic shown has a rainy day finish which intrigues and excites me, not sure about the canvas size. His art output has been big…big. I would liked to have seen more of his work. !I can – if I or the public out there buys GA’s book. There has to be lots of exiting stuff inside. Poet John

  3. Helen Breen permalink
    July 20, 2017

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, yet another great sketch of a living artist from the East End. That is a funny story about Ronald’s work as a young man being accepted at the Royal Society. I bet his instructor was jealous!

    I had occasion to attend the summer show at the Academy at Burlington House a few years back. I signed up for the tour and was the only one. If I may quote from my trip report:

    “Our docent was pleased that the door of the board room, usually closed to the public, was ajar so we stepped in to view the self-portraits of the RA’s first president SIR JOSHUA REYNOLDS (1723-1792) and his successor American born BENJAMIN WEST (1792-1805). Curiously Reynolds painting seemed patterned on Michelangelo’s self-portrait that hangs in the National Gallery while West’s has the undeniable cast of his studies of George Washington.”

    It is a very impressive setting. Wishing Ronald continued good health and productivity…

  4. July 20, 2017

    Like a still from a socially realistic film from the 60s-70s.

  5. Pat permalink
    August 2, 2017

    I have one of Ronalds paintngs, purchased at the Mall Galleries….love his work.

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