Little is known about George Morton as a practising artist aside from his having assisted with work on the pair of monumental frescoes commissioned from the leading Victorian artist Frederic Leighton in 1868 to decorate the south court of the recently opened South Kensington Museum in London (now the Victoria and Albert Museum): The arts of industry as applied to war and The arts of industry as applied to peace.
Leighton carried out the painting of the War fresco from 1878 to 1880, and Peace from 1884 to 1886. Conceived as a pair of contrasting scenes, the frescoes depict artistic achievements in Renaissance Italy and classical Greece, during wartime and peacetime respectively. Rather than illustrate a precise narrative or action, the compositions evoke an idealised vision of the distant past, where the industrial or applied arts (such as weaponry, textiles and ceramics) were valued and celebrated as objects of beauty. The choice of subject matter is entirely consonant with the social role of the South Kensington Museum in the 19th century, as a showcase for the applied arts intended to stimulate British design and manufacture.
Morton’s watercolours in the Art Gallery of NSW collection faithfully reproduce the frescoes, albeit at a much-reduced scale. They belong to a group of copies and reproductions of Leighton’s grandest public commission acquired in London over a number of years in the 1880s by the trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW. This set also included a pair of enormous, gold-framed photographic reproductions of Leighton’s monochrome cartoons, purchased from the Autotype Company of London together with a monochrome copy in oil of the bending archer seen at the extreme right of War, copied by Morton on the same scale as the original cartoon. There was also a special replica in fresco prepared on a square slab of plaster of one of the female heads from Peace, which ‘has been painted by Sir Frederic Leighton himself out of good will to your Colony, for what I may call the peppercorn honorarium of £25. The material painted on is the same as used on the wall in the museum.’ (Sir Herbert Sandford to Art Gallery of NSW director Eliezer Levi Montefiore, 22 July 1883.) The fresco was intended primarily as a technical sample of the newly developed Gambier Parry process, which involved the use of pigments combined with spirit medium on prepared plaster.
It mattered little to the trustees of the fledgling Gallery – confirmed in their belief that the public collection should also have a pragmatic, educational function – that copies of famous works and not originals were being acquired. Clearly, the purpose of the items mentioned above was as a related series of instructive tools in the principles of design and fresco painting. Their acquisition highlights the importance of fresco painting to all the English painters who wanted to revitalise High Art in the 19th century. It also suggests an ambition to foster local interest in this public art form at a time when grand civic buildings were changing the architectural character of Sydney.
A letter in the Art Gallery of NSW’s archive dated 18 November 1883 from Thomas Armstrong, a senior official at the South Kensington Museum entrusted with overseeing the Leighton copies for Sydney, notes Morton’s leisurely progress with Peace: ‘The watercolour drawing is very successful so far as it has gone but the artist went away on his own account for the autumn and I did not dare make much objection, for if he threw up the job I could not find anyone to do it half so well.’
Morton’s technical credentials were impeccable: educated at the National Art Training School and then the Royal Academy Schools, he returned in later life to his first alma mater to teach painting before being promoted to deputy headmaster of the recently renamed Royal College of Art in 1900.
Adapted from Victorian watercolours, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney 2017