James-H-MortonThey gave Jim Morton a rifle and told him to follow orders. Perhaps they should have handed him some pastels, oil paints and brushes and told him: "Off you go. Help yourself."

Talented artist James Hargreaves Morton would have made an excellent war artist in the Great War but, coming from a small Lancashire town as opposed to the heady swirl of cosmopolitan London, he had little chance.

The poets of the Great War are remembered today. But how many can come up with more than half-a-dozen of the more than 90 official war artists who were appointed during the 1914-1918 conflict?

They were rather a loose collection of university graduates, the well-connected and adventurers from Canada and the Commonwealth. Many had studied at the Slade.

Charles Masterman, head of the British War Propaganda Bureau, took the advice of William Rothenstein and appointed Muirhead Bone as Britain's first official war artist in May 1916. Many more, most of them with connections to the art establishment, followed.

Some never left the UK, others flitted across the Channel for brief spells on the edge of the fighting. William Orpen, Augustus John, surrealist Paul Nash, Canadian Wyndham Lewis and John Lavery are among the best-known.

Jim Morton spent five years at the Royal College of Art before going back to his home in Darwen with hopes of making a success of his ambition to be a painter. He had the talent, but he didn't have the connections.

He was conscripted in 1916 and later went off to fight in France. He was killed just five days before the end of the hostilities and he is buried in a communal grave at Pont-sur-Sambre. He was 37.

Morton left behind a vast collection of pastels, water colours, oil paintings and drawings and his four sisters guarded them at their terrace home in Darwen. When the last of them died in 1967 the collection was sold at an auction in Blackburn that raised over £10,000, a large sum for a virtually unknown artist.

The critics were enthusiastic. Simon Hoggart wrote in the Guardian that Morton's work had "tremendous serenity and strength." David Ward in the same newspaper described him as "a cotton town Impressionist, in touch with European trends and movements."

Morton's collection was dispersed far and wide, but the Friends of Darwen Library spent six months tracing many of them and have reproduced nearly 100 of them in an excellent book: James Hargreaves Morton; a short, colourful life. It describes not only Morton's career and paintings but the rise of a small Northern town from the slums of the mid-1800s.

Among the pencil drawings with crayons on display are a handful which Jim Morton drew in the summer of 1918 while helping to train newly-arrived American troops close to the Somme estuary.

His Colonel, Hector Fraser Whitehead, had written to a former Colonel of the East Lancashires describing Morton as "an excellent artist" and had asked for paper and crayons to be sent out from England for him to use. The drawings surfaced after having been hidden away in the Lancashire Infantry Museum at Preston since the end of the Great War.

Perhaps the Friends of Darwen Library can think of Jim Morton as something of a war artist after all ...

The Morton book is a glossy softback, A4 and 230 pages. Two chapters cover Morton's service, death in battle and remembrance. Among the photos are those of the actual field where he was killed and the fortified farmhouse from where German machine-gunners rained down fire. It has been edited by semi-retired journalist Harold Heys. (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.). The first run was a sell-out and the Friends are planning a short, second printing.


Article contributed by Harold Heys.

Images: top, a self-portrait pastel of James H Morton, for which the Friends of Darwen library have paid £1,300 to have renovated; and above one of his pastel chalk drawings of French villages from the summer of 1918. The latter shows the church at St Blimont on the left bank of the Somme estuary. Several such images surfaced in the summer of 2012 when London accountant Roger Davison, who was a big help with the Morton book, spent a very pleasant afternoon at the Lancashire Infantry Museum at Preston.


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