Bellport remembers Malcolm Morley
Malcom Morley stands in his former Brookhaven studio circa 2007.

File photo

Bellport remembers Malcolm Morley




Cups of coffee and existential conversation. Tango lessons and chess. Hours of tutoring sessions and “super-realist” paintings. This is how Malcolm Morley was remembered by friends around a table in Bellport recently.

The British-born artist, who took up residence in a converted Methodist church in Brookhaven hamlet, died June 1 at age 86, just six days short of his 87th birthday. He was born in London on June 7, 1931, his childhood marked by war and bombings during the Blitz. His interest in art wouldn’t come until a stint in the Wormwood Scrubs prison for burglary and petit theft, but led to a decades-long career in art that included teaching at both Ohio State and Stony Brook universities.

Morley began painting in an abstract-expressionist style and pioneered the photorealist movement (he preferred the term “super realist.”) Often using a grid to transfer photographic images — often of ships, planes and beach scenes — to a canvas, Morley became one of the most prominent photorealists and earned the Tate Gallery’s inaugural Turner Prize in 1984.

The expat eventually settled in Brookhaven hamlet and frequented Bellport Village, forming relationships with local merchants and fellow artists, many of those relationships formed inside Kitchen and Coffee, the cafe opened by resident Thomas Schultz in 1998. “Malcolm was there having his hot chocolate and cookies on Day One, and he was there almost every day [from then on],” Schultz recalled recently. “That’s where a lot of us got to know Malcolm.”

The pair became fast friends, meeting often for a round of chess. Even after Schultz closed the doors to his cafe, the late Patricia Trainor would set them up with a board at The Bellport. Against Morley, Schultz can recall winning two or three times. “Playing with him and losing for so many years taught me to become a much better chess player,” he said. Those strategies are now being passed from Schultz to his three daughters. “So, in a way, [Malcolm’s] legacy carries on,” he said.

Kitchen and Coffee also served as the meeting place for Morley and David Long, who would go on to tutor Morley for nearly a decade.

Though Morley eventually studied fine art at the Camberwell School of Arts and the Royal College of Art, the war’s disruption of his childhood meant he never received a full education. “He’s very, very smart,” Long said of Morley’s intellectual capacity. “He reads voluminously, but one subject that’s difficult to do on your own is mathematics.”

So the two men met on a weekly basis, starting with math, and soon branched off into other subjects, like literature. “It probably started with the word ‘meter,’ which intrigued him,” Long explained of meters used in poetry. “We began to talk about [Homer’s] ‘Odyssey’ and dactylic hexameter, and his eyes just lit up. He had a wonderful, insatiable curiosity. That impressed me,” he said.

That curiosity led to Morley meeting LuAnn Thompson, who owns Bellport Arts and Framing on Main Street. When opening the Phoenix Fine Art Gallery in 2004, Thompson remembers Morley approaching her with plenty of ideas. “I was outside painting the flower boxes and Malcolm came over and was giving me some ideas for the gallery. He was very supportive. I told him I was going to try and do a few things. That’s when he told me to take the word ‘try’ out of my diet and just do it,” she said.

One of those ideas was a gallery exhibit of Morley’s original work to benefit the Boys and Girls Club of the Bellport Area in 2007. “It was a great opportunity for a small gallery in a small neighborhood. I will always thank him for that,” Thompson said.

Morley’s generosity to the club stretched beyond that exhibit. He was known to take groups of kids on art museum field trips and hold workshops. He even allowed the Bellport Chamber to use one of his images for the Bellport Day poster in 2010. “He was really supportive of the local businesses, too,” Thompson said. “I remember he had a custom-made suit from the tailor for the event.”

Everyone’s eyes lit up. “Oh, I remember that suit,” said Pamela Lerner. “And the one from the Parrish opening,” Schultz said.

Yes, even his unique fashion style — Panama hats, overalls, etc. — will be remembered by his friends in Bellport.

Lerner remembers Morley visiting her home design store during the holidays one year, when her Christmas cracker display caught his eye. An English Christmas tradition, Lerner remembers Morley lighting up when he found them locally. “They reminded him of his childhood, I think. He came in every Christmas for them.”

She sold a handful of Morley prints in her store, something she considers to be a privilege. “They were some fine prints, like Tankerton Bay, which is one of my favorites,” she said. “There’s nobody like him and there never will be. He had a spirit I haven’t seen around here.”

According to Lerner, Morley was not a man of small talk, either. “We’d be in line for coffee and he’d ask, ‘What do you think about the rise and fall of the Roman Empire?’ or about Darwin’s Theory. He didn’t do idle chatter. It was always some big thought,” she said.

The lifelong learner didn’t stop at academics. Schultz remembers that for a year before he married his wife, Mary, Morley and his wife, Lida, accompanied the two to tango dance lessons in Westhampton. “We showcased our newfound skills at our wedding,” Schultz said, in 2006. “And at the wedding, Malcolm asked me if he could take Mary for a dance. They did a beautiful tango. That’s just another example of how he wanted to continue to learn.”

Peter “Pietro” Romano of Bellport Jewelers remembers meeting Morley about 20 years ago. “He was wearing white coveralls that were full of dried paint. I was using a torch and soldering a piece of jewelry and he asked me, “Sir, what are you doing there?’ I explained and then I asked him what he did and he said, ‘I am a painter.’ I assumed he meant a house painter. Later I told my wife Dianne that this happy British fellow came in the shop today and that his name was Malcolm and that he was a house painter. That’s when she informed me that he’s not a house painter. But that’s how Malcolm was — a very unassuming gentleman always inquisitive of everything around him.”

Their friendship continued, eventually pairing up for a limited edition jewelry collection, which Romano said he’d miss working on. “Most of all,” he said, “I will miss Malcolm’s playful spirit.”

Stories shared around a breakfast table — some better left out of print — lead to laughter and some somber moments. Each expressed their gratitude for having shared the ether with Morley, even briefly. As he stood up to leave, Long remarked, “We all learned a little bit more about Malcolm today. I’ll treasure that.” 

Malcolm Morley is survived by his wife, Lida, who graciously declined to comment on this story. A memorial is planned for a to-be-determined date later this summer. 

 Malcolm Morley passed away June 1 at age 86. In his memory, a signed, framed original of the 2010 Bellport Day Poster featuring Morley’s “A Joyous Beach Scene” will be auctioned at the South Country Education Foundation’s annual auction and cocktail party on Saturday, July 14.