Out to lunch with Mali Morris RA

Published 31 August 2012

Redefining the best of British cuisine with the Academician, who herself is as a conjuror in the world of colour.

  • From the Autumn 2012 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    I had the good fortune to invite Mali Morris RA to lunch just after she had recently attended a Jubilee reception for the Queen at the RA, honouring all of the arts academies under her patronage. In addition to a guest list full of artists, actors and musicians, the event included a best of British menu, prepared by top UK chefs. Morris was so impressed by one of them – Richard Corrigan – that she suggested we try his restaurant. “I loved his passion for local ingredients and British food, and the artistry in his work.” So on a rare sunny day this summer, we walked from the RA to Corrigan’s, in the heart of Mayfair.

    For Morris, as for me, this is a treat and we grin at each other like children who have just got away with some minor transgression as we sample each new dish, attempting to express what it tasted like with words like hand-made, considered, authentic, uncluttered, colour, provenance, depth – words that could equally be used to describe a work of art. My starter of cured wild sea trout with wasabi mayonnaise and pickled mouli (a kind of radish) is a delicate combination of smoky and spicy flavours. Corrigan uses local, seasonal ingredients, often foraged, in creative ways. “I’m savouring this moment,” says Morris as she tries her starter of crispy duck egg, English asparagus, with onion ash (the powder of baked and burnt onions, which tastes smoky and sweet). “It’s almost too beautiful to cut.”

    I must confess that the extraordinary food slightly distracted us from talking about Morris’s painting, which is the subject of two shows this autumn. Elected an RA in 2010, she is known for her abstract paintings that have complex inner rhythms of colour and form. Seemingly simple, her paintings are elaborately built up in layers of colour, which she lays down, paints over and then ‘excavates’ by wiping away the surface of wet paint to create a sense of luminosity emanating from the inside out. Colour and light are key. “How colour operates is always surprising,” she says, “it makes a luminosity that opens up space in a painting. A good painting is full of contradictions and conundrums – if you get things right, it can transform flat, inert canvas and pigment into something that constantly moves and shifts.”

    In her show, Back to Front, at the Eagle Gallery this autumn, the artist brings something of her studio into the London gallery by displaying scans of inspirational images and texts. “The architecture of the gallery gave me the idea for the show. In the main space, I’ll hang recent paintings, but in the entrance, I’m installing a bank of digital prints, scanned from the things I pin up on the studio wall on impulse.” These might be images of paintings she admires, such as a Velàzquez princess, Manet’s The Lemon, Matisse’s La Desserte, or poems such as Elizabeth Bishop’s Conversation. They don’t have a direct impact on her work but provide a kind of creative hinterland. “I don’t think of something and then paint it. It’s never cause and effect.”

    Born in north Wales in 1945, she had no art background in her family. “I did the usual things kids do: made my own comics, painted the cellar to look like an Egyptian tomb, was given a set of oil paints by my parents when I was about 15.”

    An abiding memory for Morris is of watching the composer who lived across the road, Dilys Elwyn-Edwards, through her window. “It was the first glimpse I had that a woman could lead a creative life. Every time I looked through her window, she was at her piano – seeing somebody so absorbed in a creative act made a big impact – it was like seeing a woman in a Vermeer.”

    It was the art teachers at her Llandudno grammar school who noticed her talent. “I owe a lot to two teachers, an older one who made me look at Matisse and Titian, and a younger one who had graduated from Newcastle University – he recommended I apply there.” At Newcastle in the 1960s Morris met the late Ian Stephenson RA and his wife Kate, who became lifelong friends. This autumn, Morris is also exhibiting work with her partner, the sculptor Stephen Lewis, in Kate Stephenson’s new Berwick Watchtower art space.

    Our mains arrive: I have the roasted brill with shellfish ravioli and earthy girolle mushrooms, set off by sweet Muscat grapes that explode in my mouth. She has scallops, baked celeriac and a chicken wing marinated in a glaze of apple reduction. “It’s an unexpected combination of tastes,” she enthuses, “The flavours are beautiful and direct and unpretentious – it’s all about the fact of the food. If I sell most of my paintings in the Summer Exhibition, I’ll take Steve here to celebrate.”

    How does she feel about being an RA? “It unexpectedly catapulted me into a new community, another group of artists, some I know already, some I am getting to know. I’m slowly finding out how this mysterious place works. The most extraordinary moment of being elected was signing the Rolls and suddenly seeing the name George Stubbs there too, then being taken on a tour of the building, all the little staircases and Gormenghast corridors (its author Mervyn Peake was a student at the RA Schools).”

    The dessert list proves impossible to resist – I choose gariguette strawberries and buttermilk cream topped with honeycomb, while Morris has Alphonso mango and passion fruit parfait with lemongrass sorbet – and as we trade tastes, I ask her about the current attention being paid to her painting. “In my own work, I always feel like a beginner, although I’m not, because the language of painting is so fascinating to me, always unfolding. My imagery, such as it is, comes from exploring how this language works, how colour makes light, and how that opens up space and keeps it moving. I like the paintings to seem as direct as possible. They don’t depict or represent, so they are abstract – but they are certainly about being in the world, and they reflect experience and address the senses.”

    Speaking of addressing the senses, at the time of writing, she owes Steve lunch at Corrigan’s.

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