Meet the mysterious figure who threw Norfolk’s heritage into sharp relief
PUBLISHED: 09:36 06 December 2018 | UPDATED: 11:54 06 December 2018
Once thought to have been an Italian prisoner-of-war, Scotsman John Moray-Smith left an indelible legacy on Norfolk through his sculptures. ALAN TUTT, Cromer Museum’s visitors’ services assistant, looks at his life and times.
I first cast eyes on work by John Moray-Smith in Cromer Museum. A 7ft-long 3D relief mural of a beach scene in Cromer, made of decorative plasterwork; very detailed and quite beautiful. It was crammed full of life and vibrancy, animation and colour, with a hint of humour redolent of Beryl Cook.
That mural was one of a triptych installed in the 1950s in the long-gone Ship Hotel, on Church Street in Cromer.
A second depicts a rescue by oar-powered Cromer lifeboat; a third, a smaller panel of heroic Cromer coxswain, Henry Blogg.
At that time, the accepted biography of Moray-Smith was that he was Italian and came to England as a prisoner-of-war in the First World War that he studied at London’s Slade School of Art where he met his future wife, Katin, and took her surname.
This was the story told by John Riddington Young in his Inns and Taverns of Old Norwich and oft repeated.
John and Katin eventually washed up in New Costessey, Norwich where John was remembered as an eccentric character seen about in beret, red stockings and jodhpurs; that he bought bruised greens at Norwich Market for his rabbits and chickens kept at his ramshackle bungalow.
What is fact is that he worked from the 1930s for three decades for Morgans’ Brewery, Norwich. In an early attempt to introduce ‘branding’, Morgans’ commissioned Moray-Smith to create original murals of local relevance to decorate their pubs – some inside, some outside.
Examples exist in Norwich. One stands on the gable wall of The Prince of Denmark, Sprowson Road – a stunning princely beau on a white charger with a hawk on one fist, renovated in 2013 by Antony Murray.
Another two depict the city gates, based on Henry Ninham engravings, one outside the Berstrete Gates, Ber Street – in rather poor condition; another outside the Coachmakers Arms, St Stephen’s Road. But the pièce de résistance is the set of five (originally six) inside the Woolpack on Golden Ball Street, depicting sheep farming, the export of wool, sheep shearing, sheep market and wool dying and packing, richly evocative of Norwich’s history and complimenting the pub name.
Paul Burall of the Norwich Society was also intrigued by Moray-Smith and sceptical of his biography. His findings are that Moray-Smith was a Scot, born in 1889 in Longside, Aberdeenshire.
His family moved to London and he married Catherine Muriel Mann in Lavender Hill, London in 1925; they moved to Norwich in the early ‘30s. An early Moray-Smith is a model used as a basis for the distinctive Samson and Hercules pillars in Tombland, most recently a Mexican-flavoured cantina.
Both John and his wife died within three weeks of each other in 1958 in Norwich. Few Moray-Smith works have survived, many disappeared. For instance, a portrait of Norwich boxer ‘Ginger’ Sadd is AWOL.
Certainly some that are known are scattered across East Anglia. These include an evocative model of a ship on the Ship pub in Brancaster; a panel in the Harnser pub in Stalham (harnser being Norfolk for ‘heron’); a bronze plaque of a steam engine in Thetford; a panorama of Norwich recently bought and restored by the Norwich Society; a flying fish plaque in the pub of that name in Carbrooke, Watton; six plaques made for the Men of March pub – one is in March Museum, two in Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum store, but three are absent; and, finally six for the Jolly Farmers in Kings Lynn depicting farming.
All the works exhibit a tremendous amount of skill in manufacture, using techniques and materials devised by the artist, and meticulous attention to historical detail.
There is no known image of this mysterious and unique artist but there are certainly more Moray-Smiths out there waiting to be discovered to add to what is already a fine legacy left by the man.
Cromer Museum re-opens to the public on April 1. Why not pop along and see the Moray-Smith panels on display and much more besides. It also opens for one-off days only on December 29 and New Year’s Day from midday to 4pm.