Desmond Morris

For the Australian rugby league footballer, coach and administrator, see Des Morris.
Desmond Morris

Desmond Morris (1969)
Born Desmond John Morris
(1928-01-24) 24 January 1928
Purton, Wiltshire, England
Residence Oxford, England
Nationality British
Occupation Zoologist and ethologist
Known for The Naked Ape (1967)

Desmond John Morris (born 24 January 1928) is an English zoologist, ethologist and surrealist painter, as well as a popular author in human sociobiology.

Early life

Born on 24 January 1928 in Purton, Wiltshire, England, Desmond Morris is the son of Marjorie (née Hunt) and the children's fiction author Harry Morris. In 1933, the Morrises moved to the nearby town of Swindon, which remained his primary home until 1951. During this time in Swindon, Morris began to develop a strong interest in both natural history and writing. In 1941, Morris attended Dauntsey's School, a co-educational boarding school for 11- to 18-year-olds on the northern edge of Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. It was during this time away at school that Morris's passion for both zoology and the modern visual arts began to intensify and come to the surface.[1]

In 1946, Morris was conscripted into the British Army for two years of national service. During this time, he became a lecturer in fine arts at the Chiseldon Army College, and also began to take painting seriously. In 1948, he was demobilised from the army, and that same year held his first one-man show of his own paintings at the Swindon Arts Centre. Pursuing his interests immediately, that autumn he enrolled as an undergraduate in the Zoology Department of the University of Birmingham. Morris graduated with a First Class Honours Degree in zoology. He moved on in 1951 to the Zoology Department and Magdalen College at Oxford University to begin his research into animal behaviour for his doctorate degree, mainly basing his studies on reproductive communication systems.[1] In 1954, he earned a Doctor of Philosophy for his research and works leading to his doctoral thesis regarding reproductive behaviour of the ten-spined stickleback.


After receiving his doctoral degree from Oxford University, Morris continued at the university, conducting research on the reproductive behaviour of birds. After some time elapsed, including Morris's move to London in 1956, he thence began a research project into the picture-making abilities of apes.[1] The following year of 1957 he organised an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, all of paintings and drawings composed by chimpanzees. Later, in 1958 he co-organised an exhibition which compared pictures made by the likes of infants, human adults, and apes. The event was called The Lost Image and was held at the Royal Festival Hall in London. After assuming the position of Curator in 1959, Morris' upcoming years begin to fill with strings and strings of books to be released on the topics of animal behaviour, art, many centring on the topic of human behaviour, as well as comparisons to primates, viewing humanity as revolutionised from the hunter-gatherer to the city dweller.[1] Morris also published books covering infant behaviour watching, as well as man watching, and watchings of various types of animals such as cats and dogs.[2]

Morris' works have been published worldwide. His first book that concerned human behaviour was The Naked Ape: A Zoologist's Study of the Human Animal,[3] published in 1967. The book gained much popularity. Following its success, in 1968 Morris moved to the Mediterranean island of Malta in order to focus on preparing a sequel as well as freely painting and other activities. Shortly thereafter, with books still continuously being published, in 1971 he opened his research headquarters in Malta, in order to conduct research towards producing an encyclopedia of all human actions, more specifically, to classify all human action-patterns. However, in 1973 Morris left Malta to work for the Nobel Prize winner Niko Tinbergen in his research group studying animal behaviour, with the Department of Zoology at Oxford University.[4]

In 1982 Morris began to study archaeological research for a new, slightly different book, The Art of Ancient Cyprus. The following year Morris published Book of Ages, a year-by-year account of human life from birth to death. Morris finished writing The Art of Ancient Cyprus the next year, 1984, and published it in 1985. His next research project, conducted in 1988, focused on the colors used in decorating human homes.[1] The findings and data were brought together that same year within a report called Nestbuilders. Throughout his entire career Desmond Morris has produced a steady stream of books on the observations of life, humans, animals and even paintings as well as children's books on the matters. Despite all of his other interests, the majority of his books took place under the category of sociobiology.[2]


In 1948, Morris had his first one-man showing of his paintings, at Swindon Art Centre. Two years later, he emerged into the surrealist art scene at the London Gallery. For the first time at an event held by the Belgian surrealist Edouard Mesens. The event was held with Joan Miró. The following year (1951), Morris travelled to Belgium to exhibit his paintings at an international art festival. His next art showing was not until 1957 when he organised a chimpanzee paintings and drawings exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London (a result of his research study into the drawing abilities of apes). In the spring of 1967, upon release of Morris's first human behavioural book, he resigned from his post of Curator held at the London Zoo, and thence became executive director of the London Institute of Contemporary Arts for only a year, until 1968 with the release of The Naked Ape, thus sending Morris on an absence from the arts world of over twenty years, while his sociobiology career took the front seat.[1]

During 1973–81, Morris was a Research Fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford.[5] In 1974, shortly after returning from his time painting, studying and writing in Malta, Morris held his first exhibition of his surrealist paintings since before the takeoff of his career in other areas. The showing was held at the Stooshnoff Fine Art Gallery in London. Two years Morris held four more exhibitions of paintings, including an exhibition holding 61 works of his from over thirty years – held at the Public Art Gallery in his former home of Swindon. In 1987, Morris combined his two passions of writing and art, to create and publish his first book about his surrealist paintings called The Secret Surrealist, with introduction by Phillip Oakes.[1] His first showing of paintings after the book's release was held the following year in New York at the Shippee Gallery. Morris continues his showings to this day, with his works being documented and recognised officially by his biographer Silvano Levy in Desmond Morris: 50 Years of Surrealism in 1997. Morris has since travelled showing his art exhibits around the world, from his home in Britain branching throughout Europe. In 2005 a solo exhibit, Ape Artists of the 1950s, of paintings by apes from his earlier studies in the 1950s, was held at the Mayor Gallery in London.

Solo art showings
Swindon Art Centre Swindon 1948
London Gallery London 1950
Ashmolean Museum Oxford 1952
Stooshnoff Fine Art London 1974
Quadrangle Gallery Oxford 1976
Wolfson College Oxford 1976
Lasson Gallery London 1976
Public Art Gallery Swindon 1977
Galerie d'Eendt Amsterdam 1978
Mayor Gallery London 1987
Shippee Gallery New York 1988
Keats Gallery Knokke-le-Zoute 1988
Mayor Gallery London 1989
Mayor Gallery London 1991
Galerie Michele Heyraud Paris 1991
Public Art Galley Swindon 1993
Mayor Gallery London 1994
Public art galleries Stoke and Nottingham 1996
Mayor Gallery London 1997
Charleston Gallery Sussex 1997
Public Art Gallery Buxton 1997
Clayton Gallery Newcastle 1998
Keitelman Gallery Brussels 1998
Rossaert Gallery Antwerp 1998
Witteveen Gallery Amsterdam 1999

Television and film

In 1950, Desmond Morris made his debut in film and television,[1] writing and directing two surrealist films entitled Time Flower and The Butterfly and the Pin. In 1956 he moved to London in order to assume the position at the Zoological Society of London as Head of the Granada TV and Film Unit. Morris's job thus included creating programmes for both film and television on the topic of animal behaviour and other various zoology-orientated topics. His job remained as a host for Granada TV's weekly Zoo Time programme for the following three years up until 1959. During his time in this position, a total of eight years, Morris scripted and hosted a total of 500 Zoo Time programmes, along with 100 episodes of the show Life in the Animal World for BBC2.[1] During this time he also dabbled in radio for the BBC on topics of natural history. However, he left the Film & TV unit at the London Zoo in order to become the Zoological Society's Curator of Mammals (1959).[1]

After a long break from the world of television, Morris re-entered the game in 1979, undertaking a new television series for Thames TV. The series was called The Human Race, focusing on human behaviour. The show's filming ran on schedule and was presented on television in 1982. Later the series was shown in many other countries as well. That same year, Morris travelled to Japan for another television expedition to make a production titled Man Watching in Japan, which was shown on Japan Television in that autumn of 1982. In 1986 Morris started working on a new TV series (co-presented by British TV Broadcaster Sarah Kennedy) which was called The Animals Road Show. The show totalled 40 programmes over the next three years, as well as a book published on the series within that time frame.[1] After the show's second year airing, Morris began filming another TV series that was called The Animal Contract. The show aired for Australian television, wrapping up in 1989. Although The Animal Road Show ended in 1989 also, Morris and Kennedy reunited in 1992 to show a second series of exactly fourteen half-hour episodes. This was followed by a third series the following year in 1993, with thirteen half-hour programmes. This was followed by a fourth series in 1994, and finally a fifth in 1995, all with Sarah Kennedy. In 1994, Morris also wrote then presented a series of six one-hour TV episodes for BBC1, called The Human Animal. This series went on to win the Cable Ace Award in Los Angeles for best documentary series in 1995. The following year Morris began to work on The Human Sexes, a new TV sequel to The Human Animal, which was completed in 1997.



In 1964 he was invited to deliver the Royal Institution Christmas Lecture on Animal Behaviour.


Major events

Personal life

When Morris was 14, his father was killed whilst serving in the armed forces. In a 2008 interview Morris said, "it was the beginning of a life-long hatred of the establishment. The church, the government and the military were all on my hate list and have remained there ever since."[9] As said in another interview, Morris's reasoning behind drifting towards the surrealist subculture is rather profound. In a time living as a child in the Second World War and then losing his father to the repercussions of that violence, an inner urge for rebellion against authority struck Morris.

Surrealism started in the 1920s as a rebellion against the horrendous natures of the Great War. These ideas fitted Morris’s mindset, enabling him to create his own world for himself within his paintings. Painting, he proclaimed, was his own personal pleasure, not business. So his rebellion resulted in other more positive outcomes, not just within his paintings, but through his desire to share knowledge in over 79 publications. Not wanting to cause grief for anyone in other aspects (due to his prior grief), he decided to aim his energies in these more positive directions such as writing evolutionarily beneficial works. And so he did, as seen through his life accomplishments, or entire lists of works. Desmond Morris's grandfather William Morris, a very enthusiastic Victorian naturalist, is noted to have played a great influence on Desmond Morris during his time living in Swindon. Interesting to note, William Morris founded the Swindon local newspaper.[1]

In July 1952, Morris married Ramona Baulch, a history graduate from Oxford. The two conceived their only son Jason in Malta. This occurred in 1968 following the success of The Naked Ape.[1] In 1978, Morris was elected Vice-Chairman of Oxford United F.C..

Morris reflected in an interview[10] with the following quote:

I also carried my message – about how fascinating animal behaviour and human behaviour can be – to an even wider audience by making television programmes, and presented a total of about 700 programmes over a period of half a century. I have now stopped that work and I am devoting my final years to the three things I enjoy most; writing books, painting pictures and travelling the world. I have so far managed to visit 95 countries and I have a schoolboy ambition to make that 100 countries before I die.

Morris lives in the same house in North Oxford as the 19th-century lexicographer James Murray who worked on the Oxford English Dictionary.[11] He exhibits at the Taurus Gallery in North Parade, Oxford, close to his home.[12]


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 Williams, D. "Desmond Morris Biography". Retrieved 2012-11-28.
  2. 1 2 Williams, D. "Desmond Morris – Bibliography". Retrieved 2012-11-28.
  3. Morris, D. (1967). The Naked Ape: A Zoologist's Study of the Human Animal (1st American ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
  4. Harré, R. (2006). "Chapter 5: The Biopsychologists". Key Thinkers in Psychology, pp. 125-132. London: Sage.
  5. "Desmond Morris". Social Issues Research Centre. Retrieved 1 December 2016.
  6. "The Big Cats ... Illustrated by Barry Driscoll.". The British Library Board. Retrieved 23 May 2015.
  7. Williams, D. "Desmond Morris – Research". Retrieved 2012-11-28.
  8. "About Us". World Cultural Council. Retrieved November 8, 2016.
  9. Douglas, Alice (1 November 2008). "My family values: Desmond Morris interview". The Guardian. Retrieved 2012-11-28.
  10. "The Dan Schneider Interview 8: Desmond Morris". Cosmoetica. 16 February 2008. Retrieved 1 December 2016.
  11. Moss, Stephen (18 December 2007). "We'd be better off if women ran everything". The Guardian. Retrieved 1 December 2016.
  12. "Taurus Gallery". Retrieved 1 December 2016.
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