As the author of the bestselling The Naked Ape, the zoologist and ethologist Desmond Morris found fame as a keen observer of human behaviour.

But this celebrated author, television presenter and academic has another, dazzling string to his bow – as an acclaimed surrealist painter.

Dubbed ‘the last living Surrealist’ Morris, who lives in North Oxford, has a distinctive, highly engaging style which intersects with his knowledge of human form and theories of behaviour – ideas which, it has been said, helped the Sixties swing with his revelations on sex and body language.

This week, 80 of his works go on sale at Mallams auction house in Oxford, with pieces priced from £950 for A4 -sized works to £20,000 for larger oils.

Morris has identified with the Surrealist movement for 70 years. In 1950 he held a Surrealist art exhibition with Joan Miro at the London Gallery and has exhibit regularly since – most recently at the Taurus Gallery in North Parade, close to his home.

Still hugely productive, he spends half the year painting and the other half writing. His most recent project was The Lives of the Surrealists, his personal take on the lives of well-known and obscure artists – many of whom were personal friends or influences. They included René Magritte - “an artist addicted to contradiction” and Wolfgang Paalen, a painter with “the dubious distinction of being the only Surrealist to have been eaten by wild animals.”

He is already busy with a sequel. So how did he become attracted to art? “When I was at boarding school, World War II was raging around me, and it was made clear to me that when I became an adult in a few years time I would be expected to kill people,” he recalls.

“I was so appalled by the behaviour of grown-ups that I had to find some way to rebel. In a school essay I referred to human beings as ‘monkeys with diseased brains’. However, I could not become a destructive rebel because I had had a loving childhood so I had to find some way to be creatively rebellious.

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“Then one day in the school library I discovered a book about the Surrealists. Their movement had begun as a rebellion against the slaughter of World War I. They produced work that disregarded all rational analytical thought and allowed the unconscious mind to express itself in any way it wished.

“This immediately appealed to me and I began making surrealist drawings and paintings in 1944. Fortunately for me the war ended when I was still only 17, but I was conscripted into the army after the war and found myself stationed at Cowley barracks.

“After I was demobbed, I took a degree in zoology at Birmingham University and I was lucky enough to earn a place at Magdalen College, Oxford working for my doctorate in animal behaviour.

“I had never stopped painting and now had a studio on Folly Bridge.

“In 1952 I was given an exhibition of my work at the Ashmolean Museum. In 1956 I left Oxford for London where I began making television programmes about animals for Granada TV. I was back in Oxford again in the 1970s with a research fellowship at Wolfson and when that was over I decided to stay on. I have been here ever since, writing and painting.

“These are the two things I love doing and I divide my year spending half of it writing a book and half of it painting work for an exhibition.”

And why does he think his work so catches the imagination?

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“I have sold over 800 paintings in the last 10 years and I often wonder why people enjoy them,” he says. “They are an expression of a private world of mine where a parallel evolution is taking place on the canvas and my biomorphic shapes keep developing and changing.

“I suppose people like them because they allow them into this other world that, in a strange way, reflects our own.”

Fifty of the works at Mallams are black ink and watercolour A4-sized drawings that were used to illustrate Bodywork, a recent publication limited to just 100 signed and numbered copies. A copy of the book will be given to each collector who purchases one or more works at the show.

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These will be accompanied by 20 other A3-sized ink and watercolour drawings, priced at £1500, plus some earlier larger oil paintings.

And this could be the last chance to buy one of his works in his home city. He says: “Following the death of my wife last year, I am now leaving Oxford to live in Ireland close to my family there – so this is a farewell show.”

View Desmond Morris’s work at Mallam’s, St Michael’s Street, Oxford from tomorrow to Sunday, April 5-7. View more work


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