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The mystery life of Norwich’s eccentric genius of art

PUBLISHED: 09:57 24 March 2017

The Norwich Panorama now on display at The Forum until April 1.

The Norwich Panorama now on display at The Forum until April 1.

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Derek James tells the story of a brilliant Norwich artist... and real man of mystery.

He was an artist like no other. His work can be seen across Norwich and Norfolk. A new booklet about him has just been published, yet he remains a man of mystery.

So far no photographs of the eccentric genius John Moray-Smith, the man who turned our buildings into works of art, have been found - just this little drawing of John and his wife Catherine drawn by a neighbour in Costessey, Mrs Chamberlin.

Now a charming and informative booklet has been produced by Paul Burall of the Norwich Society and he is to be congratulated for putting together the strange and complex story of the life and times of Moray-Smith, who died at the West Norwich Hospital in December 1958.

His magic was summed up brilliantly by the Eastern Daily Press of 1937 when we described him completing the first St Stephen’s Gates panel:

“The carven sky became pale blue, with fleecy white clouds rolling across it. The gates turned pale grey, contrasting with the dark red roofs of the old houses clustering about them. The street scene below glowed with colour, and the roistering cavalier blossomed out into crimson.”

Often his work is sky-high but you can get a close-up look, thanks to The Norwich Panorama which was commissioned in the mid-1940s for the Cock Inn on King Street and is now on display at The Forum for a short while. The Norwich Society is now looking for a permanent home for it.

When the pub closed it ended up in a garage at Caister Hall Hotel before being bought by the Norwich Society, and restored by Tom Humphrey of the Fairhurst Gallery in Bedford Street and brought back to life. He has done a magnificent job.

The booklet tells the story of this extraordinary man and his work and the more we learn about the extraordinary Moray-Smith the more we want to know.

He worked in Norwich from the early 1930s until his death and his genius surrounds us in the unique, vivid, highly detailed and huge three-dimensional panels installed on the outside and inside of pubs in the city and county and elsewhere in Norfolk.

Until recently it was thought, and written in books, that Moray-Smith was an Italian gipsy who came to England as a prisoner in the First World War and ended up marrying a girl from Costessey whose name he adopted.

How romantic but, as author Paul discovered, all that is pure nonsense.

He has done his research and found John was born in Scotland in 1889. His family moved to London. In 1925 he married Catherine in London. He studying at the Slade School of Art. After moving around they came to Brandon where he ran out of work.

John arrived in Norwich in the early 1930s, did work to repair plaster at Lexham Hall, near Swaffham, and for Norwich Union before Sir Robert Bignold - chairman of Norwich Union and Morgans brewery – invited him to work for the brewery.

Then again, others said he simply walked into Morgans and asked for work.

“Information is still coming in after the booklet was published,” said Paul. “They were both jailed briefly after being found guilty of sedition during the 1926 General Strike, which reinforces their reputation when they moved to Norwich for being left-wing activists.”

And it is said he was a conscientious objector who, during the war, worked as an ordinary painter.

“What is clear,” says Paul, “is that John’s wife Catherine was a feisty character who had considerable influence over her husband.” They had flaming rows in his studio and she would sometimes knock pieces off his work with a bar if she didn’t like it.

At work people remember him, when painting a wall, putting his leg over a pole and hanging his paint pot over his foot. And he was to be seen working on the huge panels outside the Coach and Horses wearing jodhpurs and bright red socks.

The stories about John, his work and more is told in his wonderful booklet which, at long last, celebrates the work of this eccentric genius which has been forgotten and ignored for far too long.

John Moray-Smith by Paul Burall of The Norwich Society is on sale at Jarrold, City Bookshop and the Castle Museum for the price of a cup of coffee... just £3.

So did you ever meet the artist? And do you have any photographs of him? I would love to hear from you at derek.james2013@gmail.com

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