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Lewis Morley

6 September 2013

With Frostie gone, the queue outside the Pearly Gates shuffles ever closer to the celestial box office, and now Lewis Morley has left us. Lewis Morley, of course, was a great photographer and a Chinaman who I used to pretend was really called Lu Mor Lee. I was first introduced to him by the great comedian Peter Cook over half a century ago when he was taking photographs of everyone who was anyone in Swinging London.

He was a tall, striking young man, always in black and his studio was in Soho above Peter Cook’s Establishment Club, with decor by Sean Kenny and a cabaret room where the son of a Methodist minister called David Frost first performed his monologue about the accidental sinking in the Thames of the Royal Barge. David’s act was not a huge success but he went on to an international career which was so successful that Peter Cook never forgave him. As Malcolm Muggeridge’s wife Kitty famously and wickedly expressed it, ‘He rose without trace’.

The club had a fashionable bar open late and popular with satire groupies and the prettiest girls in London with pearlised lips and black eye make-up, who perched on bar stools in their Mary Quant minis and Neatawear stockings, sipping gin and tonic and pronouncing everything ‘Soopah!’ Lewis had been commissioned to take my portrait for an appearance of mine at the club, which was even less successful than Frostie’s, but it was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

There are a lot of photographers in the world and these days with versatile cell phones, everyone is a photographer, but Lewis was a real one. First of all, he was an artist and a lover of art with a great knowledge and an impressive private collection. He had an intense curiosity so that his pictures reveal their subjects intimately and with real compassion. They are not just snaps but shared insights and portraits of an epoch unmatched, in my view, by any of his contemporaries.

Lewis kept cropping up in my life at unexpected moments. He took a lot of photographs of me in the 1960s, and particularly when I was doing rather well and living in some style in London’s ‘Little Venice’ in Maida Vale in a Regency house beside the canal. Later, when things were not going so well and I was on vacation at Salamis on the island of Cyprus with a beautiful, if illicit, girlfriend, he surprised me by turning up unexpectedly, and a little embarrassingly. There are pictures from this episode of me with a camel. Well, next to a camel and looking dissolute.

We lost touch with each other for a few years, and in the 1980s I was astonished to find that he now resided in Sydney in the largely Italian district called, unsurprising, Leichhardt. We renewed our old friendship and it was there that, along with his beautiful wife and soul-mate Patricia Clifford (a former model) and his remarkable collection of prints and drawings, I would often visit him. Mostly we talked about mutual friends from the far-off ’60s and he would show me his vast archive of photographs. On one memorable occasion, he even took a very funny picture of Dame Edna, apparently naked and decorously straddling an iconic, laminated wooden chair in mimicry of his celebrated Keeler photograph.

On first arriving in Sydney, he attempted to gift a lot of his work to the art gallery of New South Wales but they knocked him back. Much later, indeed in recent years, former director Edmund Capon presented a retrospective exhibition of his work, and about 18 months ago it was at that gallery that a fine and comprehensive monograph of Morley’s work was officially launched.

Pat Morley died unexpectedly three years ago and Lewis was never quite the same; lost without his lifelong ally. We who loved and admired him offered what support we could, and on his return visits to London would lunch with him at the Chelsea Arts Club or a favourite Chinese restaurant and listen to his astonishing stories. He is survived by his son Lewis and by the affectionate memories of his friends, and I am convinced that he will always be celebrated as one of the finest photographers of his age and as the man who gave a nice girl called Christine Keeler immortality.

When I was last in Sydney, I went out to his Victorian semi-detached house to see him, since he was not strong enough to meet me in our favourite Italian restaurant for a grilled lemon sole, our usual lunch. Lewis, a tall and handsome man, was much thinner and already failing. His memory and humour were, however, intact and we spoke of operas we liked and lost friends, particularly Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Present was his pal Babette, making the tea, and her daughter Arabella, who had just completed the enormous task of cataloguing Lewis’ photographic archive. When it was time to go, I shook hands with my old friend. It was the last time.

© Barry Humphries

The featured image is part of a collection of photographs by Lewis Morley in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

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