Local Historian

DARWEN’S largest exhibition of the work of a single artist comes to an end in a couple of months when the year-plus display of some 30 examples of the work of James Hargreaves Morton at the town’s Heritage Centre are taken down.

During the past few months scores of local folk have visited the display which came about through the generosity of Hans Lowe, a director of Cavalier Carpets, Blackburn.

Lancashire Telegraph: Tea at Oldstead – a manor in spacious grounds near Bolton Abbey

He bought them at the 1971 one-off auction of Morton’s work at the Windsor Hall, Blackburn.

Morton was just beginning to make a name for himself when he was conscripted, aged 35, in 1916 and had left a vast collection of oils, water colours, pastels and sketches. “I’ll be back,” he told his sisters. But he didn’t come back; he was killed just a few days before the end of the conflict in the fields of the Somme.

His work had come to light with the death of his last surviving sister, Alice, in 1967 and the family decided to auction the collection. Mr Lowe bought a sizeable chunk of work and since then they have been kept in his home in the Ribble Valley... until he offered a collection to the Heritage Centre to put on display for over 12 months.

JHM seldom gave names to his work – or signed them – but we have been able to pinpoint most of the paintings in the exhibition

After the razzmatazz surrounding the auction – it raised well over £10,000 – the Morton story rather faded, until local historians began to piece the tale together. In 2013 I spent several months, with quite a bit of help, writing a glossy biography.

Friends and I travelled all over the place and dug out lots of his work which we photographed. The book quickly sold out and, together with the sale of prints, made a lot of money for the Friends of Darwen Library.

Every now and then a Morton original emerges from a dark attic or gloomy cellar. I suppose I must be something of an expert. I have seen dozens of examples of his work and helped to fix a price for many of them. I reckoned that a painting of the Darwen area is well worth a premium of some 20 per cent, for example.

And yes, we now have several examples of Morton’s work on our lounge walls. We bought Darwen Iron Works via a dealer in Altrincham for a few hundred. I admire it every day.

I spent £400 on a painting of his cousin Rachel on behalf of the Library Friends and it hangs there. The Friends spent over £1,000 on cleaning a pastel self-portrait which is also on display. There are several in the vaults of Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, but they need some TLC.

After several years of trying, I was finally – with financial help from the Lloyd Trust – able to buy the magnificent 1916 self-portrait from a Morton family member in Cheshire.

Neighbour Paul Taylor and I brought it home to Darwen – smiling all the way back – and it hangs in the exhibition room at the Heritage Centre. If you haven’t seen it – have a look!

An apple wood frame now encompasses JHM’s original, courtesy of Dr Ian Naylor and his son Stephen. Ian co-wrote with me the biography of Darwen arts and crafts expert Stanley Webb Davies a few years ago. Sadly, Ian is no longer with us.

There is still just time to take in the Morton collection in the Centre, but do try and get to an hour-long PowerPoint talk I am giving there ronight (from 7pm), on JHM.

My talk there last September on the history of Darwen Tower attracted nearly 70 and this presentation – packed with photos – should do well.