Around twenty years ago I was browsing a second-hand bookshop in Eastbourne, Sussex when I saw a painting titled ‘Head of Young Man’ propped up against a pile of books. It was grubby and cheap but somehow it connected with me and I bought it. I recall the professional cleaning and framing cost more than the painting but it has given me a lot of pleasure and has hung in my studio as I have moved to different houses, towns and cities.
I thought I would do some detective work and see if I could find out more about the artist and the subject.
The artist’s signature is fluid and illegible, John something and the surname begins with M but that is as far as I could decipher. On the back, in tiny letters in fountain pen, it says Joan Ursula Morse, Garden House, Upper Drive, Hove, Sussex so that John is almost definitely Joan but internet searches revealed nothing about a Joan Morse.
The Upper Drive is a road I often travel but when I parked the car and walked up and down there wasn’t any property called the Garden House.
Mystery, case closed, puzzle unsolved.
But I kept on searching and came across,
London Gazette 19th March 1948
Kovacs Julianne (known as Julia Nanasi), Hungary, Cook, The Garden House, Upper Drive, Hove Sussex. Died 10 February 1948.
The British Bee Journal June 29 1910
MAN, ineligible or discharged solider, for poultry, pigs and bees; good wages. MORRIS, Garden House, Upper Drive, Hove.
So it was Morris not Morse! And then I searched for the Garden House in the James Gray Collection and found a photograph with an interesting caption:
‘Lower down the Upper Drive was another large detached house, called the Garden House, built in 1907. Like Aryeh House [the previous image, below, in the collection] it stood in ample grounds, the reason being that until 1928 this area was outside Hove, in Preston Rural, and land was cheap. Note some of the large back gardens of houses in Dyke Road. The Garden House with Aryeh House being demolished in January 1963.
An under the image of Aryeh House, above, Gray notes (in 1963) ‘an estate of Regency style houses will be built on this and the neighbouring site’.
So now I knew why I couldn’t find The Garden House, it had been demolished some fifty years ago, but I know the estate of regency style houses and the gap between the houses in the middle distance is where the entrance to the Garden House was in the earlier photograph.
I was determined to find out more about the artist and kept Google searching for ‘Morris Garden House’, ‘Joan Ursula Morris’ and finally ‘Joan Morris Hove’, and that is when I struck gold for there was the woman (not a man) from the painting staring back at me from the google search, older but her features unmistakable and the internet site was called women priests.org.
Further searches revealed more information. The University of Notre Dame, Indiana in the USA has Morris’ correspondence and writings and also some of her films. The reason her papers are in the US is because, it says, ‘Morris received an MA in liturgical research from the University of Notre Dame in 1954.
My search continued and in an extract from the book The She Pope (Stanford, P.1998) I found another reference to Joan Morris. The blurb for Stanford’s book says ‘The legend of Pope Joan – the woman who, dressed as a man, headed the Catholic Church in the early 9th century – has always been a subject of fascinated speculation. This book attempts to reveal what can be known about this legend, using secret histories, medieval carvings and tarot cards’. The introduction notes ‘…people in our own times have worked to unravel the history of Pope Joan….[including] the venerable Catholic Feminist, Joan Morris who died in 1985 (sic). I am grateful to ….Ivan May for his permission to quote from the writings of his late aunt, Joan Morris, many of which are now storied in the Fawcett Library, The Catholic Central Library in London.
An Archives Hub search reveals that the Woman’s Library (at the London School of Economics and Political Science) holds ‘42 boxes, I album and 4 oversized items , the archives of early Catholic Woman’s Suffrage Society material as well as more recent accessions from the St Joan’s International Alliance, both its own papers and those of Joan Morris a prominent member’.
Joan was a remarkable woman and we will never know why her self-portrait, painted in the late 1920’s to early 1930’s (I would suggest considering her age in the painting and her hairstyle) came to be in that Eastbourne second-hand bookshop.
I am looking at the portrait now; I have always been intrigued by her (his!) expression, distracted, deep in thought with the strange bird and foliage behind. It’s remarkable that the painting has traveled with me but now hangs above my work space in Brighton less than a mile from where Joan lived and, I imagine, it was created some 90 years ago.
I am very tempted to Harvard reference this blog post in case someone stumbles across it researching Joan Morris, but I have resisted. Sorry if you are that person, there should be enough information to find my sources.
The James Gray collection is a stunning photographic resource of images of old Brighton and Hove. Wonderful even if you have never set foot in Brighton or Hove, England.
Self portrait painting of Joan Ursula Morris
Google Maps image of the Upper Drive, Hove, East Sussex, England