The achievements of the Edinburgh Weavers, the family firm of which he became artistic director and ultimately chairman, have ensured Alastair Morton a permanent place in the history of 20th Century British design; Morton’s activity as an abstract artist, however, has received comparatively little attention.
Morton started painting in 1936 after taking up a commission for a new house, in Brackenfell near Brampton. The commission came from Leslie Martin who was at that time gathering material for Circle, ‘the international survey of constructivist art’, with his co-editors Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo, first published in 1937.
Morton was certainly in full sympathy with the new ideas in art, architecture and design expressed in this extensively illustrated compilation. He had begun buying modernist works including a Mondrian and a Léger as well as a number by Nicholson and Hepworth. A year or two later Circle began to issue black and white postcards illustrating the work of ‘approved’ artists: a gouache – Opus 14 – by Morton was included in the second series of cards, together with pictures by Lissitsky, Malevich, Moholy-Nagy, Van Doesburg and the British abstract painters Arthur Jackson and John Cecil Stephenson.
For a short time he alternated between abstract and social realist work, the latter motivated by his radical social and political views and his sympathy for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War; his first exhibited work was shown at the Spanish Medical Aid exhibition in 1937. This social realist tendency manifested itself again during the first months of the Second World War but it was suppressed largely on the advice of Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth who felt it inferior to Morton’s abstract work.