Philip Morsberger obituary

Other lives: Accomplished painter and first American to hold the position of Ruskin master of drawing at Oxford University

My friend the American painter Philip Morsberger, who has died aged 87 of complications arising from coronavirus, played a significant role in the recent history of the Ruskin school of art in Oxford, now part of the department of fine art at Oxford University.

Born in Baltimore, Philip was awarded a scholarship to Maryland Institute College of Art in 1946, at the age of 13, before attending Baltimore City College. His father, Eustis Morsberger, was a newspaper man, and his mother, Mary (nee Burgess), taught English and French at local schools.

Philip’s formal training as an artist began in 1950 at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in Pittsburgh, but was interrupted by two years of military service (1953-55). On graduating in 1956 he married a fellow student, Mary Ann Gallien. Shortly afterwards, he attended the Ruskin school where he followed in the footsteps of the writer John Updike, met the sculptor William Tucker and overlapped with the artist RB Kitaj.

On returning to the US in 1959, Philip became a member of the art faculty at Miami University in Ohio before being appointed Ruskin master in Oxford (1971-84). He was only the sixth person to fill the post, and the first American. For many years the Ruskin school had been housed in a wing on the ground floor of the Ashmolean Museum. Philip’s achievement was to move the school in 1975 to more spacious rooms in the Examination Schools on the high street, and to establish a three-year honours degree course, combining practice and theory. The move was controversial, but is now seen as an enlightened decision, with the Ruskin master and his successors being incorporated as fellows of St Edmund Hall.

While at Oxford, Philip went on two leaves of absence to take up appointments in the US, as fellow of the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts, Harvard University (1976), and artist in residence at Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire (1983). After Oxford he taught in Minnesota (1984-86) and California (1986-96) before becoming William S Morris eminent scholar in art (artist in residence) at Augusta State University (1996-2002). He gave up teaching in 2002, becoming an emeritus scholar.

In Augusta, Philip spent long hours in a large studio close to the Savannah River. All the spaces in which he painted resembled Prospero’s cell. Alongside lavish supplies of essential materials, there were shelves of books, numerous reproductions and a beloved, much-played piano. His art, beyond the politically motivated realist works of the 1960s, was full of surprising images (hats, helmets, aeroplanes, rabbits, turtles, ducks, caricatures), much of it culled from childhood memories of family life, cinema, and, above all, comic strips (Krazy Kat being a particular favourite).

Latterly, his days in Augusta were spent visiting Mary Ann, who suffered for many years from Alzheimer’s disease. She predeceased him by three months, and his son, Robert, died in 2013. His daughter, Wendy, survives him, as do his grandsons, Ben, Jesse and Elan.

Christopher Lloyd

The GuardianTramp

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