George Morland was born in London on 26 June 1763. He was the son of Henry Robert Morland and grandson of George Henry Morland. He began to draw at the age of three and at the age of ten his name appears as an honorary exhibitor of sketches at the Royal Academy. He continued to exhibit at the Free Society in 1775 and 1776, and at the Society of Artists in 1777 before exhibiting again at the Royal Academy in 1778, 1779 and 1780.
His talents were carefully cultivated by his father, who was accused of stimulating them unduly with a view to his own profit, shutting the child in a garret to make drawings from pictures and casts for which he found a ready sale. The boy on the other hand, is said to have soon found a way to make money for himself by hiding some of his drawings and lowering them at nightfall out of his window to young accomplices, with whom he used to spend the proceeds in frolic and self-indulgence.
He was set by his father to copy pictures of all kinds, but especially of the Dutch and Flemish masters. Among others, he copied Fuseli's ‘Nightmare’ and Reynolds's ‘Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy’. He was also introduced to Sir Joshua Reynolds and obtained permission to copy his pictures and, all accounts agree, before he was seventeen he had obtained a considerable reputation not only with his friends and the dealers but among artists of repute. A convincing proof of skill in original composition, which he had then attained, is the fine engraving by William Ward after his picture of ‘Angler's Repast’ which was published in November 1780 by John Raphael Smith.
Morland went to Margate where he painted miniatures for a while and then paying a short visit to France in 1785, where his fame had preceded him and he had no lack of commissions. Returning to London, he lodged in a house, at Kensal Green on the road to Harrow, near to his friend William Ward whose family seems to have had a steadying influence. It resulted in Morland's marriage to Miss Anne Ward, the sister of William, in 1786 and the bond between the families was strengthened a month later by the marriage of William Ward and Morland's sister, Maria. The two newly married couples set up house together in High Street, Marylebone. Morland was now becoming known by engravings from his pictures such as the large ‘Children Nutting’ (1783) and several smaller and more sentimental subjects published in 1785 like ‘Lass of Livingston’. He was fond of visiting the Isle of Wight where he painted his best coast scenes and studied life and character in a low public-house at Freshwater Gate called the Cabin. In 1786 he painted 'The wreck of the Haswell' an oil on canvas.
Morland and his wife, Anne, left their shared residence and eventually moved to Camden Town. The couple separated after Anne suffered from a long illness and the loss of a child, from there on it seems Morland made his headquarters at Paddington for some time. It was probably here that he painted the celebrated picture of 'The inside of a stable' which is now in the National Gallery and was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1791. The stable is said to be that of the White Lion Inn at Paddington, opposite where he lived. At this time he was at the plenitude of his power and dissipation had not impaired the sureness of his touch, his unusually fine sense of colour or the refinement of his artistic feeling. He exhibited again in 1793 and 1794.
From 1788 to 1792 inclusive, over one hundred engravings after Morland were published. They included 'A visit to the child at home' and 'A visit to the boarding school', two compositions of remarkable refinement and elegance, and a number of charming scenes of children's sports, such as 'Children bird nesting', 'Juvenile navigation', 'The kite entangled', 'Blind man’s bluff' and 'Children playing at soldiers'. Equalling, if not exceeding, these in popularity were scenes of moral contrast such as 'The fruits of early industry and economy' (1789) and 'The effects of extravagance and idleness' (1794), the 'Miseries of idleness' and the 'Comforts of industry', both published in 1790, and subjects appealing to national sentiment like 'The slave trade' (1791) and 'African Hospitality'. Elegant and refined subjects gradually gave place exclusively to scenes from humble life in town and country. These included the coast with fishermen and smugglers, sporting scenes, but also more frequently, in a plain but seldom and coarse manner, the life of the cottage, the stable and the inn-yard with lively groups of natural men and women, and still more natural horses, donkeys, dogs, pigs, poultry and other animals.
Morland's credit and resources enabled him for some years to lead the rollicking life he loved without much pressure or care. At one time he kept eight saddled horses in the stables at the White Lion. As time went on his debts increased and creditors became more pressing. He lived a hunted life, only able to escape the bailiffs by his knowledge of London and the assistance of his friends. He flitted from one house to another, residing at Lambeth, East Sheen, Queen Anne Street, the Minories, Kensington and Hackney among other places.
In November 1799, Morland was finally arrested for debt, but was allowed to take lodgings, within the rules, which became the rendezvous of his most discreditable friends. He is said to have slipped lower and lower, often being drunk for days. In 1802 he was released under the Insolvent Debtors Act but his health was ruined and his habits irremediable. Around this time he was seized with Palsy and lost the use of his left hand meaning he could no longer hold his palette, but despite this he seems to have gone on painting until the last. Morland was arrested again for a publican's score and died in a sponging-house in Eyre Street, Cold Bath Fields on October 27th 1804.
The finest of Morland’s pictures were executed between 1790 and 1794, and amongst them his picture ‘The inside of a stable’ (Tate Britain, London) may be reckoned as a masterpiece. He exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy from 1784 down to 1804. Amongst these was the remarkable 1788 picture ‘Execrable Human Traffic or the Affectionate Slaves’. Two years later he exhibited a companion picture showing Africans caring for shipwrecked Europeans. They were subsequently published as prints and served to promote abolitionism.
Morland was a close friend to fellow artist William Armfield Hobday (1771-1831) who painted a portrait of the artist which is still intact. William Collins was an informal pupil and later wrote a biography.