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Morland was born in the Haymarket, London, on 26 June 1763, the eldest of the five children of Henry Robert Morland and Jenny Lacam. Educated at home, he took to copying pictures and plaster casts, and first exhibited (chalk drawings) at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1773, at the age of ten. Apprenticed to his father in 1777, when he began copying in earnest, Morland worked hard for his father's profit, but was encouraged to advertise his talents. His first picture to be engraved was published in 1780, he exhibited his first painting at the Royal Academy in 1781 (exhibiting sporadically thereafter, for the last time in the year of his death), and showed no fewer than twenty-six works at the Free Society of Artists in 1782.
At the expiry of his apprenticeship in 1784, Morland refused an offer to join Romney's studio and entered the Royal Academy Schools; but after six months he left home and took lodgings close to a rapacious Drury Lane publisher, for whom he painted a large number of pictures. In the summer of 1785 he worked in Margate as a portraitist and paid a short visit to northern France. In 1786 he married Anne Ward. Tragically, since he loved children, there was only one child, a still-born son.
He established his reputation in the late 1780s as a painter of sentimental genre and of childhood subjects. He turned to rustic subject matter in 1791. Exhibitions of his work were held at Orme & Co. in 1792 and 1793, and at John Raphael Smith's gallery in King Street, Covent Garden, in 1793. Morland did not normally work on commission, as his contemporaries did, but sold his paintings, which were mostly small in size, through an agent. He had at least five pupils at different times, the principal ones facilitating his prolific production.
As a reaction against a strict upbringing and the drudgery of his apprenticeship, Morland associated with the demimonde and soon acquired a reputation for recklessness and hard drinking. After his marriage and early professional success he became more extravagant and more addicted to low and sporting company. By 1789 he was seriously in debt and had to dodge creditors; in 1790 he settled in Paddington. In 1793 he was warned by a physician of the dangers of further debauchery. He was congenitally restless, and from 1794 on his debts compelled constant changes of address and greatly increased productivity. In 1799 he visited the Isle of Wight; on his return, still in debt, he was arrested at his lodgings in Vauxhall and committed to the King's Bench, living within the rules of the prison until his release in 1802. Morland spent his last years with his brother Henry, who had a picture shop on Dean Street in Soho. Both his work and his health deteriorated--his pictures were only received at the Royal Academy on account of his former merit. Worn out by his dissolute life, he died of brain fever in a spunging house in Coldbath Fields, London, on 29 October 1804.
[Hayes, John. British Paintings of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1992: 176-177.]