NPG 5921 (1a)

 

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Letter from Tom Phillips to Robin Gibson, curator at the National Portrait Gallery, undated, giving an account about the making of the portrait of Iris Murdoch.
  Letter

To Robin Gibson, National Portrait Gallery:

You asked me if I could give you a note or two about the portrait. I'll try.

The picture was painted in a corner of my studio in Peckham. Iris is sitting in my usual sitter's chair, half looking out of the window (or fully looking out if dogs or intriguing people passed by). The work spanned three years: I think there were fifteen sittings in all: each lasted up to two hours with a break or two for coffee.

When I first met Iris at a dinner-party we talked about Titian's 'Flaying of Marsyas' which we'd both seen at the Academy's Venice exhibition. I wanted to introduce it into the argument of the painting so i made a quickish copy. Iris sits in front of the head of Marsyas.

My original image of Iris was quickly formed. She has a luminous presence, and the visual metaphor in my head was of an electric light-bulb in that gloomy corner, glowing, casting out darkness. I suppose this is what people of a mystical bent call an 'aura'. Unfortunately, on the canvas I lost this image about half way through the work. Iris shrank and started losing to Titian about three-nil.