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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.


I then spent some weeks making very large drawings to get out of the impasse. They seemed to be about earth, air, fire & water, but in practical terms they told me that the historiated aspects of Iris's face, the lines and creases, were not really important. The light-bulb image could be regained.

I'm more at home with Iris's books of philosophy than with her novels, perhaps because she often speaks of (and here and there directly to) the artist: she deals very clearly with Plato's Theory of Forms. In a hazy and untutored way the picture is also is a type of dialogue. Three modes of representation are present; in the person, the picture and the plant. Paradoxically the most 'naturalistic' treatment is reserved for the copy of a copy of a Titian.

From the start I wanted a 'bit of nature' to be present. An iris would have been too dumb. At our second sitting I wildly suggested a gingko: it turned out we were both equally enthusiastic about the world's oldest tree. Luckily there's a fine specimen in my garden. Towards the end of the sittings I put in the gingko branch making a study of it first in case it should die: in the end the branch in the picture was painted from nature, but slightly adapted to rhyme with elements in the rest of the painting.

A portrait is a collaboration. I've tried to make an Ikon of Iris Murdoch. If I have succeeded to some extent the achievement is as much hers as mine.


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