Iris Murdoch

1 portrait

Iris Murdoch, by Tom Phillips, 1984-1986 - NPG 5921 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Iris Murdoch

by Tom Phillips
oil on canvas, 1984-1986
36 in. x 28 in. (914 mm x 711 mm)
Commissioned, 1987
Primary Collection
NPG 5921

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Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

  • Tom Phillips (1937-), Artist. Artist of 22 portraits, Sitter in 6 portraits.

This portraitback to top

The portrait was painted in the artist's London studio. In the background is a detail from Titian's Flaying of Marsyas, a painting exhibited at the Royal Academy at the time artist and sitter met and the subject of conversations between them. Phillips described Murdoch as 'a luminous presence…an electric light-bulb in that gloomy corner, glowing, casting out darkness'.

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Linked publicationsback to top

  • Audio Guide
  • Gibson, Robin; Clerk, Honor, 20th Century Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery Collection, 1993, p. 7
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery: An Illustrated Guide, 2000, p. 222
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery, 1997, p. 222
  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 449
  • Simon, Jacob, The Art of the Picture Frame: Artists, Patrons and the Framing of Portraits in Britain, 1997 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 8 November 1996 - 9 February 1997), p. 190

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Events of 1984back to top

Current affairs

The Provisional IRA bomb the Grand Hotel in Brighton where various politicians, including the Prime Minister, where staying for the annual Conservative Party conference. The bomb killed five people including a conservative MP, but no members of the cabinet. Thatcher began the next session of the conference the following morning at 9.30 as planned saying: 'all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail.'

Art and science

Dr Alec Jeffreys discovers that patterns in an individual's DNA can be identified and that each person has a unique 'genetic fingerprint'. The technique was soon utilised by forensic scientists to help in criminal investigations, and in order to identify human remains, for paternity testing, and to match organ donors. Ted Hughes is appointed poet Laureate.


Ethiopia suffers severe drought and famine. The Ethiopian government responded by uprooting large numbers of peasants in the worst affected areas and by setting up new villages for the displaced people. However, the planned villages were frequently poorly equipped and many people chose to flee rather than acquiesce with government plans leading to further decline in food production and bringing the total death toll to over 1 million.

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Clare Wilkinson

28 February 2016, 22:37

A quote from a letter of Iris Murdoch to Naomi Lebowitz, probably from April 1987, regarding this portrait and the Titian in the background: 'The great picture by Titian is in the unpronounceable place (a monastery) in Czechoslovakia. The other picture is in the National Portrait Gallery London. The painter of the latter shared my absolute passion for the former, so kindly placed it on the wall behind me. Titian painted that picture when he was over ninety. I saw it on its very rare, first, I do hope not last, journey outside Czechoslovakia when it was exhibited here not long ago. The green spray in the picture of me is of a gingko tree, a tree I love and hold holy.'

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