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Iris Murdoch

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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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

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 The 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'.

Related worksback to top

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Audio Guide
  • 100 Writers, p. 129
  • 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 Read entry

    Tom Phillips, an Oxford-educated and unusually polymathic artist, was commissioned to undertake a portrait of the writer Iris Murdoch in 1984. On 10 May 1984 he wrote, 'I'm a fairly ruminative portraitist & with such a philosophical sitter the job should take about a year.' In fact, it took three. As Phillips wrote after it was completed: '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.' The result is a dry, dispassionate painting with Titian's Flaying of Marsyas in the background and the leaves of a ginkgo tree in front.

  • 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. 189, 190 Read entry

    Painted ramin, mitred and pinned, both the frame and the canvas sitting on a back board. 2 3⁄ 4 inches wide.

    In Tom Phillips's pictures important features (like the ginko leaf at the bottom left in Iris Murdoch) often press right up to the edge of the canvas, and in these cases a breathing space is required between picture and frame. Andy Gizauskas, Tom Phillips's assistant and framemaker for the past sixteen years, recalls trying out ideas: 'We decided you wanted to scan across the picture: the ginko did not want to go back or come forward'. The dark brown flat moulding is deliberately simple: 'If you can make the frame disappear from view it's been a success - we never do anything ostentatious'. If there are two rules of thumb, from Gizauskas's experience in framing Tom Phillips's work, they are to frame to the picture and to make the frame disappear. Because the picture floats - it is mounted on a board and separated from the frame - its edges can be seen. Sometimes Gizauskas ends up painting the edges to ghost what is on the front so that the canvas has the quality of an object in the frame rather than a flat picture; he uses a greyish tone or carries on the picture round the edge of the canvas.

    Looking back to Phillips's pictures of the 1960s, framed before Gizauskas joined the studio, both artist and framemaker have mixed views about the metal frames of the time: dreadful through they now appear, they are of their time and may suit the pictures well.

    1 Much of this discussion is based on telephone conversations with the artist and his framemaker, April 1996.

Placesback to top

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

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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