5 of 35 portraits of Iris Murdoch
by Tom Phillips
oil on canvas, 1984-1986
36 in. x 28 in. (914 mm x 711 mm)
Sitterback to top
- Dame (Jean) Iris Murdoch (1919-1999), Novelist and philosopher. Sitter in 35 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
- NPG 5944(1): Iris Murdoch (study)
- NPG 5944(2): Iris Murdoch (study)
- NPG 5944(3): Iris Murdoch (study)
- NPG 5944(4): Iris Murdoch (study)
- NPG 5944(5): Iris Murdoch (study)
- NPG 5944(6): Iris Murdoch (study)
- NPG 5944(7): Iris Murdoch (study)
- NPG 5944(8): Study of 'The Flaying of Marsyas' by Titian (study)
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
- Place made: United Kingdom: England, London (artist's studio, Bellenden Road, Peckham, London)
Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top
- Artists and sitters (From 21 April 2007)
- Icons and Idols: Commissioning Contemporary Portraits (2 March 2006 - 18 June 2006)
- Britain 1960-1990 (From 18 September 2004)
Subjects & Themesback to top
Events of 1984back to top
Current affairsThe 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 scienceDr 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.
InternationalEthiopia 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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