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Iris Murdoch

Dame Iris Murdoch
oil on canvas
80 x 55 cm
National Portrait Gallery

Dame Iris Murdoch - Air
conté on paper
138.4 x 101.6 cm

Dame Iris Murdoch - Earth
conté on paper
138.4 x 101.6 cm

Dame Iris Murdoch - Fire
conté on paper
138.4 x 101.6 cm

Dame Iris Murdoch - Water
conté on paper
138.4 x 101.6 cm

This picture was painted in the usual corner of my studio in Peckham. Iris is sitting in my usual sitter's chair, half looking out of the window: sometimes, if intriguing people passed by, or dogs (a liking for which we do not share), she would lean out of position to get a better look.

Since Iris lives in Oxford and comes to London only for the occasional crowded day or two, sittings were irregular. The work in fact spanned three years and involved about fifteen sittings in all, each lasting a couple of hours or so with a break or two for coffee.

When I first met Iris (at a dinner party given by Michael Kustow) we talked about Titian's Flaying of Marsyas which we had both just seen at the magnificent Venice exhibition at the Royal Academy. When the National Portrait Gallery commissioned me to paint her portrait I recalled our conversation (about whom we most identified with in the picture) and started a fairly hasty copy of the picture to act as a backdrop so that she might sit in front of the head of Marsyas.

My original image of Iris was quickly formed. She has a luminous presence and the visual metaphor that my head created 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 itself I lost this vision about half way through the work. Iris started to shrink and began to lose heavily to the Titian. Taking advantage of a longish break I thought hard about how to get out of this impasse without faking. By her next visit I had started from memory four very large drawings whose scale challenged the painting. Each one of the drawings seemed to deal with a different element and I came to think of them as representing earth, air, fire and water. In more practical terms they taught me that the historiated aspects of Iris's face, its lines and creases, were not really important to her actual presence. Thus I found my way back to the original light-bulb image.

I'm more at home with Iris Mudoch's books of philosophy than with her novels, perhaps because she often speaks of (and, here and there, directly to) the artist: she deals so clearly with Plato's Theory of Forms that via her I have for the first time really grasped some of the implications for my own activity. In a hazy and untutored way the portrait is also a type of dialogue. Three modes of representation are present: - in the painting of the face itself there is a precarious balance between painting what I see and what I know in order to make a permanent image from transient perceptions; the picture in the background is distanced by already being a copy of a copy of a copy of the original, yet paradoxically it is the most naturalistically painted thing in the portrait, based on pure observation of the effect of light on the object before me; the plant represents a third kind of treatment.

Right from the start I had wanted a 'bit of nature' to be present. In all her novels Iris Murdoch suddenly flings open the windows of Hampstead or the Gloucester Road and through some wangle of the plot (Five Go Off To A Sanatorium) the characters escape to the countryside, which enables the writer to show her unrivalled sympathy with the world of living things, especially the plants of the English hedgerows. To have featured an iris would have been too dumb. At our second sitting I made a wild guess and suggested a ginkgo, and it turned out that we were both enthusiasts for the world's oldest tree. Luckily there is a fine specimen in my own garden and towards the end of the sittings I therefore put in a ginkgo branch, painted in the manner of old botanical illustrations: I first made a separate study of it in case it might die. In the end the branch in the picture was painted directly from nature though slightly adapted to rhyme with other elements in the painting, like the collar, and the arm of Apollo.

Once the plant was in and doing its work the picture was finished with only the nerve-racking business of varnishing left. This is a moment of truth when all the dried paint suddenly springs back to life and the harmonies of the picture, guessed at from stage to stage as wet paint was applied to dry, are revealed. All was well.

When as in this case a well loved national institution is painted for a national institution, the work receives some publicity and critical attention. A mixed reception is always invigorating and none could have been more varied than that provoked by this particular portrait, ranging as it did from Waldemar Januszczak in the Guardian who wrote,

"Her head glows like a light ... behind it a detail from Titian ... shows one of Apollo's acolytes scraping the skin of Marsyas' body, revealing raw flesh, just as a good Iris Murdoch narrative scrapes away the surface of ordinary life to reveal the questioning agonies and rousing passions underneath. This is not just a fine likeness it is also a portrait of an inner life. It is the show's notable success, a work of obvious thoughtfulness and ambition. Phillips manages to endow this ... middle-aged Englishwoman with the dignity of a Venetian Doge."

to Brian Sewell in the Evening Standard, who commented characteristically,

" far the most deplorable new acquisition is Tom Phillips' portrait of Iris Murdoch. It is accompanied by bewildering preparatory material. There is a frankly appalling copy of Titian that would have been better done in chalk by a pavement artist outside the Gallery. There are huge hideous and wilfully distorted drawings of the novelist herself, out of focus, with the complexion of flaking distemper ... an inoffensive study of a Ginkgo leaf ... more plastic than real. And all these are brought together in dreadful disunity in the final portrait where poor jaundice-eyed Miss Murdoch is as flat and grainy as an overblown holiday snap. Could none of the trustees see how bad it is? Did none of them want to reject it?"

Fortunately Sewell was in the minority and, most important of all, the sitter herself said wonderfully encouraging things about the work.

The after-life of the picture has also been eventful. It was the first work of art published in colour in the then newly launched Independent and the NPG made a postcard of it (Iris had always wanted to become a postcard). It made a tour of Britain with its attendant studies. I kept on getting invitations to various venues like Gainsborough's House where it had taken up residence for a while. I could not resist one of these when I read the card in which the Ulster Museum invited me to attend a 'Private View of the portrait of IRISH MURDOCH by Tom Phillips'.

I think we both enjoyed working on the painting. As ever such a task is in the end a partnership and Iris was always interested in its progress as well as in how the rest of the work was developing in the studio. We had much good conversation and many laughs. I can't now remember what prompted Iris to persuade me to sing my old school song ('Still Henry Thornton's known for labours philanthropic, which loosened slavery's chains throughout the sultry tropic...) or what gave rise to her singing in her fine contralto a socialist rally chorus in the middle of another sitting.

Work and Texts (1992),  pp. 186-189

The Portrait Works (1989),  p. 38-41


Dame Iris passed away in 1999 from complications related to Alzheimer's Disease. The loss has been felt throughout the world.

The Independent accompanied her obituary with a reproduction of her portrait, produced from a digital scan sent by the National Portrait Gallery. It was the first time the archive sent an image to press electronically. The NPG's in-house newsletter recorded the technological event.

Following the publication of the image, The Independent letters page published a submission from the Alzheimer's Society saying, "The ginkgo is of course the oldest living tree being known from fossil records. It has long been used by the Chinese as a herbal remedy for memory and is currently the subject of extensive international research as a treatment for Alzheimer's Disease. A remarkable coincidence that adds a poignant resonance to this portrait."

See Iris Murdoch book covers, some of them featuring the portrait, designed by Tom Phillips.