Wednesday, February 13, 2013

My Heaving Bosoms Are the Bellows of Divinity

Mary Swanzy "Woman with White Bonnet"
This is my review of Patrick J. Murphy's slightly immodest autobiography - first published in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 10 February 2013 (different headline):

A Passion for Collecting
By Patrick J. Murphy

I could start off this review by stating that Murphy's memoir is the most relentless piece of self-aggrandisement since Nitezsche's Ecce Homo - and it is.  But to do so may deter people from reading a book that will be enjoyed not just by those interested in the Irish art scene, but by anyone who likes to follow the trajectory of a colourful life story.  Marvel at how a high-achieving New Ross boy grows up to be one of our leading private art collectors.

In a country where most people don't give a fart through their corduroys for contemporary art (to use Beckett's elegant phrase) Patrick J. Murphy has been a positive force in promoting the work of both local and international artists for the best part of 40 years.  Every artist and gallery in the country owes him a debt of gratitude, perhaps not directly in most cases, but indirectly through his tireless organising, promoting and evangelising.  He has been chairman of the Arts Council, on the selection committee and chairman of Rosc, and the art advisor to the OPW.  During his reign with the OPW he spread the net wide so that many relatively unknown artists were able to sell and, as importantly, achieved recognition by being displayed in public places.  He has been well acknowledged and rewarded for these achievements.  He's an Honorary Member of the RHA, an Honorary Life Member of the RDS, and Honorary Fellow of Trinity, and has an honorary doctorate from the University of Limerick.

Murphy is not a shy nor a modest man.  His highly readable romp through life and the Irish art scene is replete with anecdotes about how wonderful he is in all sorts of ways.  These include an illustrious career in business with Guinness and later the Irish Maltsters; his success in various exams where he usually topped the class or graduated with distinction; at running through forests and plantations in Kuala Lumpur ("I frequently came home first"); his expertise at turnip thinning during school holidays in County Wexford; and above all in the buying and selling of modern art.  He even recounts an incident in a rugby match where he got the better of a gouging Welsh hooker.  The book deals mainly with his beloved family and his art activities.  An early incident brings the two together when he describes how he won his wife Antoinette from the clutches of the "bohemian" artist Brian Burke.  Having been introduced one day by a mutual friend, Murphy assailed her the next day at her place of work, the customer service desk at the ESB office in Fleet Street, and the rest was history.  No faint heart either then.

There are lacunae.  The hundreds of deals he carried out form a substantial portion of the book and the repetition occasionally becomes tedious.  Especially as each deal seems more financially prescient than the last.  The few that got away are more interesting.  He let go an Orpen drawing for £20 that was was subsequently valued at €40,000.  We also get far too many descriptions of "excellent dinners with very fine wines".  These include a visit to his house by Mary McAleese where he treated our erstwhile president to "gourmet food and vintage wines without drawing attention to them".  Until now.

It's a fairly discreet book but occasionally Murphy lifts the veil.  McAleese turned down a large Barry Flanagan hare sculpture for the Aras at the very last minute because allegedly she didn't like animals in art, or perhaps because she realised that Flanagan was British.  The Aras's loss was IMMA's gain as the piece now stands tall in Kilmainham.  We also learn that Leo Smith barred Bruce Arnold from the Dawson Gallery because of rivalry over the Mainie Jellett estate.  He is mostly positive about people but does spare some bile for Dorothy Walker and James White, and has a dig at Haughey for his arrogance and John O'Donoghue for his absence of humour.  He was appalled by Haughey's dictatorial commandeering of the Cultural Relations Committee's budget in 1989 to fund his friend Louis le Brocquy's show in Japan.  O'Donoghue (well aware of his nickname) was not amused by the placing on his desk of a John Behan sculpture of a bull - it lasted less than 24 hours.  We also get some tantalising glimpses of the way senior art appointments are made and the often dysfunctional nature of the Arts Council.

When it comes to his selection of art he is in no doubt of his qualifications.  He has the eye and that's all there is to it.  He doesn't waste time on weighty analysis.  Work  is described as "charming", "magnificent", "subtle", or a "masterpiece".  His heaving bosoms are clearly the bellows of divinity.  It is however hard to quibble with the quality of the selections illustrated in the book.

He has a particular fondness for Mary Swanzy's work and he developed a close relationship with the London-based artist in the latter stages of her life.  He was also responsible for the rehabilitation of her reputation by encouraging Leo Smith to show her at the Dawson Gallery.  He was close to Paddy Collins and felt keenly that poverty-stricken artists's plight, doing what he could to help him out. Murphy is not afraid of graft.  He was a big fan of Patrick Tuohy and he compiled a detailed catalogue of over 200 works by the ill-fated artist.  A lot of his buying and selling involved the Dawson Gallery and he got on well with the owner Leo Smith.  We get glimpses of that legendary character and a feeling for his dominant position in the Sixties and Seventies.  Smith's sudden death, at Hilary Heron's funeral, was clearly a shock to him.

The only real sour note in the book is his disappointment at not being appointed to the board of the National Gallery of Ireland, despite many worthy representations on his behalf to Mary Hanafin when she was minister for Culture, Sport and Tourism.  He describes unfairly the NGI as a "plaything of greedy politicians and their financial supporters who have no interest in art or knowledge of it".

He has been very generous with his collection, donating selected pieces to various museums and educational institutions. So much so that he tells us his family are advising him to retain enough to pay his nursing home fees should he become infirm.  It's hard to imagine that this passionately engaged and energetic man will ever find himself in that plight.

Published by Hinds
408 pages

John P. O'Sullivan