John Biggs

Tablets, Panels & Plaques – John Biggs

Seamus Murphy exemplified that ‘blessed Ordinariness’ of which Eric Gill spoke. Ordinariness implies being like other people, and ordinary work is work such as you might expect to find all over the place. He wasn’t of course like anyone else at all; but his uniqueness was not such as to put him off from others, he did not scorn the base degrees by which he did ascend; it was such as to make you wonder why there aren’t more people like him. the answer to that perhaps is that he had attained a wholeness of which most of us fall short.

And similarly, speaking in particular of the many memorial stones which he made, Murphy headstones always look like excellent examples of some widespread school of work – but if you look for other examples you won’t find any. The monumental trade, whose glories belong to a remote past, doesn’t do that kind of thing at all.

Many people indeed are well aware of the degradation into which the art of gravestones has fallen. The question is what can be done about this?

Better design, say some, is what’s needed, and good design costs no more than bad. A comforting thought but true only in so far as the making of things may be considered as something separate from the designing of them, and their actual production as some sort of neutral, impersonal activity.

But this view has its weaknesses, and they show up in gravestones rather glaringly. For a gravestone is nothing if not ordinary, and at the same time it has no physical function whatever. Its function lies in its significance, it is a rhetorical object, it is there to say something and for no other reason. It is inappropriate, it is absurd, to delegate the making of it to robots.

To do a job like this, you need the whole man, the artist, at the bench as well as doing the drawings; you need a Seamus Murphy. You may indeed consider the art of making portrait busts or statues a higher one than that of making gravestones; but a Murphy gravestone, as much as a Murphy bust or statue, is a work of Murphy the artist whole and complete. Nowhere does this ‘ordinariness’ come out more clearly than in the letters Seamus Murphy cut out on his gravestones. What could be more ordinary than an ABC? Ordinarly, commonplace; and also ordinary, in accordance with Order.

You can wriggle away from that Order, as in the artists lettering of Art Nouveau or of the monumental trade; or you can turn it into an elaborate geometrical strait-jacket such as you find in those academic books on ‘roman lettering’. Murphy’s letters derive from none of these sources, nor yet from any fount of printers’ type; they are devoid of all eccentricity and yet they conform, as far as I know, to no existing pattern, not even, I should say, to a pattern devised, once and for all, by himself. They are the outcome of the reflection, fresh every time, of a workman upon an underlying order.

It is not surprising that his inscriptions are always so perfectly set on each particular stone, and his carved decoration always so just. His superb execution never obtrudes itself – much as he delighted in it, it was not done for its own sake, but to clarify the order which he had perceived. hat quality of execution is to be found equally in his letters, his decoration and his treatment of plain surfaces. He knew, of course. how to prepare a stone for its long dislogne with the weather. (Unexpectedly, perhaps from that point of view, he had the habit of painting his invised gravestone letters. It seems risky to put anything on a gravestone – condemned to stand, indefinitely and without maintenance, exposed to an Irish climate – which as it changes, can only change for the worst. But he did it very sensitively and his paint, so far, has lasted wonderfully well. The colour he used was a soft red, very like the red of which there remains traces in some of the ancient inscriptions at Lyon, where you can see as much as you want to of the real live Roman letter).

His example, needless to say, has not had the slightest effect on the contemporary monumental trade. But there is now, in Ireland, a growing handful prepared to follow the ‘Roman standard’ (for, whether or not the graveyard memorial has had its day, there is no lack of demand for public inscriptions in stone, bronze or wood), and we must honour Seamus Murphy for upholding that standard single-handed for many years.