Introduction to 1982 Catalogue – Louis Marcus
Seamus Murphy is a difficult figure to define in today’s terms. Not that there was anything ambiguous about him. On the contrary, he was quite clear in his aims and steadfast in pursuing them against stiff odds. But it is this very solidity in Seamus – the composed confidence with which he held to his values in a period marked by so much doubt and uncertainty – that makes him so elusive. For we have become more accustomed to the tentative and the oblique than to the positive. Perhaps that is why he seemed to belong to some better time that was past, or even some ideal time that is yet to come.
For one thing, he was formed by an Ireland that is now as remote as only the recent past can be. It was the Ireland of an intellectual revival that promised a renaissance in life, art and thought. Daniel Corkery was one if its heralds and Seamus was one of those in whom he planted this vision.
As we know now, this broad ideal narrowed to a purely political aim and was lost altogether in the disenchantment of civil war. A frightened conservatism descended on Ireland for decades. Seamus was ever critical of this stagnation; as an artist, he felt its burden more than most. But he was never cynical. From some spring within himself he drew both the resilience to continue on his path and the optimism that marked his personality and his work. He lived to see and enjoy the emergence of a more vital Ireland which eventually bestowed on him the honorary distinctions that this country reserves for artists whom it has only grudgingly employed.
He was shaped too by the craft of stone, by that now vanished fraternity of masons which he recorded so vividly in his book “Stone Mad”. His innate feeling for quality responded to their reverence for the well-made thing, their insistence on the mastery of the hand before the mind and heart could properly speak. It was a pre-industrial tradition and it made Seamus a pre-Romantic artist, one who strives more to illuminate his audience than to purge his troubled self.
With this combined belief in art as an extension of craft and the artist as a light to his community, Seamus could not have chosen a more difficult task in his place and time. In Ireland, the Church preferred gaudy imported statues to indigenous expression; the State was indifferent to art, except to censor it; private wealth was scarce and generally preferred novelty where it wanted art at all; and headstones – the bread-and-butter of a stoneman’s life and satisfying outlet for his elegance of taste – came to be mass produced by electrical machinery. Seamus might easily have regretted his early rejection of a lifelong career tending the stones of York Cathedral. But self-pity was not part of his make-up.
Outside Ireland, seeping in through tightly closed shutters was a cauldron of artistic experimentation with the avant garde changing hands at bewildering pace. After decades of European ferment that was a natural response. But quiet Ireland had lain virtually immune. Some of those who reacted against Irish claustrophobia by grasping at every new trend from abroad were apt to regard Seamus as unduly ‘traditional’. But it was not as simple as that.
Tradition, to Seamus, was not a frozen historical mode to be slavishly copied; it was a continuing process with new shoots appearing all the time. Nor was it an artistic straitjacket, but an environment within which the individual gave himself free rein. And, anyway, there had been little or no Irish tradition of sculpture since the Reformation. So, rejecting the phoney Victorian classicism that preceded him in Ireland (“clinging to the apron-strings of Rome”, he called it), Seamus had to forge his own style just as much as those whose idiom was more ostentatiously ‘original’. He understood the dilemma of the modernists; but he knew that their solution was not for him. He regarded it as “taking refuge in a private world, in abstraction…There is no use conjuring up a world in a corner of your studio: it must have echoes and connections”.
Seamus always connected. Through his hands, the people and the life around him flowed into stone and bronze, gaining en route the flavour of his own qualities – taste, perception, warmth and humour. To those who knew him as a person he was unforgettable and irreplaceable. But his work preserves the things he stood for without flinching – the excellence that a few men once dreamt could be achieved for this island; and a synthesis of craft and art, of expression and feeling, towards which this uncertain age is still only groping.