Portrait Busts & Allegorical Heads – Maighread Ó Murchadha
Of all art forms, portraiture if probably the least appreciated by the general public, even by those with an eye and a feeling for shape and good proportions in other things – buildings, ceramics, clothes, cars, furniture. The marble busts that line libraries and other public places are seldom looked at. Seamus Murphy used to say that only waxworks interested people, partly because they were supposed to be photographic likenesses, but mainly because they were coloured. He said that, perhaps unconsciously, we recognized ourselves and others by colour, and therefore a head in the monochrome of stone or bronze meant little. There is some truth in this. Whenever Seamus was complimented by someone on a portrait he had done, it was because of a photograph in the press – people are used to monochrome pictures of people in newspapers and can accept them.
Seamus was essentially a stone man because of his early training as a carver and his association with the ‘dust’, the men who worked stone and who thought and talked about little else. As an art student he had to follow other courses: painting, drawing, modelling, but he knew what he wanted to do at a very early age – to work in the round. the graphic arts were set aside and from the time that he set up his own studio, he concentrated on sculpture. modelling was retained; it is of course a part of sculpture though the opposite of carving – in the one the material is built up, in the other it is cut away. Seamus, unlike most sculptors, did not model a work in clay before beginning on the stone – he modelled only for subsequent casting in bronze, almost exclusively of portrait busts.
Seamus did a great number of portrait busts, particularly in the last ten years of his life when there was little call for carved figures, and his work in stone was largely confined to lettered tablets. But the ‘stone’ feeling was always there in the solid, bulky, four-square heads and he was happiest with sitters who lent themselves to this treatment. It is odd, however, that what are considered to be his best portraits, even his best works, are quite different: the head of his father, of Sean O’Riordain, of Frederick May, are delicate and sensitive. It may be significant that these are among the portraits which were not commissioned, but done to keep himself occupied when he had no work.
there was in fact no shortage of commissions, both public and private, and if no commission was forthcoming and Seamus felt that someone should be done, an artist or patriot or politician, he went ahead and arranged for sittings because with his passion for ‘documentation’ he knew they would be wanted sooner or later.
Not all of these heads were successful; Seamus was not interested in fleeting expressions or personal habits of deportment, but all of them are well-constructed, based on his thorough knowledge of anatomy and his feeling for solid form.