3 March 2023By Rebecca ModenBlog

Tom Phillips, Iris Murdoch, and the Flaying of Marsyas

When Tom Phillips first met Iris Murdoch – at a dinner party given by the producer and writer Michael Kustow, a mutual friend – they bonded instantly over Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas. They’d both just seen that extraordinary painting, which depicts the satyr Marsyas being flayed alive as punishment for his hubris in daring to compete with the god Apollo, at the Royal Academy’s 1983-84 exhibition of Venetian art. The Flaying of Marsyas, then generally unknown to the public, had been the show’s star attraction, shocking and enthralling its many visitors. ‘All these months – it is not too much to say – London has been half under the spell of this masterpiece, in which the tragic sense that overtook Titian’s poesie in his seventies reached its cruel and solemn extreme’, painter and art historian Lawrence Gowing commented. ‘At most hours on most days there is a knot of visitors riveted and fairly perplexed in front of it. ... At the Academy people still ask, and on the radio well-meaning critics debate, how it is possible that a horribly painful subject should be the occasion of beauty or greatness in art.’

Like most visitors to the RA exhibition, that was the first time Murdoch saw the original Flaying of Marsyas. She had nevertheless been meditating on it for many years, finding in it enormous inspiration. It had become, for her, a sublime image of unselfing: ‘an image of the death of the self – that the god flays you, that you lose your egoism in this sort of agony, which is also ecstasy’, she said in a 1984 interview for Channel 4. She told her friend the painter Harry Weinberger that she was ‘obsessed’ with it, and called it ‘the greatest picture in the world’. Murdoch identified strongly with the figure of the flayed artist, Marsyas, and she confided this to Phillips.

Murdoch had been an enthusiastic, if rather amateurish, painter in her student days, but with literature and philosophy competing for her attention, her attempts at painting were perhaps fortunately sidelined. Instead, she channelled her fascination with paintings and painterly techniques into her novels. They’re saturated with direct references and subtle allusions to numerous great paintings, but the Flaying of Marsyas is, as John Bayley says, ‘the painting which had the deepest and at the same time the most visible effect on her work’. Murdoch never describes the Flaying of Marsyas explicitly, knowing that the attempt to do so would risk dangerously simplifying its meaning. She weaves a web of allusions which permit the painting to retain its complexity and ambiguity, so that it can point beyond itself towards a truth which can only be articulated indirectly. In A Fairly Honourable Defeat, for instance, Simon Foster sees the painting as emblematic of his relationship with his caustic lover Axel Nilssen. Later on it’s referenced in The Good Apprentice, when the psychiatrist Thomas McCaskerville likens his patient Edward Baltram to Marsyas, and in Jackson’s Dilemma when the painter Owen Silbury observes that the Flaying of Marsyas reveals Titian’s remorse and great pain. Most significantly, the Flaying of Marsyas permeates The Black Prince, whose protagonist Bradley Pearson is flayed and goes through a process of redemptive suffering.

Murdoch’s great love of the Flaying of Marsyas ignited Phillips’ inspiration. ‘When the National Portrait Gallery commissioned me to paint her portrait I recalled our conversation’, he said, and he ‘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.' Phillips sketched in the Titian with broad brushstrokes; in contrast, he rendered the image of Murdoch herself with great precision and imbued it with a translucent, otherworldly light: ‘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”.’ The painting took three years to complete. Four large-scale sketches of Murdoch, named by her ‘Earth’, ‘Air’, ‘Fire’, and ‘Water’, produced from memory midway through the work when the Titian seemed to be overpowering the portrait, helped Phillips to refresh and refine his recollections of her and to return to ‘the original light-bulb image’. Phillips incorporated a branch of gingko – the world’s oldest tree, much loved by her – into the portrait, thereby associating her with age, tradition and wisdom. Gingko is now used in research into treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, which makes Phillips’ inclusion of it seem both poignant and prescient.

This was by no means the only portrait in which Phillips presented his subject against a backdrop of visual art. In 1993, for instance, Phillips depicted the financier and connoisseur Nicholas Goodison before two mystical landscapes which point to Goodison’s role as Chairman of the Courtauld Institute and also perhaps represent his personal taste in art. In Phillips’ 1986-88 portrait of restauranteur Jeremy King, the back wall is filled with a version of a landscape (based on a postcard) of Burnham-on-Sea, where King was born. His 1983-85 portrait of the art critic Edward Lucie-Smith includes an African sculpture which, Phillips said, acted as ‘mute witness’ to Lucie-Smith’s African heritage, and also includes Terminal Grey, a work in progress by Phillips himself, ‘to represent modern painting’. Phillips’ method echoes Murdoch’s characteristic employment of a work of visual art as a means of guiding the reader’s interpretation. Whereas for Phillips, the work of art in the background functions as a kind of shorthand, pointing to an aspect of the sitter’s life, their tastes or interests, or a key influence on them, it often operates in Murdoch’s novels in a far more complex way, the highly flexible novel form perhaps more easily permitting this expansion of meaning. A case in point is Bronzino’s Allegory with Venus and Cupid, which functions in The Nice and the Good on a sustained and intricate symbolic level, its allegory being patterned many times in the novel, and its meaning proving inexhaustible. By including the Titian in Murdoch’s portrait, Phillips explicitly connects Murdoch with great art and the figure of the tortured artist; he can only hint at the vast significance of this particular painting to her oeuvre, yet it’s to be hoped that viewers are inspired to delve further, to begin to comprehend its immense meaning to her.

The Flaying of Marsyas appears in the background of at least two of Phillips’ other portraits of the same time period. Phillips noted that his portrait of Michael Kustow ‘ran in tandem’ with his portrait of Murdoch: ‘they occupied the same seat and shared the same basic background … Since it was Michael that had originally introduced me to Iris this seemed apposite especially as it allowed a wry variation. Whereas Iris is placed in front of the figure of Marsyas himself, in identification with the Artist, Michael is seen in the context of King Midas who judges the artistic event and is rewarded by Apollo with the ears of an ass for being right but on the wrong side.’ The association with Midas is an ironically humorous comment on Kustow’s role as a Channel 4 ‘impresario of the arts’. In his portrait of the musician, composer and producer Brian Eno, Phillips draws on the Titian yet again; he stated that Eno is ‘yet another trapped in the context of Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas. As Iris took the place of the goat-footed poet and wild piper Marsyas, and Michael the place of the king who judged right when he should have judged wrong, Midas, so with apposite logic Brian had to appear in front of the man whose music made the stones dance and who ended up as a singing head floating on the water, Orpheus.’ So the Flaying of Marsyas became a recurrent feature in Phillips’ oeuvre, much as it did in Murdoch’s; it haunted him too, though to a lesser extent.

Phillips and Murdoch discussed everything from socialism to school songs during their sittings and subsequent meetings; they surely discussed The Sandcastle, her most fully developed analysis of portrait-painting, written many years earlier. Phillips’ portrait of Murdoch bears some striking similarities to a portrait described by Murdoch in that novel: the portrait of the headmaster Demoyte, painted by the young artist Rain Carter (who is, according to A.S. Byatt, Murdoch’s own youthful self-portrait). Rain’s vision of Demoyte is partly realised by means of her careful selection of props – a book, a glass paperweight, a pile of papers, a lustrous, priceless rug – which build up an image of a thoughtful, cultured man. Demoyte’s features are ‘meticulously represented’ – recalling the photographic realism with which Phillips renders the head of Murdoch. Demoyte’s head, positioned against the richly decorative background of the rug much as Murdoch is placed before the Titian, has ‘enormous force’. Rain’s portrait is generally considered a ‘really good likeness’, but the art teacher Bledyard observes that Rain’s portrait is ‘too beautiful’ and that the sitter ‘does not look mortal’. Rain, anguished, tries repainting the head, striving to create the impression of incompleteness in order to prevent its form from crystallising. She eventually abandons the portrait, tacitly acknowledging the inadequacy of art to represent reality. Rain cannot avoid idealising Demoyte; Phillips consciously idealises Murdoch, removing from her features the signs of age which he claimed ‘were not really important to her actual presence’, and imbuing her with that light-bulb glow so that she appears, as Peter J. Conradi says, ‘pale, still and mythical, a light shining in darkness’. Is Phillips’ portrait of Murdoch any more than a ‘really good likeness’? Is it even that? What more can a portraitist hope to achieve, anyway? The subject continually outruns the attention of the artist, and the work has to be finished, or abandoned, at some stage. Phillips’ portrait certainly divided critics: to Waldemar Januszczak it was ‘not just a fine likeness [but] also a portrait of an inner life’, whereas Brian Sewell described it as ‘deplorable’, called the copy of Titian ‘frankly appalling’, and lamented: ‘poor jaundice-eyed Miss Murdoch is as flat and grainy as an overblown holiday snap’. Although Murdoch herself had reservations about having her image captured and fixed in portraits, and the loss of control which this entailed, she enjoyed Phillips’ version of her, and praised it for its separateness and coolness.

It’s hardly surprising that Murdoch and Phillips got on so well together. They had much in common; moreover, Murdoch habitually sought out and loved the company of visual artists. Her social circle included the engraver Reynolds Stone, painters Alex Colville, Jean Jones, Barbara Dorf, and Harry Weinberger, sculptor Rachel Fenner, and Christopher Cornford and Carel Weight, her colleagues at the Royal College of Art; she also made the acquaintance of Francis Bacon and the hologram artist Margaret Benyon at the RCA. She was, consciously or unconsciously, positioning herself within a well-established tradition of fruitful relationships between writers and painters, rather in the manner of her great inspiration Henry James. ‘I am probably too romantic about painters – I want to project my own dream life as a painter’, she noted in her journal in 1965; her propensity to idealise painters remained with her throughout her life. Nonetheless, she sincerely admired Phillips’ oeuvre. Although she was often gloomy about the future of art, Phillips’ art seemed to brighten its prospects: speaking of the contemporary art scene to Martin Gayford in 1993, she observed that, ‘Of course one mustn’t be too pessimistic. There is still a great variety of artists around. […] And I love Tom Phillips, and the people who are very versatile and really know how to paint.’
Murdoch and Phillips would undoubtedly have discussed Phillips’ great work, A Humument, which had been in progress since 1966, and which became a fifty-year project. A Humument, originally an obscure Victorian text titled A Human Document which was repeatedly transformed by Phillips into an entirely new text by means of painting, collage and cut-up techniques, might be understood as Phillips’ self-portrait. It is a Gesamtkunstwerk – a work of art that endeavours to encompass most or all art forms – and as such it bears some resemblance to Murdoch’s attempts to merge words, visual images, sound, colour and light in her quest to create a more fully synaesthetic mode of communication which would represent reality with greater truth. The concept of the monumental magnum opus under perpetual production would, moreover, have struck a chord with Murdoch, being a feature of both fact and fiction for her, in the shape of her own Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, which evolved out of her 1981-82 Gifford Lectures and was eventually published in 1992, and in the philosophical works in progress of many of her characters, including Marcus Fisher, Rupert Foster and David Crimond. The Book and the Brotherhood, written concurrently with the painting of Murdoch’s portrait, centres on Crimond’s writing of a nebulous book which – suspect the uneasy ‘brotherhood’ of friends who have been funding its interminable production for the past thirty years – has moved far from its original brief. Was Crimond’s book partly inspired, perhaps half-humorously, by Phillips’ Humument? Rather ironically, whilst open-endedness is celebrated as an essential aspect of A Humument, the brotherhood both fear and desire the completion of Crimond’s book (and it is, in fact, one of the very few books ever finished by an inhabitant of Murdochland).

Having, as he said, ‘rashly criticised’ the cover designs of Murdoch’s novels during portrait sittings, Phillips found himself being ‘gently trapped’ into designing the covers of several of her novels of the later 1980s, and also the cover of Metaphysics as Guide to Morals. His cover illustration for The Book and the Brotherhood depicts a layer of closely written and almost indecipherable text – seemingly taken from the novel – superimposed on a target, which is indicative, perhaps, of language’s capacity to come close to but never quite to hit its mark. For cover of The Good Apprentice, a novel about fathers and sons, Phillips presents the ghostly head of Jesse Baltram, an absent father at the centre of a web of illusion. The head is placed against a backdrop of a brooding, cloudy sky and a flat landscape inhabited by a single shadowy figure – Jesse’s son Edward Baltram, entering the environment of Jesse’s home, Seegard, or so it appears. On the back cover, the image of a butterfly recalls the tormented Edward’s dream of a butterfly which bit him and then fell to the floor dead, and his psychiatrist Thomas McCaskerville’s response that, ‘Psyche is a butterfly … She is loved by Eros.’ Phillips’ book covers, and indeed those by other artists across the full range of Murdoch’s oeuvre, are works of art in their own right which would definitely merit closer scrutiny by Murdoch enthusiasts.

The final meeting between Iris Murdoch and Tom Phillips took place at a St Catherine’s Feast in the late 1990s. Although Murdoch was, by this time, increasingly affected by Alzheimer’s disease and often struggled to recognise her friends, she told Phillips straightaway: ‘Of course I know you, you are in a famous painting … in a portrait.’ Phillips was deeply touched; he has described how her face lighted up with ‘all the old radiance’ and he saw once again her ‘luminous beauty’. Her reversal of the roles of artist and sitter indicates the confusion brought about by Alzheimer’s, but it also signals her enduring preference for the role of scrutiniser, rather than that of the scrutinised. Her words to Phillips provoke the rather disconcerting idea that while he’d been scrutinising her image and transforming her into a work of art, she’d discreetly been doing the exactly the same to him. From Phillips’ portrait, she continues to gaze back at her audience, challenging our powers of perception.

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