When Anthony Murphy gave up lawyering and moved to the Aude in 1992 to begin a career as a painter, two words sprang to mind : “early” and “retirement”. 15 years later when I take in the extent of what he has achieved on canvas and off it, I am uncomfortably reminded of Goethe’s salutary address to those of us who lack Murphy’s unshakable resolve and reckless self-belied : “Whatever you can do, or think you can, begin it. Boldness has beauty, power and magic in it.”
I remember this couplet whenever I go to stay at Murphy’s long, rambling pile on a hilltop near Carcassonne – originally a rest home for Catholic priests, now the place where he lives and paints most of his pictures. The transformation of the building, for my money, counts as a work of art in itself. And it’s what he sees from the high windows at Jasses that in no small part makes the paintings as remarkable as they are.
The view from the studio Murphy has installed in the attic space, where once the old priests ripened or dried their fruit and veg is extraordinary. About 30 miles away lie the foothills of the Pyrenees. Usually these can only be made out as large mysterious shapes but on a clear day you can just about discern the ruined fortress on Montsegur. This was the last refuge of the Cathars, a medieval free-thinking sect big in South West France, whose easy relationship with Christ and his teachings angered and embarrased the religious establishment into a series of genocidal crusades.
The Cathars believed, among other things, in replicating heaven on earth. Rather fancifully perhaps. I like to think that’s what Murphy is trying to do in his paintings. The biblically themed pictures would suggest so, and his numinous, fantastic landscapes, while recognisable of the world beyond his door, posess an otherworldly quality too. Less fancifully what blazes from all of Murphy’s canvases is the just reward of many years persevering boldness : beauty, power and magic.
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