John Murphy

Sadness ’... the incurable imperfection in the very essence of the present moment ...’


Not on display

John Murphy born 1945
Watercolour and ink on paper
Support: 819 × 695 mm
Purchased 1982

Catalogue entry


Inscribed ‘J.M. 80’ bottom right
Watercolour, pen and ink on paper, 32 1/4 × 27 3/8 (82 × 69.5)
Purchased from the artist (Grant-in-Aid)1982

Two [T03345 and T03346] from a series of six watercolours which Murphy made between 1980–1.

The titles, which are handwritten on the works, both concern absence or loss and the melancholy tone of these ruptured sentences is echoed in the cloud-like paintings which suggest the unattainable, a void. In an unpublished article, ‘On Contemplating the Night Sky’ the artist and critic Jon Thompson has isolated ‘the obscuring quality of language’ and ‘the compelling desire to reach beyond it’ as a central theme in Murphy's work and has related the watercolours to this theme: 'Here again he employed the written device for fracture “...” and with even more telling effect: (‘Silence “...augural absence of a voice which fascinates”’/‘Sadness “...the incurable imperfection in the very essence of the present moment”’/ ‘The Cypher “... weeps for the lost voice with tears as black as the trace of ink”’/‘Heart of Darkness “... leaving hardly a sign-and no ...”’/‘Lacuna “... elliptical desire of a ...”’/‘Power of Perfumes’.) Again the titles were handwritten but this time they were also superimposed on the image, pale-tinted, fleeting configurations of clouds-airy and elusive-as if to emphasise the space before, as well as the space beyond both words and image. The model offered would seem to be that of language as a kind of primordial state, an all pervading dark field out of which we raise meaning to consciousness through the application of the rules of grammar... we are asked to view poetic sense as a kind of accident of time and place, a momentary constellation in a continuum of chaos, a chaos which impels sense, forces speech and which receives the voice back into itself to be consumed. The art of Poesie is one of conjuration, of bringing into being through a moment which is “both action and dream” (Paul Valéry), a pre-existent thing drawn up from the fastness of silence; a thing which is capable of continual reconstruction through reading but which, when the final echo of the voice fades away, recedes back into the silence from whence it came.

'The poem therefore can only be a fragment, received through the medium of poetic attention from a continuum of “raw material”, providing us with a glimpse of what Valéry calls “a noble and living substance” and this has important implications in relation to form. The notion of “completeness of form” in the objects of art becomes, to a degree, illusory, in that completeness, before all else, is an idea, an idea which reaches before and beyond the object to infinity in all directions. What we perceive, therefore, through the object of art, is simply a momentary experience of our own desire for unity and order in all things, and so the attention that we give to this moment, this fragment, is chiefly an act of metaphysical invocation and this is the central message of Murphy's “Cloud” watercolours’.

Murphy has told the compiler that he takes his written quotations from a wide range of authors, sometimes combining sentences from different sources or composing his own texts. However, he prefers not to provide literary references, believing that these are unnecessary and might interfere with a proper reading of the work. In the watercolours, Murphy has hoped to set up what he has compared to a literary hiatus, a break in continuity, hinting at an absent subject matter which can never be grasped. The title of the last work in the series ‘Lacuna ...’ - a blank space or missing part-can be seen as the key to the series.

Only two of the watercolours have so far been exhibited outside the Tate Gallery. ‘Heart of Darkness ...’ and ‘Lacuna ...’ were included in Murphy's one-man exhibition at the Arts Council Gallery, Belfast, May–June 1981.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1980-82: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1984

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