Peter Elson speaks to sculptor TOM MURPHY, who brings famous faces back to public life
BEING gazumped by nuns when you’re trying to buy a hotel isn’t the outline for an episode of Fawlty Towers but what sculptor Tom Murphy languidly describes as “another life experience”.
After buying a different property, a three year stint as a hotelier in Llandudno was only a sideshow in the multi-functional life of the acclaimed artist.
The recent unveiling in Seaforth of his superb bust of William Gladstone will be the first public sculpture of the Liverpool-born former four times prime minister in more than a century.
Also this is Tom Murphy’s 50th public sculpture – or is it?
“I’m not really sure, I think it’s 25 full-size figures and a further 25 busts,” said the youthful-looking 64-year-old.
Indeed, his prolific output means it appears to be difficult NOT to fall over an original Murphy sculpture on Merseyside.
“Well that’s not quite true, as people don’t realise all the rules about public sculpture,” explains Tom, of Cressington Park, south Liverpool.
“These include health and safety – such as you can’t have arms and legs sticking out which could smack people in the face or trip them up as they walk by.”
And in spite of there being a city centre chockful of Tom Murphy sculptures – including Capt Johnny Walker (Pier Head), the Moores brothers (Church Street), John Lennon (Liverpool Airport), Billy Fury (Albert Dock), the Blitz memorial (Liverpool parish church), Ken Dodd and Bessie Braddock (Lime Street Station) – you can’t actually fall over any of them!
Recalling his childhood, Tom, who hails from Huyton, says: “I thought it was a nice place and I’m quite shocked when people tell me it’s not. I had a great time there, playing in the streets.
“My parents were quite sporty and travelled around to different events so we mixed with people from all classes which means I can get on with anyone.”
It was a useful talent when he had to deal with the Oxford University dons at Trinity College after they commissioned a bust of Liverpool-born graduate Noel Chavasse, Britain’s only double VC recipient.
Tom said: “Liverpool is a city in which you feel at home wherever you are, but you’re not allowed to go too far beyond what the unwritten law says you should be.”
Perhaps that is why his route to being the city’s favoured sculptor was such a winding course – sailing the world and then selling biscuits.
His father, classified as an orphan at 12, was sent into the Mersey school ship Indefatigable, into the Navy and when finally ashore had various factory jobs.
“Home had a laissez-faire atmosphere. My mother was a bit of a comedic character and liked playing the piano, although usually it was only Danny Boy.
“I was obsessed with maps and had a longing to leave and go somewhere. My father let me hitchhike to Rome aged 15.”
That year he left school and immediately tried to go away to sea but Cunard Line told him he was too young-looking, too thin and too small.
Tom said: “Like everyone then and now we formed a teenage band around 1960. I had a drum kit and it was very rare for anyone ever to have a full set of guitar strings.
“We practised in a shed and it used to get pelted with stones by night workers showing their appreciation of our talents.
“I’m the middle of three brothers and the only artistic one, in fact it was the only thing I was good at. It was only much later I found I was good at other things.”
Tom sold the drum kit to buy his Merchant Navy uniform when he finally got a job with Cunard on the cargo liner Ivernia sailing to New York as a steward in 1966.
“It was great to be in New York at that time as The Beatles had just kicked off. Coming from Liverpool there was some reflected glory and the locals were impressed with our hipsters, flares and wide belts.
“Then I moved to Pacific Steam Navigation, sailing to the west coast of South America. It was fantastic seeing crocodiles paddling along in the Panama Canal.
“Latin America was like the wild West then. The bars in Valparaiso had those double swing doors and drunks would fall out of them into the street.”
Back in the UK he was captivated by the idea of working in London and took a retail job there for a year.
“It’s an illusion, of course. You have to be young and have money, otherwise you’re trapped behind a glass wall,” he said.
“Liverpool, though, was going from black and white into technicolour and it seemed to be leading the world in fashion, music and poetry. But I got a job with United Biscuits in sales training.
“It was a very good company with a new car every year and I was there for 15 years.
“Meantime I got into another group playing guitar and doing comic impressions as people still enjoyed watching variety acts.
“I never thought of jobs as a career but all things as experiences. In life I feel you’ve got to get it wrong to get it right.
“I always felt the creativity trying to get out of me although the word artist sent a shiver down my spine. Suddenly, at the age 30, I started painting obsessively in my spare time and making small sculptures. What started as a hobby became all consuming.”
After teacher training in art at Liverpool John Moores University the big change was winning in the BBC Art ’88 first prize, with a trip to New York.
“I showed my stuff to a Simon Cowell art world character and he said in the US you had to be either a tin of beans or spaghetti.
“So I decided I really wanted to be was a sculptor of big works. In the art world you’re either known or a complete nobody.
“There seemed no point in doing gallery work if you wanted to make a living, it had to be public sculpture.
“I take a very professional attitude, always attend meetings in suit and tie, with a model of what I can do.
“I give people what they want – even if it ends up as what I want!”