Tom Murphy interview: Memorial sculptor behind Shankly & Dean statues
From John Lennon to Bill Shankly, artist Tom Murphy has immortalised some of Liverpool’s brightest stars in bronze and established himself as the preferred sculptor for many of the city’s leading institutions.
Your Move sat down with the man behind many recognisable merseyside public artworks and memorials to discuss his techniques, inspiration and upcoming projects.
Interview by Mark Langshaw
Where does your interest in the arts stem from and how did you come to make a career out of it?
I was interested in the arts from childhood, particularly sculpture. I started off making stuff like animals, feet and hands – things I could copy basically. Although I was good at art in school, I assumed there were others who were better than me so I held off until I was much older.
I used to just look at things and think ‘I could sculpt that’ but I also had some success in painting when I won the BBC Art 88 competition in 1988. That was a big step forward for me because it made me think ‘maybe I have a bit of talent’.
I still couldn’t make any money out of art back then, particularly in painting, so I carried on working in my day job but I had decided to be an artist whether I was financially successful or not.
My breakthrough came when I realised I should focus on sculpture, so I decided to make a cast of John Lennon and put it in Clayton Square Shopping Centre. If you exhibit your work in a gallery, you usually only get art enthusiasts visiting them but if you make direct contact with the public that can be a powerful thing.
Obviously there are benefits to exhibiting in a more formal setting but my advice to emerging artists who are looking to sell their work is that it’s always good to go directly to the public.
You’re obviously a sought-after sculptor. How do you decide which projects to undertake?
I don’t think you have to have a personal connection to your subject matter, but it can help. Ultimately I think the job of a commissioned artist is to do what the client wants. Your role is to realise their dream and come up with something you feel is appropriate based on the conversations you’ve had with them.
Some artists hate commissions but I love them because the client usually knows exactly what they want and knows I’m capable of delivering it having familiarised themselves with my work. It’s very rewarding when you come up with a design that meets the client’s criteria.
I’ve had some commissions that were very challenging for a number of reasons. For example, the Hillsborough memorial was a difficult project because of the emotioninvolved. I enjoyed that challenge and felt I had to get it right because of the significance of the subject matter.
Tom Murphy’s Work
- Hillsborough Memorial – Anfield
- John Lennon – Liverpool John Lennon Airport
- Bill Shankly – Anfield
- Dixie Dean – Goodison Park
- Billy Fury – Albert Dock
- Ken Dodd & Bessie Braddock – Lime Street Station
- Liverpool Blitz Memorial – St Nicholas’ Church
- The Moores Statue – Church Street
- Johnny King – Prenton Park
- Liverpool Heroes Memorial – Abercrombie Square (pictured above)
What inspired the design of the Hillsborough memorial?
I got the ideas for the Hillsborough memorial from various sources. One of them was actually Tutankhamun’s tomb after I saw a replica of it at an exhibition.
On one of the sarcophagi there were these winged figures which resembled angels, but they were in fact guardians of the Egyptian king’s memory. I was inspired by the idea of memory guardians and carried this over to the Hillsborough memorial.
All of the people featured on the memorial – people just like us – are the guardians of the memory. That gave me a bit more latitude with the design, which ended up depicting those who lost their lives in the tragedy as birds in the background.
The end result is a kind of dreamscape which I think represents how we all feel about the event. It’s now something that’s in our hearts more than our visual memory.
What are you working on right now?
At the moment I’m working on a sculpture of Everton’s Holy Trinity – Alan Ball, Howard Kendall and Colin Harvey – which will be placed near Goodison Park. I’m not sure exactly where yet.
That will feature the three legendary midfielders as young men and I’ve attempted to convey their camaraderie on the football field. I felt comfortable tackling this subject matter because I’ve worked on numerous football sculptures in the past, including Johnny King for Tranmere Rovers and Bill Shankly for Liverpool.
“If you exhibit your work in a gallery, you usually only get art enthusiasts visiting them but if you can make direct contact with the public that can be a powerful thing.”
What kind of preparation is needed when you’re immortalising a person in bronze?
Immortalising a person in this way involves tapping into their spirit, which means looking at every source, from photographs to videos. If a sculpture doesn’t have the subject matter’s energy it is kind of dead.
You can channel spirit by investigating the person you’re sculpting and finding out what makes them tick. For example, with my Bill Shankly sculpture I attempted to evoke his similarity to James Cagney.
Whenever he spoke he attempted to copy Cagney, putting his arms up like a boxer, and that force in the shoulders is very important to the sculpture. Without that and my understanding of him it would be a very lifeless sort of work.
Whenever I’m working on a project like this I feel like the person is there with me. Maybe not in the early stages, but further down the line when it starts to take shape.
When people leave us, figures we want to remember, there’s a void left behind and sculptures can fill that vacuum by putting a small part of their presence back into the world.
Which of your sculptures is the most personal to you?
I think it’s always got to be the memorials. They’re the most important because they have a real purpose, not just remembering one person but multiple people. Liverpool Blitz Memorial, for instance, is very personal to me because it serves this purpose and features my wife and two sons.
How significant a role has the city of Liverpool played in your career?
The best decision I made was deciding to exhibit my sculptures directly to the people of Liverpool. I’ve always made my sculptures for the people and when you do that the public responds.
Quite a lot of my ideas come from the public and so does the funding. I’ve managed to keep plodding along all these years thanks to their support and I hope to carry on creating sculptures until I fall off my perch.