The Elements of Iris Murdoch

I’ve winnowed down the 87 books I wanted to take on my trip. Now I’ve got a manageable stack of five.

One of these is Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince, recommended by the same friend who steered me toward The Sea, The Sea, a strange and discursive novel fashioned as the semi-sociopathic journal of a former theater director. It’s become one of my favorites.

In anticipation of The Black Prince, I’ve been reading up on Murdoch’s life and writing, and I found my way to Tom Phillips’ portraits and explanatory essay. He writes of the difficulty he had capturing her “luminous presence” for a work commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery.

[T]he 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’.

Unfortunately on the canvas itself I lost this vision about half way through the work. Iris started to shrink and began to lose heavily to the Titian. Taking advantage of a longish break I thought hard about how to get out of this impasse without faking. By her next visit I had started from memory four very large drawings whose scale challenged the painting. Each one of the drawings seemed to deal with a different element and I came to think of them as representing earth, air, fire and water. In more practical terms they taught me that the historiated aspects of Iris’s face, its lines and creases, were not really important to her actual presence. Thus I found my way back to the original light-bulb image.

It makes sense to me, somehow, that a writer of such complexity would be difficult to evoke on a single canvas. I don’t know about you, but I’m more captivated by The Elements (above) than by the official portrait.


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