'Wild man' silversmith and campaigner for the crafts
Tuesday 08 February 2005
Michael Bryan Murray, silversmith and craftsman: born Stroud, Gloucestershire 29 July 1923; married 1945 Rosemary Veber (died 1990; three sons, two daughters), 2004 Anne Nicholson; died London 20 January 2005.
Michael Murray was a poetic craftsman whose material was metal. His lifelong smiting of silver, bronze and aluminium, in the ancient way with a hammer on an upturned log, inspired students and clients of all ages and from all walks of life.
Ruth, his mother, had been a student of Maria Montessori. While she taught the children of the Sinn Fein in Ireland, his father, Stormont, corresponded with Sigmund Freud. On returning to England they joined the Tolstoyan Anarchist community at Whiteway, near Stroud, where Michael was born in 1923. Here families and radicals built their own homes and a bakery, grew their own food, collected water from the "wet ground" and talked late into the night. Eighty years later Michael still needed chatter around him to fall asleep.
The young family then moved to High Wycombe, where his father's "Distributism" was developed, a social vision where everyone would work their own plot of land. Their home was frequented by Bernard Shaw, Eric Gill, Michael Tippett, Arthur Bliss and G.K. Chesterton, who impressed the young Michael by turning around two hecklers, who then set off that night to start a community at Laxton. Both Whiteway and Laxton communities continue to this day.
In 1938 Michael began a stained-glass apprenticeship with Eddy Nuttgens at Piggotts, near High Wycombe. He moved on to bind 10 books in a fortnight with Douglas Cockerell in Letchworth Garden City, and then to Ditchling, to learn silversmithing from Dunstan Pruden. At just 16, he was teaching soldiers as part of their re-training at Brighton College of Art; butterfly watching on the Downs with the calligrapher Edward Johnston; and cycling 100 miles home to see his family.
Coming from a family of pacifists, Michael Murray was a vegetarian from birth and a conscientious objector. The Second World War was for him a self-directed period of education - working single-handedly a 170-acre farm at Bradenham; market gardening; fruit farming, forestry at Apthorpe in Northamptonshire, and helping returning soldiers set up a co-op at Bitterswell, Leicestershire, with his young wife Rosemary.
At the end of the war he moved to London to train again in silversmithing at the Central School of Art and Crafts, then under W.R. Lethaby. Then began a career of crafting silver for churches, converting and managing workshops in London, and becoming an adviser to local councils and the Government in the 1980s on "live/work" accommodation.
His early workshops in Rosebery Avenue and Old Street were highly productive. With his then apprentice William Phipps, now a master spoon-maker, Sally Jones, George Grant, Dickie Costain and his own elder daughter, Clare Murray, now also a silversmith, his commissions included a huge Christ the King for Holy Rood, Oxford, with its church furniture (a real altar in the round in a modern setting); a sanctuary lamp for the Gethsemane Chapel in Coventry Cathedral; and, with his brother Martin's woodwork, a tall Processional Cross for Guildford Cathedral. With Keith Murray he furnished the New Chapel for the Royal Foundation of St Katherine in east London, and six copes (huge processional robes) for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth. In 1955 he made and fitted high up on Westminster Abbey a huge bronze phoenix, 12 foot in wingspan, which can be seen from the roads all around.
All his life he continued the making of chalices, christening mugs and odd commissions - such as a stirrup-cup shaped as a horse's head to fit into the pocket. His clients ranged from the Queen Mother to anyone who wished to buy something: always tailoring what he made to what they could afford. In 1998, Sally Jones hosted an exhibition of his and his many students' work in her gallery in the City, "Goldensilver: 60 years a smiting".
Murray was also an active organiser promoting the survival of the crafts. He joined the Art Workers Guild as their youngest member; for one of the "live" evenings he arranged, his eldest son, Sebastian, demonstrated sand-casting. In the 1950s he started the New Churches Research Group, proposing radical changes in church design which resulted in St Paul's Church, Bow Common (designed by Robert Maguire in 1956 and now a listed building). This got him excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church which he had joined as a teenager, but as the years passed he watched all these ideas of "a church in the round" being assimilated and accepted.
In 1971 he helped form the Crafts Advisory Committee and Crafts Council, and was instrumental in starting the Clerkenwell Green Association, being seen as a rebel in tackling the council to find property for workspace. In his sixties he converted the Metropolitan Hospital in Shoreditch into workspaces. After his wife died in 1990, he developed his charity, the Michael Murray Arts Crafts Trades Skills Trust (Acts), and took his skills to Cromarty as artist-in-residence, where the town knew him as the "wild man" with his door always open for passers-by to watch or pick up a hammer.
Michael Murray would often tell of two childhood incidents that shaped him. The first was seeing the Jarrow marchers in the 1930s - he decided he would never be in a position where he could be made unemployed. The second was a meeting with Mahatma Gandhi at Kingsley Hall, in east London: Gandhi, being more interested in the 11-year-old amongst the adult devotees, taught him how to spin. He declared that the title to his autobiography would be Our Life is in Our Hands. The philosophy of his working life was "learning by doing".
In the last few years he married again, and we took his tools around in a "Travelling Open Workshop", setting up logs and old saucepan lids to beat into bowls, animals and dolphins. Michael's long-held theory was that the early metal pots would have been re-beaten and thus "disappeared", so pottery "survivors", which could not be re-used in the same way, merely appeared to predate metal; in other words, long before clay was used, metal nuggets in riverbeds were being beaten into humanity's first bowls. He would point out in the British Museum how pottery copied metal's natural shapes.
One year he delightedly watched his theory being given expression as the children of Chelsfield, Kent, practising this ancient skill at the church fete, found themselves short of hammers, and spontaneously selected large white pebbles from the Vicar's flowerbed.
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