Obituary: John Somerset Murray
Thursday 03 December 1992
MEETING John Somerset Murray as an old man in his remote Norfolk home was both perplexing and moving. In his bungalow at the edge of a small village, he was surrounded by the past. He had preserved, seemingly intact, the bulky darkroom equipment, camera and sets of lenses with which he had worked as an avant-garde studio photographer in the 1930s.
Murray's career was one of promising beginnings and frustrated opportunities. He was hampered from childhood by a persistent stammer and later by a recurring tuberculosis. As a schoolboy at Gresham's in the 1920s, he spent hours alone in the library, exulting in Thomas Hardy's romanticism and in the new world of science presented to him through the pages of Nature magazine. An early interest in photography was encouraged by both school and parents, while his friendship with the future architect Kit Nicholson expanded his interest in art and aesthetics.
Murray announced the opening of his Sloane Street studio in 1933. Immediately, his work became enormously popular. Exciting commissions came from Pilkington Glass and London Transport, and exacting ones from the Electric Light Manufacturers Association, which demanded seductive photographs of sophisticated interiors flooded with light for use in mass-market publications.
Murray excelled as a master technician. After a visit to the influential Man Ray exhibition organized by Lund Humphries in 1934, he began to expand his technical range to encompass the demands of the new experimentalism. Throughout the 1930s, he made solarised portraits and still lives, and experimented with methods of printing which enabled his photographs to extend the boundaries of contemporary image-making. Eager to share his knowledge, he announced a series of classes, to be held at the studio - an early pupil was the Chelsea Surrealist Winifred Casson. The subsequent partnership between Murray and Casson became one of photographic history's most important connections. Together, they exhibited at the Chelsea Arts Club exhibition in 1935, under their own, and assumed names. Murray printed Casson's half-plate negatives, often lit her photographs and shared with her all his cameras and equipment. A meticulous darkroom worker, he remembered with fondness in later years Casson's highly idiosyncratic technical method. In the summer of 1935, Murray and Casson collaborated on their seminal Surrealist piece Figure Study with Terra Cotta Vase by Henry Ellison.
The Second World War marked the end of Murray's career as an innovator. Almost immediately, he was engaged for war service and plunged back into the world of wireless technology. As he liked to recall, by the end of the war, his 'hair had turned white and his cameras black from dust and disuse'. The mavericks of the Thirties had become Fifties anachronisms - when the new, young advertising men began to look for photographers to commission, they looked to the photojournalists of Picture Post and Life magazine rather than to the avant-garde. With commissions infrequent, and Casson gone from London, Murray turned again to electronics. From the Fifties to his eventual retirement, he pursued, not always successfully, his youthful desire to be an inventor in the field of sound engineering. From 1964 to 1971, he worked on the development of multiplex telephone channelling equipment for use by the Post Office.
It was not until the Arts Council's exhibition 'Modern British Photography: 1919-1939' in 1980 that Murray's Thirties experimentalism was restored to its proper place. His solarised photograph of a silvered head, shot against a dynamic arrangement of torn newsprint, emerged as an icon of of the inter-war years.
While the 1970s revival of interest in photographic history was welcomed by many, for John Somerset Murray it was a disaster. He had inherited a substantial archive of early Indian photographs taken by his grandfather, the Victorian surgeon John Murray. It was Murray's belief, held until his death, that this collection had been systematically plundered by a group of dealers, collectors, curators and journalists. His deep sense of bitterness and grievance dominated the remainder of his life.
To remember John Somerset Murray sitting among antiquated enlargers, encrusted flasks of photographic chemicals, surrounded by inventions and cats and engrossed in his memories of past times and forgotten personalities is a melancholic exercise. His seemed a very English story - a small tragedy of unfulfilled ambition, a lost inheritance, an unsolved riddle. History, and its consequences, had once more become unfathomable.
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