Stone mad tribute to Cork sculptor

Nigel Baxter was surprised to see little representation of Seamus Murphy in his home town. The British carver decided to take matters into his own hands. Literally, writes Ellie O’Byrne.

Stone mad tribute to Cork sculptor

Nigel Baxter was surprised to see little representation of Seamus Murphy in his home town. The British carver decided to take matters into his own hands. Literally, writes Ellie O’Byrne.

When stone carver Nigel Baxter first visited Cork, the birthplace of his hero, sculptor Seamus Murphy, he was bemused to find that the only visible tribute to the man, his own work aside, was a plaque on his Wellington Road home.

Now, Baxter is back in Cork, chisel in hand, to hew his own homage to the master craftsman in the most fitting way possible: a portrait bust of Murphy, carved from limestone.

“He’s not immortalised at all and I was rather surprised, because he was quite a prominent man in the arts, in Ireland and indeed internationally,” Baxter says. “Somehow, he’s slipping into obscurity. I said to myself, I’m going to carve him, because that’s what he would like.”

Working in the Crawford Art College on Sharman Crawford St, where Murphy took drawing classes as a young man, the English stone carver is working on the portrait bust of his hero until September 1.

Seamus Murphy, born in Mallow in 1907, was apprenticed to a stone-carver when he left school and rose to become one of Ireland’s most prolific sculptors following two years of study in Paris on a scholarship.

He opened his own Cork studio in Blackpool, and his distinctive modernistic stone carvings, headstones and cast bronze busts can be seen all over Ireland as well as in England and the US.

Baxter says he feels an affinity with Murphy because of their similar beginnings; he too rose up from apprentice stone carver and his work can be seen in restorations of Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral.

It was Murphy’s 1950 book, Stone Mad, documenting his time amongst the “Stonies”, when even in those days stone carving was a dying artisan trade, that first drew Baxter’s attention to Murphy and his work.

“As an apprentice, I stumbled across a book in the library one day called Stone Mad, and I picked it up,” Baxter says. “It became my bible. I carried it everywhere with me.”

Baxter, describing himself as a traditionalist and first and foremost a craftsman, has dedicated himself to reviving the lost art of the carved portrait bust in recent years. He uses no models or computer assisted

design (CAD) tools, working up is 3D likeness entirely from two-dimensional images, in this case photos of Murphy donated by his son, the artist Colm Murphy.

A specially quarried block of Portland limestone from Dorset, weighing in at a quarter of a tonne, is the blank canvas Baxter is working on to extract a life-size bust of Murphy, who he says will be depicted in middle life.

“Seamus worked a lot in a local stone, a Kilkenny Blue limestone, which is a lovely stone,” Baxter says. "I thought about using that, but it’s quite a dark limestone and I didn’t think it would work. Seamus also worked a lot in Portland limestone and I’ve worked Portland quite a lot so it was a natural choice.”

The project is being filmed by Crawford lecturer and documentary maker Pádraig Trehy, as a sequel to his 2014 documentary about Murphy, The Quiet Revolution. A bust would usually take around 120 hours but this project’s process is slower to allow for filming and photography.

A real labour of love for Baxter, he has self-funded the project until now, but has also launched a €10,000 crowd-funding campaign for the final stages: when the sculpture is complete it will require specialist packing and transport, and installation in what Baxter hopes will be a suitably prominent home in Cork city.

Seamus Murphy founded the sculpture park in Fitzgerald’s Park, where several of his pieces including his bronze bust of Michael Collins can be seen, so this may be an fitting resting place for Baxter’s work. Other locations including the Crawford Art Gallery are being considered.

Murphy died in 1975. If he were alive today to see the project, he’d be a tough task-master, Baxter says.

He’d probably be a bit critical but all stone carvers are. I wouldn’t have a problem with that at all: it would have been lovely for him to be able to comment on it

“As you carve the image and it begins to take shape, you start to become quite friends with him. I often come into the studio and start talking to him. The day we have a real problem is when he starts talking back!”

More in this section