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Saturday, November 17, 2018

Murray Urquhart

Robert J. Kirkpatrick

Murray Urquhart was, first and foremost, a painter, who had a long and critically successful, if apparently financially unrewarding, career. He only illustrated around a dozen books, all children’s books, although his talent was such it is a pity, and perhaps a mystery, as to why he didn’t illustrate more. His private life was also something of a mystery until one of his sons revealed all in a magazine article in 2013.

Murray Urquhart was born on 24 April 1880 in Kirkcudbright, Scotland, and named Murray McNeel Caird Urquhart. His father, Andrew John Urquhart (1849-1880) was a surgeon; his mother, Helen Crokat McNeel Caird (1848-1880) was the daughter of Alexander McNeel Caird, the Procurator Fiscal for Wigtownshire.

As both his parents died soon after his birth (on 2 August and 7 May 1880 respectively) he was initially brought up by his grandparents in Portpatrick, Wigtownshire – his grandfather was the Rev. Andrew Urquhart. He was then taken in by his aunt, Sarah Urquhart, at 33 Woodburn Terrace, Edinburgh. He was educated at Merchiston Castle School, Edinburgh, and then appears to have set out for a career in the legal profession – in the 1901 census he was recorded at 33 Woodburn Terrace  as a law student, living with his brother Robert and his aunt Jemima. However, shortly after this he enrolled at the Edinburgh School of Art. A prize-winner there in 1903, he subsequently moved on to study at the Slade School of Art (1903-1904), the Westminster School of Art (where his tutor was Walter Sickert), and finally at the AcademiĆ© Julian in Paris, where he stayed for two years.

He subsequently began exhibiting his paintings – over his lifetime he exhibited with the Royal Academy (20 times between 1912 and 1961), the Royal Society of British Artists (he was elected a Member in 1914), the Royal Hibernian Academy, Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts, the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours, and the New English Art Club.

At the same time as his career as a painter was taking off, he began his sporadic career as an illustrator, illustrating three children’s adventure stories for the publisher T.C. & E.C. Jack in 1907. A year later he illustrated two books for Blackie & Son and W. & R. Chambers, and in 1911 he illustrated a re-telling for children of Walter Scott’s The Fortunes of Nigel for T.C. & E.C. Jack.

Between 1907 and 1909 he was recorded living at 58 Belsize Road, Hampstead, and then, in 1910 and 1911, at 22 St. George’s Square, Primrose Hill. In April 1911, in Bridport, Dorset, he married his first wife, Bertha Rendall, a schoolteacher born in Bridport on 14 December 1883, the daughter of Edward Pratt Rendall, a twine manufacturer. Their first child, Andrew, was born in Bridport in April 1914, and their second, Brian, in February 1919. In The New York Review of Books in February 2013, Brian (who was a former Undersecretary-General of the United Nations) wrote that “Painting took absolute priority in [Urquhart’s] life, and his wife and children—not to mention national events and international disasters—were all secondary. He painted during daylight hours wherever he happened to be. What he did for money remained a mystery, except that we evidently had very little of it and lived in a primitive farm cottage without electricity or running water.”

He went on: “The Great War presented a problem for my father, who would do anything to avoid military service. Was he mortally afraid of violent death? Or did he consider that painting was the only thing that he had the right and obligation to do? In any case, his obsession was such that he would hide, take a false name—anything to escape conscription.” However, he didn’t indicate what his father actually did during the war – it appears that he spent at least part of the war working as an assistant master at Sea Bank School, Alnmouth, Northumberland, presumably filling-in for staff who had joined the forces. (A report in The Newcastle Journal, 19 December 1916, recorded that he designed the costumes and painted the scenery for an end-of-term entertainment.)

In 1925, in the words of Brian Urquhart, Murray “carrying his easel and paintbox, rode away on his bicycle and never came home again.” Two years later, on 30 September 1927, at the Roslyn Hill Chapel, Hampstead, he married (by the rites and Ceremonies of the Protestant Dissenters) Agatha Muriel Anne Snow, his cousin. Born on 24 November 1881, she was the daughter of Edmund Newman Snow, a wine merchant, and Anne Henryson, neĆ© Caird. There is no evidence that he and his first wife were divorced, other than in the 1939 Register, where Bertha Urquhart was recorded as a divorcee living at 5 Downs Road, Bristol, still working as a teacher.

Urquhart illustrated his last three children’s books in 1924 and 1925. Despite his talent as an illustrator, he does not appear to have worked for or contributed to any periodicals, other than a few cartoons for Punch.

In the early-mid 1930s he and his wife lived at the Well House, Meopham, Kent, and then moved briefly to 15A Cromwell Place, Kensington (1937-1940), from where he exhibited with the London Portrait Society. They then moved to Church Street, Bishop’s Lydeard, Somerset, where Urquhart became an active member of the Society of Somerset Artists, becoming a vice-president in 1944 and Chairman in 1949.

He remained there for several years, although it is not known when he left. He died on 12 April 1972 at Graysholt Nursing Home, Alton, Hampshire, his second wife also dying in 1972 in Surrey. He did not leave a will. His son Brian noted that “he neglected to make any effort to sell his pictures.” although many have come up for auction since his death and realized respectable sums. His first wife died in Westbury-on-Trym, Bristol, on 18 July 1984 (aged 101), leaving an estate valued at just under £40,000.

As a painter, Murray Urquhart was best-known for his portraits and landscapes, although he did paint other subjects, including, in 1912, two large historical panels for the reading room in the Glyndwr Institute in Machynlleth, Wales, and interiors and  fairground scenes. In 2011 he was included in the centenary exhibition of the Camden Town Group at the Fine Art Society, not as a member of the group but as a follower. As an illustrator, his work, albeit minimal in quantity, has been overlooked, yet it was, in its own way, as good as many of his contemporaries. His black and white illustrations have a certain painterly quality which is rather rare in the type of children’s books he was illustrating, and he was not afraid to draw scenes from an unusual viewpoint. Why he didn’t do more of this sort of work is not known – perhaps he felt it was beneath his dignity, or didn’t pay enough, or he was simply too busy painting his portraits and landscapes.


Illustrated by Murray Urquhart
The Adventure League by Hilda T. Skae, T.C. & E.C. Jack, 1907
In a Hand of Steel, or The Great Thatchmere Mystery by Paul Creswick, T.C. & E.C. Jack, 1907
Braves White and Red: A Tale of Adventure in the North-West by Argyll Saxby, T.C. & E.C. Jack, 1907
Twin Brothers: The Adventures of Two Little Runaways by Frances Palmer, Blackie & Son, 1908
Tales from the Arabian Nights, W. & R. Chambers, 1908
Contraband Tommy: A Tale of the Dreadnought Era by Charles Gleig, T.C. & E.C. Jack, 1911
The Fortunes of Nigel by Walter Scott, re-told by Alice F. Jackson, T.C. & E.C. Jack, 1911
The Secret Service Submarine by Guy Thorne, Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1915
The Life of Nelson by Robert Southey, Charles H. Kelly, 1917(?) (re-issue)
John of the Fens: A Story of Stuart Times by Bernard Gilbert, Oxford University Press, 1924
His Highness: A Public School Story by Gunby Hadath, Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1924
The Red House of Boville by H. Elrington, Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1925

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