My Father Murray Urquhart

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Joseph Stearn
Self-portrait by Murray Urquhart, circa 1930

My father was single-minded to a fault. Painting took absolute priority in his 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. For my first five years my father was a distant figure, but at least he was living with us.

In 1925, when I was six, my father, carrying his easel and paintbox, rode away on his bicycle and never came home again. For years my mother never mentioned or explained this fact. Later on, my brother Andrew and I would spend ten excruciating days each year staying with our father in gloomy rooming houses on the outskirts of London. These penitential visits were spent mostly on the top of London double-decker buses, the cheapest way of passing the time.

My father’s father was the minister in Portpatrick, a small fishing port on the western coast of Scotland. He died four months before Murray, their only child, was born; his mother died during Murray’s birth.

Murray grew up with doting spinster aunts in the beautiful city of Edinburgh, and retained its soft accent. He was charming, handsome, talented, and, inevitably, spoiled. He went to art school in Edinburgh and lived in Paris for two years. He loved the French Impressionists, and they were as far as my father would go. He was not drawn to Braque, Picasso, or Matisse.

My father married my mother in 1911 in Bridport, an old market town on the south coast of Dorset, in England. As usual, he painted from dawn to dusk every day, and my mother, who much admired his work, often accompanied him. I have on my wall in Tyringham, Massachusetts, some of the pictures he painted in the early years of their marriage. They are lively and happy.

Their first child, Andrew, was born in April 1914, four months before the declaration of war. 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.

The four years of the war must have been a nightmare for my mother. She finally mentioned the problem to me on September 4, 1939, the second day of World War II, when I had to tell her that I had joined the army. I feared she would be angry because I could also have continued at Oxford for another year, but…


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