Arthur Murch

Full name:
Arthur James Murch
Born:

Croydon
NSW
Australia
Died:

Avalon
NSW
Australia
Occupation:
Draftsman, Artist, sculptor
Education:
East Sydney Technical College
Highest rank:
Officer without rank
Enlistment:
Decorations/ commendations:
Conflict:
World War II 1939-1945
Military event:
Unit:
N/A

Early life

Arthur Murch was born on 8 July 1902 in the Sydney suburb of Croydon.

After leaving Sydney Technical High School, Murch became an apprentice with a sheet-metal machinery firm in Leichhardt, John Heine & Son Ltd. While working there, he was struck by a steel chip, causing permanent damage to his eye. Later on, the injury made his eyes more sensitive to harsh light, making it difficult to work outside.

From 1920 to 1924, Murch studied at the Royal Art Society of New South Wales under Dattilo Rubbo an Italian-born Australian artist and teacher. Rubbo ran a notable studio on Rowe Street, a quaint arty street between Castlereagh and Pitt streets that was demolished in the 1970s.

In 1924, Murch left his career as an engineering draftsman to pursue life as a full-time artist and sculptor. He built a studio in his parents' backyard and enrolled in sculpture classes at East Sydney Technical College. He studied under the guidance of English sculptor George Rayner Hoff.

In 1925, while on a travelling scholarship, Murch was introduced to Italian Renaissance Art. For 2 years, he studied art in Paris, London and Italy.

Australian Official War Artist, Arthur Murch, photographed with his cat, Sydney, New South Wales, about 1945. AWM P00933.005

Work during the Great Depression

After returning to Sydney in 1927, Murch became an assistant to renowned Australian artist George Lambert.

Murch worked with Lambert on The Unknown Soldier, a war memorial for St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney. Cast in bronze by AB (Arthur Bryan) Burton's Thames Ditton Foundry in London, the sculpture was unveiled in 1931. The Art Gallery of NSW collection holds one of Lambert's sketches for the sculpture, Recumbent Australian Soldier.

A young Arthur Murch assisting pre-eminent Australian artist George Lambert on the memorial sculpture, The Unknown Soldier, for St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney. Photographed by Harold Cazneaux in about 1929. Image: National Portrait Gallery 2015.67.

Paid work during the Great Depression was hard to come by for Murch. He supplemented his artwork and sculptural commissions by working with architect Frank Molony. He designed and made applique rugs, cushions and stuffed toys. He also spent time working with anatomy students at the University of Sydney.

After Lambert died in 1930, Murch returned to Sydney. He also spent time at Thirroul, south of Sydney, with his friends, artist Edmund Harvey and architect Frank Malony. This is where the first 'Murch style' paintings emerged. He combined classical and Renaissance styles and techniques with Australian people and landscapes.

In 1933, Murch visited the Hermannsburg Mission near Alice Springs as a freelance artist. During his 6-week stay, he produced 45 artworks that were exhibited at Macquarie Galleries. The following year he returned to Central Australia, staying for 3 months.

During his 3-month stay in 1934, Murch ran out of petrol while driving across the desert. So he and his colleague, Professor Harold Whitridge Davies, walked for 2.5 days to seek help. During this time, Murch shot a silent, black-and-white film with a 35 mm hand-cranked camera. Used to raise funds for a water pipeline for the Mission, the National Film and Sound Archives holds his Hermannsburg Mission film.

In 1935, Harvey and Arthur Murch founded the School of Decorative Arts, situated at the corner of Liverpool and Castlereagh Streets, Sydney.

In 1940, Murch married Gloria 'Ria' Mavis Counsell. A copywriter, Ria was often the sole earner for their family. To allow Murch to focus on his art, they relocated to Sydney's northern beaches, where life was more affordable.

Role as an official war artist

In April 1942, Murch was appointed an official war artist. After some time in Melbourne, he was assigned to work in northern Australia.

Murch's previous experience painting in Central Australia meant he was ideally suited to this posting. Through his art, he recorded the activities of the Australian military forces stationed in the Northern Territory. His work included documenting the aftermath of the Darwin bombings.

In October of 1942, Murch spent a fortnight with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) at Adelaide River, south of Darwin. During his time spent with a mobile unit, Murch found it hard to paint in the wet climate. He felt:

... tied hand and foot. I wasn't allowed to take a camera, and wasn't encouraged, except for an air raid, to write anything. I couldn't be seen taking notes. I was to paint only. I had to avoid seeming a suspicious character.

[quoted in Arthur James Murch, undated, Australian War Memorial, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/P65115]

Second World War Official War Artist Lieutenant Arthur Murch painting SFX26124 Sister Lorna Laffer of 119th Australian General Hospital at Adelaide River, Northern Territory, 13 October 1942. AWM 027194

Not long after returning to Darwin, Murch became unwell and was admitted to hospital. Back in Sydney in 1943, he was diagnosed with streptococcal infection. Rather than returning to Darwin, he continued his official commission in Sydney. He completed about 45 paintings and drawings.

Murch considered himself to be a visual reporter. His paintings and drawings of daily life in Central Australia represent aspects of Australia's involvement in World War II that weren't often recorded.

What I was anxious to do in drawing and painting was to report, as a newspaper reporter might, the factual nature of things.

[quoted in Arthur James Murch, undated, Australian War Memorial, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/P65115]

Rather than battlefield heroics, his artworks depict essential and mundane military duties in the harshness of the Australian outback. Moments of watching and waiting.

Hospital marquee at 119th Field Hospital'. This painting by Second World War Official War Artist Arthur Murch peeks inside an army tent at 119th Australian General Hospital (119AGH), Adelaide River, Northern Territory. Oil on Canvas, 1942. AWM ART29704. In 1942, 119AGH was the only hospital in mainland Australia that operated entirely under canvas.

His appointment as an official war artist finished on 17 May 1943.

Life after his appointment

In 1949, Murch won the Archibald prize for his portrait of sculptural student Bonar Dunlop.

Murch had a big impact and inspired many artists with his designs. He used a vast array of forms to sculpt his artworks, including fibreglass, rubber, pottery, stitched felt applique and cement.

Murch's time and experiences in Australia's outback with Indigenous communities had a profound impact on him. Many of his works throughout his life and career reflect his interest in Indigenous culture and practices.

In 1950, Murch painted a large corroboree-themed mural for the University of Queensland. Between 1961 and 1963, he painted the welcome mural of European settlement at the passenger terminal at Sydney Cove. He also took another painting excursion to Hermannsberg, this time with his daughter Michelle.

Survived by his wife, son and daughter, Murch died on 23 September 1989.

Many of his works are held in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra and Australian state galleries.


Last updated: 27 May 2022

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2022), Arthur James Murch, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 2 July 2022, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/biographies/arthur-james-murch
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