Jean Iris Murdoch, the only child of a father who was a civil servant and a mother who aspired to be an opera singer, was born in Dublin on 15 July 1919. Her Protestant family moved to England in 1920, a year before Ireland became independent. She grew up in London but spent her two- week childhood holidays with the rest of her family in Ireland. She was educated at the high-minded, progressive Badminton School in Bristol, where she was a classmate and friend of Indira Gandhi. She then studied Classics, Ancient History and Philosophy at Somerville College, Oxford, from 1938 until 1942, receiving a first-class degree. Cold baths and irregular Greek verbs prepared her to become a junior civil servant at the wartime Treasury, the most prestigious branch of the civil service, from 1942–1944.

From 1944–1946 Iris did refugee work with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in Belgium and Austria, and witnessed massive human suffering during and after the war. In Brussels she met Jean-Paul Sartre, the subject of her first book, and reading his Being and Nothingness brought her back to the study of philosophy at Newnham College, Cambridge, in 1947–48. She came within the aura of Ludwig Wittgenstein but was not his pupil. From 1948–1963 she taught philosophy at St. Anne’s College, Oxford. In 1956 she married John Bayley, an eminent literary critic who would become Warton Professor of English at Oxford, and lived in Steeple Aston, a village fifteen miles north of the university. From 1963–1967 she taught philosophy at the bohemian Royal College of Art in London.

Iris Murdoch received many honours. She won the ten-thousand pound Booker Prize for The Sea, The Sea, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for The Black Prince and the Whitbread Literary Award for The Sacred and Profane Love Machine. She was an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and was awarded honorary degrees from Oxford, Cambridge, Trinity College, Dublin, and Queen’s University, Belfast. In 1976 she was named Companion of the British Empire and in 1987 Dame of the British Empire, the equivalent of a knighthood.

Alex Colville is one of the great modern realist painters. His work combines the Flemish detail of Andrew Wyeth, the eerie foreboding of George Tooker and the anguished confrontations of Lucian Freud. Behind the North Americans stands their common master, Edward Hopper. Alex has resolutely opposed the fashionable currents of abstract and expressionistic art and, as John Bayley noted in Elegy for Iris, ‘no other modern painter is so unconscious of prevailing fashion and so indifferent to what’s new in the art world’. In contrast to Jackson Pollock’s action pictures, he creates paintings of contemplation and reflection.

The son of a Scottish steel worker and a Canadian milliner, Alex was born in Toronto in 1920. ‘Processed as a Catholic’, he now considers himself a lapsed or ‘ex-semi-Catholic’. He grew up in Nova Scotia, graduated from Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, was a war artist with the Canadian army in the northwest Europe campaign and witnessed the liberation of Belsen. After the war he returned to teach at Mount Allison but resigned in 1963 in order to paint full time. He was a visiting artist at the University of California in Santa Cruz in 1967–68 and in Berlin in 1971, and in 1984–85 he visited and exhibited in Hong Kong, Tokyo and Beijing. He married Rhoda Wright in 1942, has four children and lives in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.

Iris Murdoch and John Bayley met Alex at a conference at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1963. In Elegy for IrisJohn wrote that ‘the real revelation of our Canadian visit were the pictures of Alex Colville . . . . Iris was spellbound by them. She and Colville took to each other at once, and he showed her all the portfolios he had brought with him’. Back in Oxford, ‘she used to sit and study her volume of Colville reproductions by the hour’. John added that Alex once remarked to Iris in his dry way, ‘I like being a provincial and you don’t mind my saying, do you, that I loved your books and now you for the same reason? No striving towards Mayfair, if you see what I mean?’ John ‘teased him by saying that of course only provincials exhibited at the (Marlborough) Art Gallery and stayed at Brown’s Hotel’. Iris and Alex both felt they were inspired and influenced by each other’s work.

I met Alex in 1999 and he often wrote about Iris in his letters to me. He said of my book, Privileged Moments, ‘I found this most absorbing – particularly the Iris and John chapter (since I knew them, though not as fully as you). I’m glad to know Iris admired T. E. Lawrence and not D. H.’ He conveyed a bit of gossip about Sonia Orwell, whom he had met in London in 1970: ‘I remember Iris Murdoch told me she was a heavy drinker.’ He admired Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus (1959) and ‘remembered being astonished that Iris Murdoch did not know of the book’.

Alex was struck by John’s negative view of ‘Lolita (1955) as being – in his view at that time – flawed by moral failure. I don’t think he put it that crudely, but I was surprised by his conviction. I had brought it up because, coming from Toronto, we had stopped for gas, and I had said how brilliantly Nabokov had caught the American ambience of motels, gas stations, etc., and he completely agreed – only later expressing such disapproval of Nabokov’s book’. But, Alex said, ‘I agree with your assessment of John as a real heavy-weight in disguise’. He added that ‘John’s review of your Orwell book is really excellent – what a sagacious and immensely wide-ranging person he is; he must have been a great teacher’.

After reading my review of Filippo Pedrocco’s Titian, Alex remarked, ‘I like the reference to Iris Murdoch’s use of The Death of Actaeon (c.1562) which I have often looked at’. He also commented on my review of Peter Conradi’s biography of Murdoch. He ‘had written me years ago asking if I had kept letters from her (I had not). But your opening remark about Iris – that she was good and nice – is so exactly right, and says it in a nutshell. I think she would be pleased to be so remembered . . . . You have done a wonderful job of “catching” Iris – I think the best I have read, although of course John Bayley also did justice to her . . . . I am glad you (mentioned me) – she had a real effect on my work’. Finally, he observed of our friendship, ‘I think it is based on our shared interest in literature and, more oddly, on the fact that each of us was a friend of Iris Murdoch’.

Cultured and well read, Alex painted pictures that Iris would have liked to have created herself. He did keep her five handwritten letters, beginning in 1969, which are either undated or with no year. She expressed tremendous appreciation and perception of his art, and eagerness to meet him again in London. She was pleased by a reader’s comment about the affinity of Alex’s pictures and her novels, and described her recent trip to Japan. She emphasised the pervasiveness of sex in human life and asserted that Alex’s art, however austere, was for her an expression of the Platonic Eros.

Letters from Iris Murdoch to Alex Colville

Steeple Aston [1969]

Dear Alex,

How immensely kind of you. You are an ace! John & I are so thrilled to have the photographs & the coloured slides. What a wonderful painter you are. Those great Piero-Seurat forms – it is really great stuff & we are so proud to know you. We shall greatly look forward to seeing some of your pictures in person at the Marlborough Gallery (let us know dates?) and much hope that we shall see you in person as well. I really do find your pictures an immense pleasure & a deep inspiration even though I have only the marginal knowledge of someone who has not been able to look continually – they are ideas to me – but I shall hope to be able to do a lot more looking next year. I love the one of your father and the foxy superior-looking beast! What great thereness you have. Thank you for much pleasure you have given us and we do hope you’ll decide to come over for the exhibition. Very best wishes to your work & best affectionate wishes.


Chatto and Windus letterhead [January 1970]

Dearest Alex,
It was marvellous to see you. Saw the pictures & they are wonderful. With best love

Steeple Aston August 5



Just a note to say that someone has written to me from Montreal and thrilled me by saying that my novels remind her of your pictures! I am very flattered. She enclosed a magazine print of a marvellous picture of a horse meeting a train.

We would love to meet you again. Will you be in England? Maybe you are planning an exhibition? I wd love to see a lot of your pictures again. And you. With very best wishes & love


Steeple Aston February 18 [1975]

My dear Alex,

Alas we were not in England – we have just got back from the Far East & found your telegram of 29 Jan. We wd love to have seen you – what an awful shame! Do let us know beforehand if around again – we have such pleasant memories of being incarcerated with you! We have just been on a (partly lecturing) tour in Japan, & have also been at Hong Kong. You probably already know Japan – we found it very amazing indeed. Feudalism & politeness. Will you be having an exhibition over here soon? I recall your pictures with such happy vividness, & there must be many more by now. Very sorry to have missed you & do hope see one day. Very best affectionate wishes,


Steeple Aston Oxford November 26

Dear Alex,

Words simply cannot ardently enough express our delight at having that book! We are very grateful to you. It’s a marvel and a treasure. We wish we could be with all the originals all the time, but this gives us a great experience of your work, which we have loved and admired for so long. You are a great painter and a genius, and the paintings give, as they must in such a case, pure joy. We have been looking and looking at it, seeing old favourites – a lot of your images have travelled with us for a long time – and discovering all sorts of utterly new things. I hadn’t seen any of the war pictures, awfully good, you are wonderful with machinery; as with DOGS, cats, nudes, light, air, water, houses, hotness, coldness, all human emotions, rain, birds, speed, cows, cars, snow, solitude, etc etc etc etc etc. [In margin: absolute thereness.] Among the painters of the past worthy to be mentioned by illustration in the book I didn’t find Piero and Seurat, who I think should have been there. Perhaps they’re in the text, or even pictured, I keep finding new things that have slipped in since I last turned the pages. Glad to see the Raeburn & the Vermeer. I thought at first Stop for Cows wasn’t there, but of course here it is, my earliest favourite, lucky Dutch. I remember I met you passing through London on the way to touch it up. I haven’t yet read the text, tho’ I’ve looked at it, and it seems OK, as I hope you thought too. No text cd be entirely adequate. I do hope there will be now, soon, an exhibition in London. Is that being planned? I long for that. It wd be impossible to say what I ‘like best’ in the book, I like everything best, but mentioning at random I (and we) love the priest and dog, the refrigerator cats, the canoe & swimming dog, dog boy school bus, June moon, the girl by the Spree, owls, crows, your father, swimmer, child with dog (very Piero/Seurat), Night Walk (wd like see in colour) [in margin: Stop for Cows, of course, Running Hound] – this is becoming ridiculous, I shall soon have written them all down. Anyway, Alex, we love it all, and you, and hope to see you and them before long. I do hope you’ll all, and family, be in London. [In margin: I shall send my novel.] With best greetings to you, and to your wife, and with much love, and from John too,


P. S. I think your pictures express the ubiquity of sex in the highest spiritual (Plato’s) sense of EROS. Probably all great painting does this. 

Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.