Henry—known as Harry—George Murphy was born in Kent, England, in 1884, and from a young age he showed an interest in and a talent for the creative arts. In their book Arts & Crafts to Art Deco: The Jewellery and Silver of H.G. Murphy (Antique Collector’s Club, 2005), authors Paul Atterbury and John Benjamin relate a crucial moment in young Harry’s life: One day, at the age of 10, Murphy wandered past an exhibition being installed by the Arts & Crafts Society of London. He peeked in and was invited inside by Henry Wilson, the great British jeweler and goldsmith. Murphy was intrigued by the work in the exhibit, so Wilson introduced him to two other men present in the room: Walter Crane, the artist and illustrator, and William Morris, the renowned writer, designer, and founder of the arts-and-crafts movement. “It is said that Murphy’s conversation with Morris changed the course of his life,” state the authors.
From that point on, Murphy’s life was one of almost tireless energy. As a designer and craftsman of technically exquisite product, he devoted himself to the world of jewelry and silversmithing. He also felt a responsibility to educate the younger generation of craftsmen and maintained a steady teaching career until his death in 1939.
Though his work was popular and well regarded in his time, the latter part of the 20th century left him behind. Unmentioned by most history books and collected by only an avid few, the work of H.G. Murphy was begging for rediscovery.
Thankfully, that happened. In April, the Goldsmiths’ Company successfully held the exhibition “At the Sign of the Falcon: H.G. Murphy – Art Deco Silversmith and Jeweller,” at Goldsmiths’ Hall in London. Published to coincide with the exhibition, the book by Atterbury and Benjamin (from which the biographical information in this article is drawn) pairs an enormous amount of background information on Murphy with excellent photographs of his drawings and designs.
The rebirth of Murphy came about by accident. “Paul Atterbury and I had been asked to a weekend antiques event where we were asked to discuss ‘our favorite craftsman,'” says Benjamin, an independent jewelry consultant and former international director of jewelry at Phillips Fine Art Auctioneers. “Paul brought out an HGM silver rose bowl and I revealed an HGM sugar dredger. Paul and I are colleagues on BBC television’s Antiques Roadshow, and we recognized there was enormous scope to explore and research the life and work of a totally neglected goldsmith and silversmith barely known outside a limited circle of enthusiasts.”
Both the exhibition and the book were bolstered by a large archive—including correspondence, original photos, drawings, and even tools and shop fittings—maintained by Murphy’s family, who were thrilled to see their father and grandfather finally receive the appreciation he deserves.
“Murphy died on the eve of the Second World War, arguably the very worst time for a craftsman to disappear,” says Benjamin. “The war years, together with the social and cultural changes evident after 1945 simply meant that prewar Murphy was considered passé and irrelevant.” And so, over time, he was simply forgotten.
The Early Years. After their initial, unexpected meeting, Murphy and Wilson remained in contact, and Wilson eventually signed Murphy for a six-year apprenticeship at his workshop in Kensington. He also encouraged Murphy to enroll at the Central School of Arts and Crafts (which has evolved to the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design), a highly regarded institution that, at the time, focused on the applied arts.
Murphy’s skills grew quickly, and while still a student he began to teach at the Royal College of Art. After finishing his studies at the Central School, he began to teach there as well. His main subjects were goldsmithing, enamel, and jewelry.
After his apprenticeship with Wilson ended, Murphy stayed on at the workshop as a full-fledged craftsman. He was inspired by Wilson, whose personal style drew on Gothic and Renaissance designs, favoring the use of bright enamels in intricate settings. Murphy’s style developed a similar look to that of Wilson’s, and his time at the workshop brought his skill in the decorative techniques of enameling and niello to the highest level.
Though Murphy eventually left the workshop, he and Wilson continued to work together on projects until the latter’s death in 1934.
Moving on. In an effort to broaden his horizons, Murphy took a position of foreman in the Berlin workshop of German jeweler and silversmith Emil Lettré in 1912. He didn’t remain long. Homesick for his fiancée, Jessie Church, and unhappy with the long hours and a somewhat bad-tempered boss, he argued with Lettré and was fired.
Murphy returned home to England and established his own workshop in West London. Immediately successful, he took on an apprentice and moved to larger premises in 1913.
Within a year, his reputation had grown, and he employed 10 people. Never a slacker, he resumed teaching at the Central School of Arts and Crafts.
In 1914, two weeks after the start of World War I, Murphy and Church were married. Throughout their four-year engagement, he designed a number of items for her, including a Gothic-style engagement ring and a silver, gold, and opal pendant with a central locket containing the couple’s engagement photo.
World War I forced Murphy to find new ways to engage his talent, as the luxury trade was hard hit by war. He took a number of large military orders for the manufacture of metal and enamel service badges—but while it kept his business afloat, he and his employees felt frustrated creatively.
In 1915 he closed the workshop and enlisted in the service. Initially classified as leading mechanic for the Royal Naval Air Service, he soon became a qualified seaplane pilot. He continued to move through the ranks, eventually becoming an officer in the Royal Air Force, until he left the service in 1919.
Murphy returned to teaching at the Central School but spent the next few years unattached to a formal workshop, working as a sort of freelance silversmith and jeweler. By this time he and Jessie had two children, so he helped establish their home in Kent and also traveled through Germany and elsewhere in Europe.
In 1924, he participated in Queen Mary’s Royal Doll’s House project, creating miniature versions of the Crown Jewels and other items of jewelry that were displayed in the completed dollhouse at the Wembley British Empire Exhibit that same year.
Possibly as a result of this work, Murphy received his most important commission: to create a tiara for Mary, the Princess Royal. The piece, in gold with sapphires; diamonds; blue, green, and red enameling; and a large central pear-shape citrine is Gothic in style, with graduating open arches and sprays of golden foliage set within. This foliage, or Tree of Life motif, is one that Murphy used often in his designs.
Also during this journeyman period, he spent time as a consultant and managing director for the London branch of the Australia-based Sapphire Mining Co. Murphy ran the London office and gem-cutting rooms, and oversaw the output of the mines. He also made regular trips to Paris, as most of the goods were sold to jewelers and wholesalers in France.
A New Start. Murphy didn’t reestablish a permanent workshop until 1928, when he found an ideal location in a former chemist’s shop in Marylebone. Taking inspiration from his wife’s name (the strap of leather or silk that secures the leg of a hawk onto a wrist or stand is called a “jess”), he called the workshop the Falcon studio. Murphy branded the shop with a distinctive falcon emblem and registered the design as part of his hallmark for items created in silver and gold.
His new shop was an instant success. Murphy accepted important commissions and carried on a brisk trade with the public.
Yet again, however, the success of Murphy’s business was cut short by forces beyond his control. In 1929, companies worldwide were crushed by the U.S. stock market crash, and Murphy was not spared. Both his shop and his health suffered. Business began to resume around 1932, the year Murphy applied for and was awarded the position of head of silversmithing at the Central School.
At this point the clean, spare lines of the art-deco style began to appear in England, and the shop stepped up its output of items to suit the new taste. Murphy’s figurative brooches were particularly popular. Themes included animals, birds, and the zodiac. Flat and circular, the silver brooches’ clean look could pass for contemporary designs.
Murphy liked the minimalist lines of the deco look and was influenced by the work of Scandinavian designers such as Georg Jensen. Both Murphy’s earlier arts-and-crafts pieces and the later clean lines of his silver work—with his use throughout of less-expensive stones in cabochon form—echo the Nordic style.
Contemporary Recognition. Murphy next became principal of the Central School, which required extensive travel. He attended the 1935 Jewellers Conference in Berlin and took part in many international exhibitions. He was unimpressed by the Nazis, as illustrated by an excerpt from a letter to Jessie that Atterbury and Benjamin include in their book: “The chauffeur has just called for me … he is complete with military uniform and clicks and salutes like a tap dancer.”
Murphy received various honors throughout his life. He was declared a freeman of both the city of London and of the Art Workers Guild, and in 1938 was called to the Court of Assistants of the Goldsmiths’ Company. He also received a new award that year, the Diploma of Royal Designer for Industry, which was granted to distinguished designers by the Royal Society of Arts.
At this time, unfortunately, Murphy’s health began to deteriorate. Though he continued to work with his customary intensity and enthusiasm, he died on July 10, 1939.
“Murphy was, in my opinion, a unique jewelry designer craftsman, because he was so adept in an entire range of genres and skills: Gothic, Neo-Renaissance, Neo-Classical,
Art Deco, Architectural, and Modernist,” says Benjamin. “His skill as an enameler and worker in niello was incomparable, and his attention to detail was painstaking in the extreme.”
Such an adaptable and skilled craftsman deserves more attention, and, thankfully, he’s finally getting it.