Murphy, John (c.1755–1832), engraver and educational publisher, was born in Cork city and reared in its northern suburbs, around Mallow Lane. At the age of seventeen he emigrated to London, led by his ‘predilection for the Fine Arts and a desire to cultivate an inclination for them’ (‘Memorial of John Murphy’, 417).
Murphy achieved distinction as a mezzotint engraver and ‘can be counted among the best of English engravers’ (Benezit Dictionary of Artists). Although often deemed to be best known for his scriptural work, he was prolific, working in several areas and engraving after an unusual variety of painters, both ancient and modern. In the mid-1770s, he took part in a prestigious project engraving the collection of the empress of Russia in the Houghton Gallery. In his early career, he engraved portraits of political and other figures, including William Pitt and Marie Antoinette, and also prestigious group pictures of the royal family. Among his most striking pieces were the large mezzotints of animals, most notably the Tigress after George Stubbs.
Murphy’s first home in London was at Air Street, Piccadilly, living with the family of Patrick Keating, a printmaker who later became an important catholic publisher and bookseller. The Capuchin Arthur O’Leary (qv), with whom Murphy was personally and politically close, was also living with the Keatings at the time. Murphy drew O’Leary’s well-known portrait in 1784, which was engraved by George Keating, son of Patrick. In 1789 the thirty-four-year-old Murphy married Ann Lord, a twenty-nine-year-old milliner. They continued living with the Keatings, moving with them to Warwick Street, Golden Square, but by 1791 Murphy had moved out and established himself as an independent operator on the north side of Paddington Green. He expanded into print publishing and selling and, at least for a time, enjoyed considerable success. Of his many changes of residence in London, the pinnacle of his prosperity was while living in Howland Street, near Tottenham Court Road, from c.1801 to c.1820. In 1809 he published a series of engravings of Irish scenes including Waterford harbour; the General Post Office on Dublin’s Sackville Street; Muckross Abbey, Co. Kerry; and O’Sullivan’s Cascade in Killarney, Co. Kerry. These were one of his few productions with a distinctive Irish connection. From about this time, there was a sharp decline in his activity as both an engraver and print publisher.
With the stringent measures introduced to finance the French wars, expensive prints became indulgent luxuries. In 1812, described as an engraver and print-seller, dealer and chapman, he was declared bankrupt. In 1813 his copper plates and impressions were put up for auction, and in 1815 his affairs were wound up and the dividend paid to creditors.
Approaching sixty years of age, he commenced a new career as a book publisher, specialising in religious and educational works. His first publications were an ambitious twelve-volume edition of Alban Butler’s Lives of the saints, issued in 120 parts from 1812 to 1815, later republished in stereotyped versions in 1821 and 1824, and in 1815 the fifth English edition of Joseph Reeve’s History of the bible.
Murphy visited Cork in 1816. His stated motivation for his new career as an educational publisher was a long-time awareness of the disadvantages of catholic children in obtaining a catholic education, in particular the limitations of the available schoolbooks: lessons were ‘interspersed with aspersions on their religion … in order to malign and excite a spirit of contempt for the religion of their fathers’ (‘Memorial of John Murphy’, 417). Murphy’s proposed remedy was to publish a series of elementary texts, the purpose of the enterprise encapsulated in its title: Complete system of catholic education. His associate in launching the project was John England (qv), a Cork diocesan priest, well-known for his political activism in the campaign for catholic emancipation and a kindred spirit as regards their views on education. Providing his services without charge, England wrote spelling and reading primers for the series, published in Cork in late 1816. Murphy’s Complete system was the first series of elementary school texts produced specifically for catholic school children in Britain or Ireland. England’s Reading book, which was composed of short pieces on natural history, religion, social duties and history, went through four editions.
Murphy retained a London publishing address but for several years maintained a presence in Dublin at 19 Lower Ormond Quay, as a publisher and bookseller. He had a close association with the printer and bookseller J. J. Nolan, who was agent for Murphy’s work in Ireland from at least 1819. His son Benedict continued the business on Murphy’s return to London in about 1825. Benedict’s work included printing material for Daniel O’Connell’s (qv) Catholic Association, but he was declared an insolvent debtor in Dublin in 1826.
A firm opponent of bible reading without note or comment, in 1820 Murphy published the successful Evangelical life of our lord and saviour Jesus Christ, forming a harmony in four gospels, printed by Nolan. It was a compilation of extracts from the catholic church-approved version of the bible, along with lengthy notes culled from catholic commentaries. Murphy engaged in prolonged jousting with the government-sponsored Society for the Promotion of Education of the Poor in Ireland, better known as the Kildare Place Society, accusing them of bad faith and proselytising. Attempts to have some of his works sponsored by that body and later by the National System of Education were unsuccessful.
Sponsored by the Irish bishops and by the religious teaching orders, his school textbooks had a wide distribution in Ireland into the 1830s. In 1826 the relationship between Murphy and the Christian Brothers was formalised, after which he was designated ‘printer to the Brothers of the Christian Schools’ on the title pages of several of his productions. The Brothers, however, had few schools in Ireland during Murphy’s lifetime; the support of the catholic bishops would have been more important. His sales were limited by the poverty of the catholic schools and of their students and by competition from state subsidised textbooks. His last production was the fourth edition of England’s Reading book in 1832, his most successful work. Financially stretched by his production of ambitious works on history and geography, Murphy had to request financial aid from the Irish bishops in the years before he died.
A devout catholic and a fervent emancipationist, he was socially and politically conservative, continuing in the eighteenth-century vein of catholics seeking redress by deferential requests for amelioration in their condition as a reward for loyalty, obedience and service rendered. Soon after coming to England, he took the 1774 oath of allegiance, pledging allegiance to George III and disavowing the Stuart pretenders. This oath was accepted grudgingly, if at all, by most Irish catholics, but Murphy took it willingly.
He is known to have had seven sons, three of whom died at a young age between 1818 and 1825. His eldest, Thomas, a coal merchant in London, was politically active and known as Daniel O’Connell’s coal man; he was later a prominent Chartist. John Murphy predeceased his wife, dying aged seventy-seven years on 14 December 1832 in the Polygon, Somers Town in London. His publishing business was not continued after his death.