Statuesque aspirations

1st October 2004 at 01:00
Martin Whittaker finds out how a Mersey student is helping Liverpool regain a sense of civic pride - by rescuing more than 250 bronze statues from the ravages of public life

Ben Murphy is proving to be a chip off the old block after vowing to rescue Liverpool's fading legacy of public sculptures. His father, Tom Murphy, is an acclaimed sculptor whose works are on display throughout the city.

Now Ben, aged 24, has vowed to protect his father's work for posterity by gaining the specialist skills to conserve the city's monuments and statues.

An audit of 150 of the city's monuments by Liverpool City Council revealed that half of them needed significant restoration, while most of the remainder need cleaning or restoring over the next five years.

Ben, a talented painter and sculptor in his own right, became alarmed by the poor state of the city's bronze sculptures. Many have fallen victim to the weather and pollution, as well as to a shortage of specialist conservation skills.

He aims to help restore some of the city's civic pride for when Liverpool becomes Capital of Culture in 2008. "Liverpool was once second city of the Empire," he says. "This has left us with a priceless legacy of public art - more than 250 monuments and statues, about 90 of them listed, plus over 2,000 war memorials in the Merseyside area.

"Through lack of specialist knowledge, finance and general neglect, significant pieces have already been lost. I am passionate about these works and my mission is to save them."

In response he has set up his own company - Monumental Maintenance Services - which has begun maintenance programmes to help save the city's outdoor sculptures.

Ben has also won a pound;10,000 Queen Elizabeth Scholarship, which will allow him to study for an MA in conservation and restoration of fine metalwork at West Dean College. The college, based in a country house in Sussex, also offers highly specialist postgraduate courses in the conservation of books, ceramics, clocks and antique furniture, as well as tapestry, weaving and the manufacture of early stringed instruments.

When he has completed his course, Ben will have the expertise to carry out work on any sculpture. In the long run he hopes to develop his business into a leading centre for advanced restoration and conservation.

The Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust was set up 14 years ago and has since awarded over pound;780,000 to 124 people. The scholarships are awarded twice a year, and are designed to advance education in modern and traditional crafts and trades.

Mr Murphy senior is a self-taught artist who has had a number of careers as seaman, salesman, musician and art teacher. His public sculptures include statues of John Lennon at Liverpool's airport, Bill Shankly at Anfield, Everton footballer Dixie Dean at Goodison Park and Sir John and Cecil Moores in the city centre.

Ben says he has been strongly influenced by his father's work, which he has seen develop from modest beginnings.

"I remember going to the heritage market and selling these small statues of the Beatles for pound;50," says Ben. "He was so happy that he had made pound;50 because he was selling his own work. He has come on in leaps and bounds just through sheer tenacity and motivation. I feel it's rubbed off on me."

Tom Murphy, who is currently working on a life-sized sculpture of Paul McCartney, says: "The whole city is trying to pull its socks up to become Capital of Culture, and all these statues have been neglected. They seem to say something negative about the city.

"It's not the kind of thing you'd see in London - they would keep these things maintained. Nobody else seems to be interested in doing it. It's just something Ben decided to do for himself, and it's a great thing, really."

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