Dictionary of Irish Architects 1720 - 1940

Architect, architectural draughtsman and author. James Cavanah Murphy is said to have been born of obscure parentage in Blackrock, Co. Cork, and to have trained as a bricklayer. A talent for drawing brought him to the attention of Sir James Chatterton, who provided the means for him to go to Dublin. In Dublin he became a pupil at the Dublin Society's drawing schools in about 1775. What he did during the next decade is not known. He is said to have been a member of the building committee for the extension of the Parliament House in 1786.(1) On 9 November 1786, shortly before the death of the ailing THOMAS IVORY THOMAS IVORY , he was appointed master of the Society's School of Drawing in Architecture in Ivory's place, but the decision was reversed the following month, and in February 1787 HENRY AARON BAKER HENRY AARON BAKER , who had been acting head of the School for some time, was appointed instead.(2)

Murphy benefited from the patronage and friendship of the Hon. William Burton Conyngham, who in 1788 sent him to Portugal to record the Dominican church and monastery of Batalha. Murphy arrived in Oporto in January 1789. His visit resulted in the publication of a folio volume of engraved plates, Plans, elevations, sections and views of the church of Batalha…To which is prefixed and introductory discourse on the principles of Gothic architecture (London,1795),(3) as well as Travels in Portugal (1795) and A General View of the State of Portugal (1798).  According to Croker, he also 'acquired a profound knowledge of the Portugueze and Spanish languages, and held for a short time a diplomatic situation of importance'.(4)   Murphy was back in Dublin by 1790 but was travelling in England in October of the same year.(5) Little is known about his activities during the period 1791 to 1802; a view by him of the lavabo at Mellifont, from the collection of William Burton Conyngham was published in Grose's Antiquities of Ireland (1791).(6) He may possibly be the Murphy who was one of eight architects to submit designs in the competition for St George's church, Dublin, in 1800.(7)

In 1802 Murphy returned to the Iberian peninsula, this time to Cadiz, where he remained for seven years studying Moorish architecture. He returned to England in 1809 and settled in London. After his return he worked on an invention for the prevention of dry-rot in timber. He died, unmarried, on 12 September 1814 at Edward Street, Cavendish Square and was buried in Carrigrohan graveyard, Co. Cork.(8)   His Arabian Antiquities of Spain and A History of the Mohametan empire in Spain were published posthumously in 1816. A drawing by him was exhibited at the First Munster Exhibition, Cork, in 1815 and several more at the Cork Society for Promoting the Fine Arts in 1816, 1819 and 1820.(9)

Following his death many of Murphy's notes and drawings were acquired by THOMAS DEANE THOMAS DEANE ; a bound album of 'Sketches taken in Portugal in 1789 & 1790' from this source is now in the National Library of Ireland, which also has a design by him for a monument  to Henry Fielding in the graveyard of the Anglican church in Lisbon. A drawing by Murphy of the principal front of Slane Castle, showing the building as completed in 1787, is in the IAA, Murray Collection, Acc. 92/46, no. 1131. Other  drawings by Murphy are in the library of the University of Athens (in the process of being catalogued by the late Professor Michael McCarthy) and in the Society of Antiquaries, London, MS 260.


The fullest account of Murphy's life is the article by Count Plunkett in IB 51, 15 May 1909, 295-297, which is illustrated with a photograph of an engraved portrait of him. This is probably the engraving after the portrait by Sir Martin Archer Shee which was published as the frontispiece to Murphy's Travels in Portugal. Other accounts of Murphy's life and work are in APSD, DNB, JCHAS 10, 56-58 and Jill Lever, ed., Catalogue of the Drawings Collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects L-N (1973), 98.

(1) See E. McParland, James Gandon (1985), 85,195, n42.
(2) John Turpin, A School of Art in Dublin since the 18th Century (1995), 51-52.
(3) Reviewed in Anthologia Hibernica I (Jan 1793), 55-56.  See also Michael McCarthy, 'Three mausolea and a church: the drawings of James C. Murphy for his book on Batalha of 1795', Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies 11 (2008),167-203.
(4) T. Crofton Croker, Researches in the South of Ireland (1824), 204n.
(5) His sketch- and notebook of this tour is in the RIBA drawings collection; see Lever, loc. cit., above; two sketches of a mortar mixer from this book are reproduced by James Ayres, Building the Georgian City (1998), 63.
(6) Volume 2, Plate 50; this is presumably the drawing in RIA 3C 29 (IAA, Edward McParland files, Acc. 2008/44).
(7) RIA Haliday pamphlets, 878/6/ (IAA, Edward McParland files, Acc. 2008/44)
(8) Information from Professor Michael mcCarthy.
(9) See IALE II, 497

Author Title Date Details
Plunkett, George (count) 'James Cavanah Murphy' 1909 IB 51, 15 May 1909, 295-297.