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Vaughan Murray Griffin (1903–1992)

by Malcolm Allbrook

This article was published:

Vaughan Murray Griffin (1903–1992), artist, was born on 11 November 1903 at Malvern, Melbourne, only child of Victorian-born parents Vaughan Gale Griffin, civil servant, and his wife Ethel Maude Mary, née Brazier. Murray was educated at Adwalton Preparatory School for Boys, Malvern, then at Scotch College (1916–19), where he demonstrated ‘a precocious talent for drawing’ (Hetherington 1962, 18). His parents, wishing to nurture his flair, allowed him to leave school at fifteen to enrol at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) schools (1919–23) where, under the exacting tutelage of Bernard Hall, he won prizes in life drawing and landscape painting.

To support his studies, Griffin worked as a commercial artist and won commissions to design stained glass windows and art deco stone panels. In 1926 and 1927 he held solo exhibitions of his paintings at the New Gallery, Elizabeth Street. During this period he befriended the American architect Walter Burley Griffin, with whom he shared an adherence to the anthroposophical doctrines of the Austrian-born philosopher Rudolf Steiner. The architect had earlier designed a house for Griffin’s parents in the suburb of Heidelberg, which later became the artist’s family home. On 23 July 1932 at St John’s Church of England, Heidelberg, Griffin married New Zealand-born Norrie Hinemoa Grist, whom he had met at art school.

In the 1930s Griffin gained a reputation as ‘one of Melbourne’s most innovative modernist printmakers’ (Bunbury 2001, n.p.). Influenced by the Austrian artist Norbertine Bresslern-Roth, he utilised intricate multi-block linocut techniques to produce highly coloured images reminiscent of Japanese prints. His subjects included landscapes, animals, flowers, and figurative works, but he became especially known for his images of birds. A solo exhibition at the Sedon Gallery in 1934 prompted the artist (Sir) Arthur Streeton to describe Griffin’s prints as ‘masterpieces of colour and form,’ and to remark that Griffin ‘stands in a high place of his own making’ (Streeton 1934, 7). He won the George Crouch prize in 1935 for a landscape oil painting and the F. E. Richardson prize in 1939 for a colour print. Battered by the economic impact of the Depression, he took a position as an art teacher (1936–37) at Scotch College, before becoming instructor in drawing and decorative design (1937–41) at the (Royal) Melbourne Technical College.

Following the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Griffin was appointed as an official war artist on 9 October 1941 and attached to Australian Imperial Force headquarters, Malaya, in November. He was present when his countrymen were in action against the Japanese at Gemas and Muar in January 1942 and took part in the withdrawal to Singapore. After the Japanese captured the island on 15 February 1942 he became a prisoner of war. Artworks from the Malayan campaign that he had packed ready for transport to Australia were lost. Using whatever materials he could acquire and avoiding the scrutiny of his guards, he chronicled the quotidian activities of the Changi prisoner-of-war camp in forty paintings and more than 150 drawings and sketches, recording ‘men sweating, men toiling, men cursing and men suffering’ (Hall 1978, n.p.). He also ran art classes for his fellow prisoners. After the Japanese surrender in September 1945, he accompanied an official party to determine the fate of other prisoners of war before being repatriated in October and employed in the Military History Section, Melbourne. His Changi images, exhibited at the NGV in October 1946 prior to a national tour, won praise for creating ‘great beauty out of scenes of death and horror’ (Turnbull 1946, 7). Others found them overly gruesome, including the head of the section, J. L. Treloar, who had blocked their publication in July.

From August 1946 Griffin earned a living as the master at the NGV school of drawing, before resuming in 1954 at the Royal Melbourne Technical College (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology from 1960). He was a dedicated and sympathetic teacher, inculcating in his students traditional drawing skills and knowledge of art history. The time he could devote to his own art practice was necessarily limited but he continued to exhibit his work and won the print section of the Art Gallery of South Australia’s Maude Vizard-Wholohan prize in 1957. Promoted to senior lecturer in 1959, he retired from RMIT in November 1968.

Griffin preferred to work alone and eschewed the limelight. A man of ‘extraordinary good looks’ (Bunbury 2001, n.p.), he had a whimsical sense of humour and a restless energy. After the Warrnambool Art Gallery hosted a retrospective exhibition in 1978, he continued to paint for more than a decade, striving for ‘that one last picture in my mind of those angels,’ though he felt himself to be ‘too ruddy old’ (Austen 1989, 5). His work increasingly expressed his interest in the spiritual world, notably his commitment to anthroposophy. He described his ‘Journey’ series of oil paintings and colour prints, exhibited at the University of Melbourne’s Gryphon Gallery in 1989, as ‘primarily a recognition of a deeper world, a spiritual world which I think people at heart believe in, but are a bit frightened of’ (Austen 1989, 5). He regarded the series as ‘his spiritual purpose and artistic apex’ (Bunbury 2001, n.p.).

Predeceased by his wife (d. 1980) and survived by their two sons, Griffin died on 29 January 1992 at West Heidelberg and was buried in Templestowe cemetery. A memoir of his wartime experiences was published later that year. Posthumous exhibitions were held at the Castlemaine Art Gallery (2001) and the Australian War Memorial, Canberra (2017). His works are held in many national and State collections, notably the AWM and the NGV, and in regional galleries including those of Ballarat, Castlemaine, Geelong, and Warrnambool. Among his commissioned works were murals at the National Museum of Victoria (1952) and at Mac.Robertson Girls’ High School, South Melbourne (1954), and a portrait of (Sir) Edward (Weary) Dunlop (1956).

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Austen, Gayle. ‘Artist Contemplates His Portraits of Everyman.’ Age (Melbourne), 22 February 1989, 5
  • Bunbury, Alisa. ‘The Graphic Journey: Murray Griffin Linocuts.’ MA thesis, University of Melbourne, 1998
  • Bunbury, Alisa. Murray Griffin: The Journey: A Retrospective, 1922–1980. Castlemaine, Vic.: Castlemaine Art Gallery and Historical Museum. 2001
  • Griffin, Murray. Changi. Sydney: Edmund & Alexander, 1992
  • Griffin, Vaughan Murray. Interview by Barbara Blackman, 22–27 May 1986. National Library of Australia
  • Griffin, Vaughan Murray. Interview by James Gleeson, 2 November 1979. Transcript. National Gallery of Australia
  • Hall, Doug. Murray Griffin Retrospective Exhibition. Warrnambool, Vic.: Warrnambool Regional Art Gallery, 1978
  • Hetherington, John. ‘Murray Griffin: Changi Helped to Shape His Life.’ Age (Melbourne), 17 November 1962, 18
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, VX64361
  • National Archives of Australia. B4717, GRIFFIN/VAUGHAN MURRAY
  • Streeton, Arthur. ‘Interesting Art Shows: Three Will Open Today.’ Argus (Melbourne), 2 October 1934, 7
  • Turnbull, Clive. ‘Outstanding Record of War by POW Artist.’ Herald (Melbourne), 23 October 1946, 7

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Citation details

Malcolm Allbrook, 'Griffin, Vaughan Murray (1903–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2020, accessed online 13 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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