James Arthur Murch was born in the inner Sydney suburb of Croydon on 8 July 1902. His father, James Murch, was a carpenter-builder who had emigrated from England. He attended Sydney Technical High School at Ultimo until 1916. On 7 May 1917 he waa apprenticed as a fitter to John Heine & Son, manufacturers of sheet metal. By the time he left them in 1924 he was working as an engineer’s draughtsman. He studied mechanical drawing at Sydney Techncal college, originally planning to make decorative architectural metal work. However in 1921 his uncle Harry, a glazier, was asked to make frosted glass so that the neighbours of the Royal Art Society classes would not be offended by their nude models.
He enrolled in the classes, studying under Antonio Dattilo Rubbo. Later he enrolled in sculpture classes at East Sydney Technical College, under Rayner Hoff.
In 1924 he abandoned engineering to study for the NSW TRavelling Art Scholarship, administered by the Society of Artists, which he won in 1925.
Murch arrived in London on 14 July 1925, and travelled throughout Britain, France, Italy and Spain, studying old masters. In Paris he took classes at the Academie Julian, and in London at the Old British School in Rome, but spent most of his time at the Chelsea Polytechnic, studying under Percy Jowett.
He returned to Sydney at the end of 1927, where he became studio assistant to George Lambert as the senior artist worked on his memorial for the recumbent soldier at St Mary’s Cathedral. He was elected a member of the Society of Artists in 1928 and presented his scholarship work, a portrait of his mother. He continued to live at home with his family.
During the Great Depression he supplemented his painting and sculptural commissions by working with architect Frank Molony designing and making applique rugs, cushion and stuffed-toys with Greek and modernistic designs.
He also hones his drawing skills by working with anatomy students at the University of Sydney.
In early 1933 he visited the Lutheran mission at Hermannsburg outside Alice Springs for six weeks with the University of Sydney Physiological Research Party, and also spent two weeks on a camel trip. These Central Australian works were first exhibited at Macquarie Galleries on 30 May 1933. He returned to Central Australia in 1934, again with Professor H. Whitridge Davies. Their car ran out of petrol, and they walked for two and a half days crossing the desert. This excursion resulted in film footage showing young Aboriginal artists reproducing the kangaroo design from the reverse of pennies and re-drawing the image as side elevation view.
He was subsequently awarded the Society of Artists’ Medal. In 1936, after another solo exhibition, he left again for Europe. He exhibited widely, and in 1938 he assisted in building, with about 20 others, the Australian, New Zealand and South African Wool Pavilion Glasgow Empire Exhibition. This included a 140 foot felt applique history of wool,and a colossal gilded sculpture of a ram on a rooftop.
Murch was in Switzerland with fellow Australian artist Wallace Thornton when World War II was declared. The they survived a few penniless months by sketching portraits in the street before managing to travel to Italy where they boarded a ship and arrived in Sydney in early 1940. Shortly after his return he married Ria Counsell, a journalist.
The young couple lived in a variety of premises in Double Bay, Mona Vale and Willoughby, where their son John was born.
In April 1942 he was called up to work at the Slazengers Munitions company at Botany, where he worked on the design of the butt of the Owen gun. Soon afterwards he was reassigned as an official war artist. He travelled north to Darwin where he recorded the activities of the Australian army and the grim aftermath of the bombing of Darwin. Poor health, which had dogged him since he was ill with a fever in Rome in 1926, led to premature discharge in 1943.
For the next five years the family lived at a number of addresses based around Newport Beach, before eventually buying a house at Palm Grove Road at Avalon Beach. He also taught at East Sydney Technical College. In January 1950 he was awarded the Archibald Prize for 1949.His daughter Michelle was born in 1951.
Murch continued to be fascinated by Aboriginal themes and in 1950-1 painted a large corroboree themed mural for the University of Queensland. Ten years later, in 1961-63 he painted the welcome mural of European settlement at the passenger terminal at Sydney Cove. He followed this by another painting excursion to Hermannsberg, this time accompanied by his daughter. In his later years he also kept a studio at 257 Mowbray Road Chatswood, and also taught classes at the Royal Art Society.

Staff Writer
Joanna Mendelssohn
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