Skip to content

Murray, Peter

    Full Name: Murray, Peter

    Other Names:

    • Peter John Murray

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1920

    Date Died: 1992

    Place Born: London, Greater London, England, UK

    Place Died: Farnborough, Warwickshire, England, UK

    Home Country/ies: United Kingdom

    Subject Area(s): Italian (culture or style), Italian Renaissance-Baroque styles, and Renaissance


    Birkbeck College historian of the Italian Renaissance. Murray was the son of John Knowles Murray and Dorothy Catton (Murray), his father a successful agricultural business person of Scottish heritage. The younger Murray attended King Edward VI School, Birmingham, and Robert Gordon’s College, Aberdeen, Scotland. Intent on becoming a painter, Murray next studied at Gray’s School of Art, Aberdeen, and, in 1937 entered the Slade School of Fine Art, University of London, graduating in 1940. After World War II, his interest moved to art history. He was admitted to the University’s Courtauld Institute of Art where he received a B.A. (with honors) in 1947. The same year he married a fellow Courtauld Institute student Linda née Bramley Murray, who would collaborate on many of his later texts. He taught as a lecturer at the Courtauld and Birkbeck College beginning in 1948, continuing to work on his Ph.D. Murray added the duties of Witt Librarian in 1952 [the Times says 1949], remaining in that position until 1964 [Times reporting 1967]. His fine italic handwriting can still be seen on the spines of many of the photograph boxes for Italian paintings. Murray’s gift for languages–particularly German and Italian–and a strong appreciation for historical literature, led to his first translation of what would be a number of seminal texts of art history, Klassische Kunst, by Heinrich Wölfflin in 1952. He received his Ph.D. from the Courtauld in 1956 with a dissertation on the textual sources of Giotto’s work, including in it an index of pre-Vasari Giotto attributions. Although Murray acknowledge the influence of Courtauld scholars Margaret Whinney and it’s director, Anthony Blunt, Murray did not get along with Blunt, and a professorship at the Courtauld was never a possibility. Murray embarked on a sub-career of reference books in 1959 with his immensely successful Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists, co-authored with his wife, which was frequently updated and reissued. He was made Senior research fellow at the Courtauld in 1961. In 1963, two substantial introductory texts appeared, The Art of the Renaissance, co-authored with Linda, and what became a classic primer, The Architecture of the Renaissance. Shut out from a professorship at the Courtauld, he accepted the Chair of Art History at Birkbeck College, London, in 1967, succeeding Nikolaus Bernard Leon Pevsner. The position, a newly-established professorship in History of Art for this adult-learning school, entailed setting up courses leading to the undergraduate degree in History of Art, paired with the disciplines of History, Philosophy, English, French, Italian or German. Murray appointed the medievalists Kit Galbraith, a specialist in English Romanesque Sculpture, and Peter Draper, whose area was English Gothic architecture, and the Renaissance art historian Francis Ames-Lewis. Murray became President Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain in 1969 (through 1972). He delivered the third Walter Neurath memorial lecture on Piranesi in 1971. He acted as Chairman of the Walpole Society from 1978 until 1981. Murray retired as professor emeritus in 1980 from Birkbeck, succeeded by John Steer. In 1985, he brought a second art history translation to light, Die Geschichte der Renaissance by Jacob Burckhardt. Murray’s expertise on the architect Bramante and his contention that the architect’s work explained most of 16th-century Italian architecture, led many to believe this would be his magnum opus. He never wrote the book (except for a printed piece, the resulted of a Charlton Lecture), preferring to focus his energies on lectures and translations. The Murrays were working together on a companion book to Christian iconography when he died suddenly. Throughout his life, Murray was a devout Roman Catholic. Murray’s art-history writing is today thought of primarily as introductory texts to art and (scholarly) art histories for the reading public. He did not pander to publicity like many focused on this readership, preferring lecturing and employing a simple, clear and relaxed manner. His editions of other art histories, such as his Burckardt book, made these foreign art historian’s work more accessible to the English reading public. Leopold D. Ettlinger characterized Murray as a fastidious scholar whose contributions to the history of art had always been original, filling gaps in the knowledge of fellow-scholars. As an architectural historian, he held the belief–stronger than most–that classical antiquity was the only way to understand and interpret Renaissance architecture, boldly asserting Bramante as the key to understanding the whole of Italian sixteenth-century architecture. He was one of the principal founder members of the Association of Art Historians. A devoted supporter of Birkbeck College’s particular role in adult (evening) education, it was particularly evident in the pedagogical nature of his writing.

    Selected Bibliography

    [dissertation, partially reprinted as:] An Index of Attributions made in Tuscan Sources before Vasari. Florence: L. S. Olschki, 1959; translated, with Murray, Linda. Wölfflin, Heinrich. Classic Art: An Introduction to the Italian Renaissance. The Phaidon Press, 1952; A History of English Architecture. Part II. New York: Arco Pub. Co. 1963; and Murray, Linda. The Art of the Renaissance. New York : Oxford University Press , 1963; The Architecture of the Italian Renaissance. London: Batsford,1963; and Murray, Linda. The High Renaissance and Mannerism. London: Thames & Hudson, 1967; revised and edited, Burckhardt, Jacob. The Architecture of the Italian Renaissance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985; “Nikolaus Bernhard Leon Pevsner, 1902-1983.” Proceedings of the British Academy 70, p. 501-514.


    [obituaries:] Wheeler, Michael. “A Diptych of Art Historians.” Guardian (London), May 9, 1992, p. 28; Ames-Lewis, Francis. “Professor Peter Murray.” Independent (London), April 25, 1992, p. 34; “Professor Peter Murray.” The Times (London), May 1, 1992.


    "Murray, Peter." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

    More Resources

    Search for materials by & about this art historian: