Elisabeth Murdoch (1909 – 2012) family matriarch, philanthropist
Few can rival Dame Elisabeth’s enormous contribution. Her interests are so many they need to be alphabetically catalogued: academia, the arts, children, flora and fauna, heritage, medical research, social welfare. Many of Melbourne and Australia’s most cherished institutions, from the Royal Children’s Hospital to the Australian Ballet and the Botanic Gardens, have benefited from her involvement. But Murdoch also devoted herself to less popular causes: prisoners, children in care, those battling mental illness and substance abuse.
Sermon delivered by Bishop Andrew St John at the State Memorial Service for Dame Elisabeth Murdoch held at St Paul’s Cathedral on Tuesday 18 December 2012, as transcribed by Anglican Media Melbourne.
I speak in the name of the living God, who creates, redeems and sanctifies.
In celebrating Dame Elisabeth today, I want to begin with the garden about which you’ve already heard. In her case, more specifically, the garden at Cruden Farm, which she created over 80 years and with which many of us have had the pleasure of visiting.
That garden itself was so beautifully celebrated in Anne Latreille’s book, Garden of a Lifetime. But I want to use Cruden Farm garden as a prime example of what is known as a Paradise Garden — a garden that at one and the same time expressed Dame Elisabeth’s faith, that was the focus for her family life and that was in a very real sense a springboard for her remarkable philanthropy and community involvement.
The concept of the Paradise Garden is rooted in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. Indeed, the Holy Bible begins and ends with a garden: the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis and the restored Paradise Garden in the Book of the Revelation. But the concept of the Paradise Garden was more ancient than that. It was part of ancient Persian culture. Indeed, in Persian, the word for “garden” is the same as that for “paradise”. It was Islam that took the association and developed it and produced such wonderful examples as the Moorish Gardens of Andalucia in Spain, including the well-known gardens of the Alhambra Palace, and also the Mughal gardens of north India, such as that of the Taj Mahal. Those gardens were images of Paradise, with their fountains and other water features, trees for beauty and shade and fruitfulness, plants which provided colour, beauty and fragrance as well as food — often, but not always, enclosed. That Islamic tradition came into the European tradition through the monastic and collegiate gardens.
Dame Elisabeth was a born gardener who instinctively knew that in creating a garden, she was creating a little bit of paradise — a place for present enjoyment as well as a foretaste of what is our true destiny as human beings. In fact, the first time I met Dame Elisabeth 25 years ago was in association with that garden. It was the time of her granddaughter Penny’s marriage to Grant at Holy Trinity Kew, where I was vicar at the time, and Penny simply said was it OK if Granny did the flowers. Well, not knowing who Granny was but being familiar with such a question from brides, I said: “Sure.” Well, the day came before the wedding and into the church driveway came what I described at the time as a pantechnicon. In fact, it was an estate van, out of which emerged Dame Elisabeth and Michael Morrison, who of course managed the gardens at Cruden Farm for over 40 years. Dame Elisabeth in shaking my hand said in her matter-of-fact and no-nonsense way, “Elisabeth Murdoch”, and introduced me to Michael. Well, out of that van came what seemed like half a suburban garden’s worth of branches, blossoms and cut flowers, all of course from Cruden Farm. In the next hour or so, Dame Elisabeth and Michael proceeded to create four magnificent arrangements in large urns on pedestals ready for the wedding, very similar to the beautiful ones before us today, which Michael has also done.
I see that garden at Cruden Farm as an expression of Dame Elisabeth’s faith, albeit a somewhat private faith as was typical for her generation and background. But the reality was that she was a regular communicant and financial supporter of the local Anglican church, St Thomas’s Langwarrin, over many years and certainly a supporter of a number of Anglican and Christian organisations, including this Cathedral. As the Dean said earlier, in fact the gargoyle with her likeness looks down upon us as we meet. It would be fair to say that Dame Elisabeth’s faith was challenged in more recent years, especially with the death of her eldest child and daughter Helen Handbury and for one who lived so long by the deaths of many of her contemporaries, both family and friends. And yet, the garden remains as an expression of her fundamental belief in the goodness of Creation and of the promise and of expectation of the future in God’s hands. The garden will go on.
Cruden Farm, the wedding gift to Keith Murdoch’s new bride, became the focus of family life, especially in the war years and then after Sir Keith’s death in 1952 her permanent home and the centre of family life, of family gatherings and of wonderful parties.
It’s easy to forget that Dame Elisabeth had been a widow for 60 years when she died. But those years were not like those of Queen Victoria, largely years of seclusion or withdrawal. On the contrary, Dame Elisabeth, as we’ve heard, threw herself into a remarkably busy, community-oriented and philanthropic life. Cruden Farm, in a way, became the springboard for that remarkable period, which has continued unabated until this year. The garden certainly became the place for her personal creativity, recreation and restoration to enable her to do this work. Increasingly, it became the vehicle for her community and philanthropic involvements and many of you representing the over 100 organisations will have experienced the garden at Open Garden days, concerts for her beloved McClelland Gallery or the local hospital and special openings for particular groups. And visits by representatives of her many charities often met Dame Elisabeth at Cruden Farm, visits as we’ve heard often included a tour of the garden, in latter years in her golf cart. Undoubtedly, Dame Elisabeth’s philanthropy was marked by generosity, which need hardly be said in this company since it is so visible and well-known. But her philanthropy was more than that. It was also intelligent and informed and wholehearted. St Paul writes, “God loves a cheerful giver”; Dame Elisabeth was certainly such a one.
One personal example bears telling. At the time I was chair of the Council for Christian Education in Schools, now known as ACCESS Ministries, which provides Christian education and chaplaincy in Victorian state schools. Dame Elisabeth and Helen Handbury were our major donors, supporting several high school chaplaincies. We were arranging a farewell dinner for our departing CEO Peter Whitaker in 2000 and we invited Dame Elisabeth to attend. Not only did she attend at age 91 but stayed an hour longer than she had scheduled. After she had departed, all 40 or so guests at the dinner remarked how she had talked to each of them separately and, in doing so, had revealed remarkable knowledge of the organisation, its activities and challenges. And I’m quite sure my experience has been replicated by all the organisations represented here today and with which Dame Elisabeth was associated over so many years. She certainly read all those annual reports and other papers from her many charities that crossed her desk.
We can rightly give thanks for and celebrate Dame Elisabeth’s garden, from which so many good things flowed.
I want to conclude with an incident in St John’s Gospel in chapter 21. It’s John’s Gospel alone that uses the image of the garden to locate the Resurrection of Jesus. “Now there was a garden in the place where Jesus was crucified and in the garden was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid.” It was that tomb, and in that tomb, that Jesus was buried and the incident I refer to took place on the third day, the day of the Resurrection. After Peter and John had looked into the now empty tomb and departed the scene, Mary Magdalene remained behind. Turning around, she encountered the Risen Christ but did not recognise Him. Rather, she supposed Him to be the gardener and questioned Him accordingly as to the whereabouts of the body of Jesus, the One she loved and Whom she had come to mourn. Albrecht Durer depicts the Risen Christ in a large gardener’s hat, with a decent shovel over His shoulder. The Risen Christ said her name, Mary, and at hearing her name, Mary Magdalene recognised Jesus Who had been raised. But in one sense, Mary was correct in supposing Him to be the gardener because in a sense He was. For in Christian understanding, Jesus is the new Adam Who by His Death and Resurrection has regained for humankind the Garden of Eden, Paradise itself, our true home.
With this image in mind, I now think of Dame Elisabeth in the Paradise Garden, meeting the Risen Christ. I can see her offering her hand and introducing herself, “Elisabeth Murdoch”, and the Risen Christ replying: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” But I can also hear Dame Elisabeth saying: “Well, these borders need thinning out and perhaps the plantings beyond the lake will need to be replaced, so let’s get to work.”
Dear Dame Elisabeth, faithful woman, family matriarch, garden creator, generous and kind giver, National Treasure, we thank you, we love you and we will miss you. Rest peacefully and rise gloriously.
Apart from raising her children, Murdoch devoted her life to philanthropy. Before her marriage she worked as a volunteer for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. She joined the management committee of the Royal Children’s Hospital in 1933, serving as its president from 1954 to 1965. A 2003 article in the Melbourne newspaper The Age said: “Few can rival Dame Elisabeth’s enormous contribution. Her interests are so many they need to be alphabetically catalogued: academia, the arts, children, flora and fauna, heritage, medical research, social welfare. Many of Melbourne and Australia’s most cherished institutions, from the Royal Children’s Hospital to the Australian Ballet and the Botanic Gardens, have benefited from her involvement. But Murdoch also devoted herself to less popular causes: prisoners, children in care, those battling mental illness and substance abuse.”
Murdoch was a Life Governor of the Royal Women’s Hospital. She was the patron of the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and of the Australian American Association (Victoria), founded by her husband. She was a patron and founding member of disability organisation EW Tipping Foundationand a founding member of the Deafness Foundation of Victoria. The first woman on the council of trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria, Murdoch was a founding member of the Victorian Tapestry Workshop. She was a member of the Patrons Council of the Epilepsy Foundation of Victoria. Her garden, “Cruden Farm”, at Langwarrin, is one of Australia’s finest examples of landscape gardening and is regularly open to the public. It was originally designed by Edna Walling.
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