Like so many greats of the art world, the story of Ceri Richards is one of unrecognized accomplishment and neglected genius. Though he represented Britain at the 1962 Venice Biennale, was himself represented by the Marlborough gallery alongside friends and contemporaries John Piper and Francis Bacon, and was described by Henry Moore, his one-time tutor, as the finest draughtsman of his generation and an artist of unique creative and imaginative gifts and achievements, Richards’ reputation as one of finest British artists of the 20th century has since fallen through the cracks.
Born to a working-class Welsh family in 1903, Richards’ early life was spent surrounded by art, music, poetry, and song. Congregations in the local chapel first introduced the young artist to iconography and the sounds of the choir; a talented pianist (When I look into the mirror, he once remarked, Beethoven looks back at me), by his teenage years he was accompanying them at services. From his father, an amateur poet who would recite Welsh verses in the family home, he also developed a love of poetry that would heavily influence much of his later work.
As a young child at school he drew incessantly, his future promise heralded by prizes at local art competitions. Leaving school to apprentice with a firm of electricians in Swansea, his evenings he spent studying engineering draughtsmanship at Swansea College of Technology and life drawing at the Swansea College of Art, eventually enrolling at the latter full-time. By the end of his course in 1924, his mind was made up: the life of an artist was his calling; the 200-mile journey from sleepy Dunvant to the Royal College of Art in London would be his pilgrimage.
Supported by a hard-earned scholarship, the Royal College soon became Richards’ educational temple, introducing him to a host of new influences that the artist sustained throughout his career. It was here that he first began his love affair with modern European painting – Ernst, Matisse, and especially Picasso became favourites – and began to paint seriously himself. Intelligent and emotionally attuned, he got on well with his tutors who also first introduced him to the many print techniques he would exploit in later years.
Graduating from the college in 1927, in the 1930s Richards began to exhibit his first public work, surreal, semi-abstract paintings and boxed constructions inspired, amongst others, by the sculpture of Jean Arp. Placed besides prominent works of the Surrealist movement, they hold up to that period’s most important sculptures and canvases, possessing a lyrical and romantic quality that was conspicuously lacking from contemporary Surrealists and that would remain a hallmark of his work for years to come.
With the outbreak of war, Richards sought out work as a teacher, being appointed as the head of painting at the Cardiff School of Art until 1944 before moving back to London. The next ten years were spent developing an ever deeper and more personal vision within his art, one informed by the varied themes of nature, death, and visual expressions of music and the words of poetry.
With these complimentary branches of the arts he felt a profound affiliation that traced its roots back to his early upbringing, something he expressed a number of times in interviews and his own writing: One can generally say that all artists — poets, musicians, painters, are creating in their own idioms, metaphors for the nature of existence, for the secrets of our time. We are all moved by the beauty and revelation in their utterances — we notice the direction and beauty of the paths they indicate for us, and move towards them.
Of the many musical and poetic muses in his career – Beethoven, whom he depicted as a Promethean thief of creative fire, or Debussy, whose music soothed the angst-ridden exercise of painting – Dylan Thomas was amongst the most influential and important. Though they met only once, in Thomas’ poetry Richards found not just the kindred sounds of a native Welshman, but an unspoken affinity for the natural world which both saw as a constant cycle of love and death.
One story tells of how on the evening of November 8th, 1958, awoken in a hot sweat and unable to sleep, Richards got up and sketched through the hours of the early morning, inspired by Thomas’ radio play Under Milk Wood. The very next day, the wireless brought news of Thomas’ death. Richards’ sketches would form the basis of his illustrations for the 1972 Folio edition of Thomas’ play, published a year after Richards’ own death which fell, unbelievably, on the very same day as Thomas’ some 18 years later.
From the late 1950s until the end of his life Richards was closely involved with the renowned Curwen Press, for whom he made a number of exquisite lithographs demonstrating the supreme draughtsmanship he had refined all those years ago and which had underpinned the paintings and prints ever since. By now acknowledged as one of Britain’s most important living artists, with Marlborough exhibitions and a retrospective at the famous Whitechapel gallery, he was elected to represent the country at the 1962 Venice Biennale, from which he returned a triumphant prizewinner.
While all signs pointed to a glittering reputation that would see Richards join the likes of Moore, Sutherland, and Bacon in the vanguard of British art, after his death in 1971 he was instead quickly and quietly forgotten. The eclecticism and eccentricism for which he is today celebrated ironically saw his name ignored at the time in favour of artists whose work was more easily defined.
But it is that poetic vision which characterized his work, argued Roberto Sanesi, the Italian poet, critic, and translator with whom Richards worked and who has since championed his achievements, that makes his art so compelling: [Ceri] seemed to want to gather every aspect of nature into his painting at once: the whole of the swarming earth in all its manifestations and mutations — its deep subterranean magic, its inorganic strata as well as its organic layers, the green world of plants and the world of man… It is a whole world of pity, passion and violence: pages written in sweat that disclose petals and corpses, rainbows and moon, Celtic crosses, flowers and landscapes germinating out of opened hands, limbs outstretched to the sky in gestures of abandon, communion and offering…
Though some little work has been done to redress the situation, including a major retrospective at the Tate in 1981, Ceri Richards remains a name unfairly unremembered in the art world. Thankfully, as Richards’ expert Mel Gooding has described, the power and poignancy of his images endures today: in the act of drawing waves of water and manuscript leaves, [he could] transform the natural world into an imagining, a poem, a print, a work that survives its maker.