Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Britain is no longer a country, nor Leicester a city for an old, indefatigable, topographical artist called Rigby Graham

Rigby, a mural artist and illustrator of 370 books and writer of 20, out and about in Scotland, Ireland, Mediterranean Islands and in and around his beloved Leicester with sketch pad, watercolours and oils for over seventy years, has died at the age of 84. Apart from half a dozen tweets and a mention in the 'Leicester Mercury', his passing has been marked by neither private recognition nor public fanfare.

What you possibly didn't know about Rigby, that he :

* was born in Stretford, Manchester, in 1931 and into a turbulent childhood where there were always plenty of books and bottles around, if not much food and one dominated by his strict, alcoholic father, Richard, a customs and excise officer and once former professional clarinetist, who had met his mother, Ellen, born on the Isle of Mull, when he stayed at a guest house she ran with her mother at Mallaig, Inverness, while inspecting local whisky distilleries.

* was named after 'Justice Rigby Smith', who was admired by his father and sent to sunday school and a junior school on religious lines by his devout, Scots Presbyterian ''Wee Free' and piano and violin-playing mother, Ellen, and when his father was transferred to Barkingside, Essex, recalled :  'My earliest memories are being pedalled in a carrier on the crossbar of his push bike along the roads of London's East End and out to Chigwell, Epping and Buckhurst Hill'.

* as a boy, was heavily influenced by his Father, who rarely used names, but had a whistle code to summon each of his three children and when in a good mood might call him either 'Mr Pecksniff', 'Horatio' or 'Dick Sniveller' and was well read in politics, economics, Fabianism, Russian novels, Greek legends, major English poets and whose stories of his postings in Ireland during 'The Troubles' aroused Rigby's interest in Irish literature and music.

* was evacuated to Ipswich at the age of seven on the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 and after several miserable billets and different schools, eventually rejoined the family, now moved to Leicester and recalled : 'I was sent up to Leicester like a parcel on the railway in 1942 and went to school here intending to return to London when the War finished'.

* having passed the the 11+ exam, joined Wyggeston Grammar School, where David Attenborough was in the sixth form, having entered school with sinking heart because of the '"sit up ! speak up ! shut up !"ethos' where he found that art was not regarded as a serious subject but an activity for the non-academic on a par with 'woodwork.'

* in his adolescence, developed his spirit of independence and learned, in geometry, for example, 'to hate straight lines and angles and the measurement of things by degrees and the sentences which began 'give', 'to prove' 'if' and 'let' and I hated the reasoning which was neatly tied up with the nasty little knot - 'quod erat demonstrandum'. I loved the loose ends and intersections which could not be measured' and liked 'the geometry of the branches of the trees, for they were living lines and real dimensions, they moved in  the wind and dripped in  the rain.'

* recalled that he had 'always been interested in the Sublime' and since becoming 'aware of it at school and being introduced to Wordworth's 'Prelude', by which I was much stimulated. Like a sponge, I read whatever I could, for I felt I wanted to do this rather than play rugger and cricket' , but, a talented swimmer, during summer holidays would hitch hike, separately, with his brother, to the Isle of Mull and would take part in Hebridean Regattas, where they cleaned up swimming and diving prizes and he became 'Western Isles Long Distance Champion' and also took the opportunity to explore Mull and take a boat to Iona.

* also hitched to Dorset and thought nothing of cycling the one hundred miles to Seven Kings, London to stay with his maternal Grandmother and got himself out and about in and around Leicester and later recalled : 'I traipsed about canals, deserted railways. I walked every canal, towpath that’s in the county. I went down mines, got into factories I climbed into military aircraft dumps during the War and I noticed how the landscape was changing, how the horse in farms was giving way and horse-driven machinery were given away, steam ploughs and ploughing engines'.

*  became aware of the nascent artist within him : 'I lurched about from one crisis to another I felt a sense of what Wordsworth must have felt when he described something similar in his poem ‘The Prelude’' and was self consciously observant of the world around him and the smells of hay, sillage, slaughterhouses, slurry, the coke in railway sidings and iron and dust from foundry furnaces and on cycling to a canal, learned 'sight, sound and smell are inseparable' and, at the same time, like any boy, was also attracted to machines in town and country : 'any crane, or earth mover or chrusher or plant of any kind, I was up, in or over.'

* before entering the sixth form, knew that he wanted to paint full time after a degree course in Art History at King's College Newcastle, but with few academic qualifications, was persuaded instead, by teacher Roy Porter, who 'said "why not go to local art college to learn how to draw ?" and at 16 in 1947, enrolled at the Leicester College of Art and that summer undertook the first of a series of artistic journeys on a hitch hiking holiday to draw in France, Switzerland and Germany, contracting amoebic dysentery in the process from drinking bad water, the effects of which took some years to shake off.

* found that he had served an unconscious apprenticeship as an artist by training himself to see and feel so that 'when I became an art student, my attention was focussed on particular things, lamp posts, chimney stacks, doorways and windows, brickwork and bonding, the colours of things, the effect of light and the perspective of cast shadows and I found that in learning of these things, I was rediscovering all these elements in Leicester, which I had already known and experienced.'

* in the winter of 1948, travelled to and had his first experience of sleeping rough in snow and the following year, at the age of 18, on turning up for his medical for his two years National Service found a 'queue' and as a child, having been forbidden by his father to wait in a queue, went away and when summoned to return, took exception to being shouted at, turned and walked away again and subsequently heard nothing more from the authorities and fell through the net.

* recalled that, at the College : 'I met skilful, interesting, fascinating craftsmen, artists, painters, calligraphers, potters, all sorts of people whose work I admired and I found it a pleasure to be part of that system' and "when I was a student, the people who were known for English book illustration at that time, they all had an influence on me to a greater or lesser extent. "

* also came under the influence of the German expressionists, "Kirchner and all his pals" (right) and later recalled : "I was interested in them and got no encouragement at all - they were beyond the pale, their work looked rough, and splintery and unfinished. It had the very quality that I liked, and admired."

* completed his studies at College at the age of 23 in 1954, having specialised in 'mural painting' and chose teaching as a means to provide a livelihood for his ambition and in the mid-1950s taught at Ellis Boys’ School, Lansdowne Boys’ School and the Gateway School and on the artistic front, visited Brittany and the Channel Islands to paint and in the late 1950s, in his late twenties, shifted the emphasis of his art shifted to printing and graphic design.

* in 1958 at the age of 27, spent time on Herm in the Channel Islands, making pencil, indian ink and ballpoint sketches and watercolours and on one occasion made sketches of the island mailboat 'MV Arrowhead', whilst  travelling on another small boat in very heavy seas and subsequently saw them used for the new 1959, 6d stamp and his sketch of the 'Arrowhead' entering St. Peter Port Harbour on the 1s 6d stamp.  
* by the late 1950s, was teaching in the Printing School of Leicester College of Art and subsequently graphic design and in parallel, started work as an illustrator creating the lithographic illustrations of an edition of Rilke’s 'Sonnets to Orpheus' working primarily for private presses : the 'Brewhouse Cog', 'New Broom', 'Pandora' and 'St Bernard Press'.

* found that a painting visit to Sicily had an unexpected consequence, in that it launched him into his work as a muralist, starting with 'Sicily' for Woodstock Junior School in Leicester and then a collaborative series at New Parks House Junior School which in turn, stimulated his interest in education and led to his move to the School of 'Teacher Training' at Leicester College of Art in 1961.

* at the age of 30, provided the illustrations in two or more colours for Thea Scott's 'Fingal's Cave', in what was meant to be an edition of 250 copies, but on the 67th printing, with sheets laid out to dry on the floor of the attic, the sun shone enough to hatch woodworm in the floor and overnight more than a hundred sheets were peppered with holes and because reprinting was impossible the edition was halved and four years later published his own 'Romantic Book Illustration in England 1943- 1945'.

* having risen to the position of Pincipal Lecturer in Teacher Training at the College of Art, which had become a Polytechnic, became disillusioned when he found that the creative excitement of art was being overtaken by the dead hand of administrative organisation and staff who 'did' things were being replaced by analysts, users of jargon and goobledegook and was, by now, successful enough in as an artist, to be able to retire from teaching at the age of 52 in 1983 and increase the frequency of his one-man exhibitions with the continued support of Mike Goldmark, whose gallery in Uppingham made his work available to the public.

* in 1986 described the ease of lithography, working on either paper, zinc or aluminium plates "because there was no resistance, with your crayon or your brush, it flowed quite easily. Whereas, when you’re struggling with a woodcut, every bit you cut is hard going. You finish up with blisters on your fingers" with, for example, the large, 'Santa Maria Della Salute' which "was carved on oak and that was a nightmare to cut. Some wood is fairly soft to the touch, but oak is notoriously difficult to cut a straight line Against the grain, it’s very, very difficult. The smaller the tool you’ve got, the easier it is, but of course it takes time. The black block for that, I remember took about 3 ½ weeks of solid cutting, morning, noon and night."

* in 1989, at the age of 58, painted a mural for the 'Linear Accelerator Suite' at the Leicester Royal Infirmary and then in a cruel sequel, became a cancer patient in the same hospital, keeping his spirits up by drawing other patients and recalled the experience in his 1992 woodcut-illustrated book, 'Kippers and Sawdust', in which he recalled lying in the hospital bed after an operation, in the hours before daybreak 'tethered and triangulated by drip, drain and catheter', in his mind he had turned the pages of his sketchbooks and 'lay on headlands looking out to sea; or, lingering by bastion and rampart, drew once again vistas and images which had moved me, at earlier times, almost to tears.'

* in 2001, at the age of 70 made the film, 'Rigby Graham’s Irish Journey', with Charles Mapleston who described it as "a kind of 'retrospective road movie visiting many of the artist's old haunts and creating dynamic new work along the way", spiced with his cryptic commentaries, written daily on postcards home to his Irish wolfhound ,'Murphy',
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FIMvgdmOoc0&t=0m17s and culminated in an arduous climb up Skellig Michael to an ancient monastery perched on a rocky island sanctuary set deep in the Atlantic.

attended the premier of his film in the University of Leicester Film Theatre in 2003, at which Mike Goldmark, said : "The journey with its hardships and laughter stands as a metaphor for the artist’s life” and at the reception paused with Charles, the Vice-Chancellor Professor Robert Burgess and Mike to view his work on display. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FIMvgdmOoc0&t=38s

* in 2008 at the age of 77, had his 'Watercolours of Malta' , with a narrative and poetry by his friend Victor Fenech, with biographical detail of his life and work and a combination of scenes : coast, sea, village and industry, having spent five weeks in inclement weather in Gozo because he 'wanted to give it the importance he felt it deserved' and typically shunned the oft-painted and photographed touristic sites and focussed on the flora of a fast disappearing countryside as a protest against encroaching development, a trait  noted by one art critic, who  likened him to ‘a war artist recording how we’re blitzkrieging our own environment’.

* on receiving an Honorary Degree at Leicester University at the age of 77 in 2008, said that he was pleased because : 'I have often felt my work has been against the grain or out of kilter. I find myself delighted still to be around, to relish the irony of it.'

* used the ceremony as an opportunity to describe his love of the city he had explored as a boy : "I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed travelling about by foot, by bicycle, eventually a clapped-out motorbike and what I saw, and drew and painted and engraved and turned into lithographs and woodcuts, stained glass and heaven knows what else; I found the life here in Leicester and Leicestershire, the building, the demolition, the terrible mess made of certain things; I found the whole lot absolutely exhilarating and still do. If you people, all and every one of you, get one tenth of the pleasure and satisfaction that I have had from the life that I found around me here then you will have a very good life indeed."

* in his oration at the ceremony, Professor Gordon R Campbell said : "How might one characterise Rigby Graham’s art? He is certainly one of the most important landscape painters of the late twentieth century. The archive of his work, now lodged at Manchester Metropolitan University, is a central resource for the study of landscape and topographic painting, the Neo-Romantic movement, lithographic and wood-cut printing, book illustration and production, and private presses. He is a figure to be reckoned with in all of these fields."

* in 2010 on being awarded an MBE for his achievement in the community 'which is outstanding in its field and had delivered a sustained and real impact which stands out as an example to others' and said, with perfect self-effacement : "It was a complete surprise and I have no idea which part of my work it is for. I am honoured" and had his work celebrated in Malcolm Yorke's biography, 'Against the Grain', published by Goldmark Gallery this year : http://ow.ly/MRw2Z

* said : "When I'm on my own and quiet, the landscape tells you a good deal and Turner and Cotman talk to me from the clouds."

and, in what might serve as his epitaph :

 "I came to find in ordinariness,  extraordinary qualities"


  1. A pity that I never met
    the man, as I would have liked to have talked to him about English topographical art, John Piper and the Shell county guides, one of which I wrote.

  2. A wonderful man whom I am truly privileged to have known as a friend