Saturday 23 May 2020

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Farewell" to an old and much-loved photographic artist and son of Coventry called Richard Sadler

Richard who has died at the age of 93, was born in the winter of 1927 in the industrial and working class district of Hillfields, 160-acre suburb of Coventry. For over half a century Richard documented in photographs, the City of Coventry's, architecture, work and leisure. This involved recording the reconstruction of the City in the 1950s after its destruction in the enemy bombing of the Second World War; scenes from the factory floor and photographs of the artists and audiences at its Belgrade Theatre.

If the photos he took, at the age of 24, of his grandmother Minnie Sadler, are anything to go by, his was a working class family. She  lived on her own in Bath Street in Hillfields, where she slept in a tiny bedroom with its jug and bowl for washing and sat in her kitchen next to the iron stove, reading her favourite newspaper, 'The Coventry Evening Telegraph'.

When he grew up in the 1930s, most Hillside families were dependent on the motor industry for their livelihood. At the start of the 20th century, there were 20 motor manufacturers in Hillfields and by the 1930s and the Singer Company, which had became Coventry's largest manufacturer, operated in five different sites in Hillfields.

Richard was 8 years old when the Second World War broke out in 1939 and from 1940, Hillfields, with its densely packed Victorian terraced housing was, as an industrial target, heavily bombed by the German Luftwaffe.

In the Coventry Blitz on November 14th 1940, Richard and his father had gone into the City the next morning and, in the Cathedral ruins, saw that two burnt roof beams, which had fallen in the shape of a cross in the rubble, were bound together and placed where the altar had been and someone had written ‘Father Forgive’ on the wall of the ruined chancel.

 At that point the Cathedral Provost, Dick Howard, had made a commitment not to seek revenge, but to strive for forgiveness and reconciliation with those responsible. During the BBC radio broadcast from the Cathedral ruins on Christmas Day 1940, to which Richard may well have listened, Howard declared that when the War was over we should work with those who had been enemies “to build a kinder, more Christ-like world.” The experience of the visit to the charred and smoking ruins made an indelible impression on Richard and years later, as a photographer, it was with this memory and its spirit of reconciliation, that he began to document the reconstruction of the City and Cathedral, becoming their official photographer and providing the photographs for many of their books and other publications.

In all likelihood, Richard left school at the age of 15 in 1942 and started working life in Hillfields. The Town and Country Planning Act 1944 allowed local authorities to declare 'Areas of Comprehensive Development' and Hillfields was declared one of three in Coventry in 1951 because 53% of the houses were 'unfit to live in'. This gave the local authorities the right to use Compulsory Purchase Orders on the properties and ultimately this led to the demolition of the old slums and construction of 13 new tower blocks in the 1960s.

At the age of 18 in 1945, Richard would had undertaken his two years National Service in the Armed Forces and it was after this, in the early 1950s, that he served his apprenticeship at the photographic studios of Edward Eves in Leamington Spa. Eves was known, in particular, for his motor sport photography, but could also turn his hand to urban photography, as seen in his 1960 photo of the Parade, opposite Euston Place in Leamington Spa. In addition, he was also the owner of Edward Eves Limited, a camera maker in the town noted for its one-shot colour-separation cameras, with their ability to make a true colour image, with which Richard was no doubt familiar.

It was while working for Edward that, at the age of 24 in 1951, that Richard photographed his Grandmother Minnie as she went around Hillfields over the course of a day, from her home at 11 Bath Street.

He also had an eye for the the post-War Hillfields : The boy with his wooden, home-made gun, playing in the ruins of a bomb-damaged house and the policeman riding his bike on a deserted road in an area where the bomb-damaged housing had been removed.

As Richard's reputation as a professional photographer grew, he was drawn to both commercial and artistic projects. This included work in the City for Wimpey and Jaguar and a commission to capture working life at Courtaulds Fabric and Clothing Factory in Foleshill.

It was while working at Courtaulds, that he first met the comedian, Ken Dodd and later recalled : “I met him through working as a photographer at Courtaulds Research Laboratory in the 1950s. The company ran a social club and employees organised events and activities. Members ran a photographic club and naturally our department became ‘key’ members. 
Interested in theatre photography at our social club events, we were also invited to photograph the rehearsals for the annual Pantomime and spring show seasons at Coventry’s Hippodrome theatre. Shirley Bassey and Ken Dodd headlined one of the spring shows. Having attended our club event I decided to give some enlargements of my photos to Ken and others of the cast.

I presented myself at the stage door prior to an evening performance and ‘Nan’, the wonderful lady that controlled the stage door, told Ken, who invited me into the green room. Many 'before' and 'during' show visits, became the norm through that three-month season. We planned photos of him for publicity : ‘Ken the Gourmet’, visiting restaurants where he ate. He even visited me in my new home where our first child, Jane, by then nearly five years old, burst into tears on meeting him. However, as he jokingly said at the time, “most of my fans cry but usually with laughter!” Which he was sure Jane would when older.

I learned much and owe Ken a great deal from our conversations for our respective futures. He made notes on his performances on his timing, content and projection to and from an audience. I was even allowed to be with the ASM in the wings of the stage during his performances. I became aware certainly of the “atmosphere” of projection given and returned. I have continued to be a fan and followed his history. Attended many of his shows yet too shy and protective of our shared youthful moments to knock on the stage door and ask to see him. However I did discover the whereabouts, and indeed have visited, Knotty Ash many times since.”

In 1953, Richard captured the 'Boy in white suit' as part of the Queen's Coronation Day celebrations in Bath Street, Hillfields and 'Young Lad' , holding his box of 'Ludo', on a crowded London street in 1959.

Richard became the official 'In-house Photographer' for The Belgrade Theatre, at the age of 31 when it opened in 1958 and remained in post until his retirement at the age of 67 in 1994. Hamish Glen, Artistic Director for the Belgrade Theatre, said : “Richard’s photographs are an extraordinary and invaluable record of the theatre’s history and people from its very early days.” 

It was here that he photographed the comedy trio, 'The Goons', Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan at the peak of their popularity in the late 1950s. Over the years he captured David Suchet, Irene Handl, Susan Hill, Robert Lindsay, Leslie Grantham and Rosemary Leach in the early days of their later careers on both stage and in film.

At the age of 36, he took what would become his most famous photo of Arthur Fellig, better known as 'Weegee' and Richard spent a week with him in September 1963. Weegee was a New York press photographer who gained his nickname – a phonetic spelling of 'Ouija', the fortune-telling board game – for his reputation for arriving at crime scenes before the police. The real reason for his early arrival was that he was the only press photographer in the United States, at that time, with a permit to use a police radio. It was this radio, constantly tuned into police calls, that enabled him to be at the scene first - not, as was thought at the time, a mystical connection. He adopted the title 'Weegee' for, as he said, "It read better as a credit line for a picture than Arthur Fellig'.

His book 'Naked City' had become an international best seller and inspired a television series of that name in both America and Britain. He was the antithesis of Richard : the stereotypical, tough, wisecracking, news photographer - chewing a cigar stub, hat propped on the back of his head, holding a Speed Graphic 5x4 camera with his flashgun loaded with a PF6O bulb, ready to capture the decisive moment.

Richard recalled : "In Coventry I was commissioned by 'Owen and Owen' ( the Department Store) to assist him during his visit. The occasion was 'Russian Camera Week', a promotion by the UK importers who had commissioned Weegee to promote their cameras and lenses. During that week the Coventry Standard published an image he made at the time of the Lady Godiva statue entitled 'Lady Godiva on a Gee-Gee by Wee-Gee' where he employed one of the many image distorting methods he used to make his 'Art' photos. In an interview for the same newspaper he said, “I aim to bring any subject to life with my camera. I have even succeeded in making the Mona Lisa smile.”

The Coventry Express, the first national newspaper to use and print colour photographs, showed his colour work of Lady Godiva and Coventry. They also quote him as saying, at that time, that the caricature pictures he had taken of Macmillan and Kennedy, which were published widely in Europe, had been denied publication in the United States by the State Department. About Coventry he said, “Coventry reminds me of Philadelphia - I spent six months there one night!” Weegee was a great photographer, born in 1899, who died in 1968. He kindly gave me a signed copy of “Lady Godivia on a Gee-Gee”. I enjoyed his company, his impish humour and surreal but human eye. He taught me a great deal during that week. The images of him that I made show, I hope, some of the qualities of that remarkable man."

The V & A catalogue recorded Richard's famous photo of Weegee as : ‘Weegee the famous, by Richard Sadler. A portrait that suggests both homage, from one photographer to another, and construct about the photographic vision. Sadler focuses on the face and direct gaze of the famous American photographer Weegee. One eye is open, alert and fixed on the visible world, while the second ‘framed’ eye is the camera itself, Weegee’s Zenith. We, the viewers, appear to be the point of study for Weegee at the same time as Sadler is studying his fellow practitioner. Or is this portrait also encapsulating the essential relationship between subject, photographer and viewer? Weegee’s eye on the world and the essential prop of his trade are inter-dependent with us in our real space, as is Sadler’s; the construct is both finite and infinite.’

Richard's pursuit of an academic career saw him become a lecturer in photography at the Derby and District College of Art which opened in 1966 and subsequently became Derby College of Art and Technology and then Derbyshire College of Higher Education, where he was 'Course Leader in Photographic Studies.' In the early 1970s he was joined at Derby by his friend and fellow photographer of post-war Hillfields, John Blakemore. In 1992 the College was the only school of higher education in the country to be upgraded directly to a university and as the University of Derby it bestowed Richard with an honorary doctorate in 2006.

He also became a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society which awarded him 'The Fenton Medal' which had been created in the name of Roger Fenton, a pioneer of early photographer who had documented the Crimean War. The award is made to a member or non-member who has made an 'Outstanding Contribution to the Work of The Royal Photographic Society'. Usually, no more than three or four Fenton Medals are awarded each year and Richard received his at the age of 78 in 2005.

Richard had the pleasure of knowing that his work reached a wider public by being exhibited in the V & A Collection, The Royal Photographic Society's space within the National Media Museum in Bradford and the Center for Creative Photography, founded by the American landscape photographer, Ansel Adams, in Tucson, Arizona.

In 1981, Richard was able to demonstrate his portrayal as the photograph as art, while on a trip with Lucien Clergue in Southern France when he photographed Lucien's daughter, Anne, on the beach as the nude subject of his image and also took a full-frontal photographic portrait of a young male nude gazing out of a window. Lucien was a self-taught French photographer of some reputation who had met and become a life-long with Pablo Picasso in 1953.

In 2005 Richard's 'Homes Fit for Heroes : Photographs by Bill Brandt 1939-1943' written with Stuart H. Bartholomew and Peter James, was published and in 2012 he supplied the photos for Mike Smith's 'Following the Cross of Nails',  based on the medieval nails which fell with the roof of the old Coventry Cathedral, which Richard had seen with his father 72 years before. Richard's photographs illustrated the Cathedral Choir's mission to present a replica Cross of Nails to the monastery of Ottobeuren in Bavaria, passing en route through Nuremberg and Munich.

Richard had recalled that when he first met Ken Dodd at the Coventry Hippodrome all those years before :

"We became friends, both recognising instinctively, as perhaps one does in one's youth, that we loved people and an audience. In my case, for my photographs and Ken for his humour."

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