Many years later when he was painting a portrait of Nelson Mandela he said : “When he sat he was happy to talk. We spoke of Salford and got round to slums. He said "We have townships". I said "Mr Mandela those are not slums. I know what a slum is because I come from an area that was called a classic slum".
A bright lad at junior school, Harold gained a place at Salford Grammar School for Boys, during the Second World War, in 1944. Already showing great artistic promise, in the same year he first met the Lancashire artist L S Lowry, who awarded him first prize at the School's art exhibition in 1945. Lowry then invited young Harold to Salford Museum and Art Gallery, where he persuaded the curator Albert Frape to buy Harold’s winning picture for one pound and ten shillings. After Frape took the two notes from his wallet and handed them to Harold, on the way home he bought a new plaid shirt from the Co-op. Two years later Harold met Lowry again, this time when he, Harold, had an exhibition of his work at the Art Gallery.(link)
Talented at sport, his later football paintings were mainly linked with Manchester United, with whom he played as a junior, before, at the age of seventeen in 1951 he won a scholarship to the Slade School of Fine Art, University College, London to study for an Art degree specialising in Lithography and Etching. In the year of his graduation, 1954, he got a job as an extra on a film set along with his old grammar school friend, two years his junior, the future stage and film actor Albert Finney. The film was the classic romantic comedy 'Hobson’s Choice', directed by David Lean and as extras, they were picked to lead the street parade. (link) The outdoor location scenes, including the parade were filmed around the Salford area and the interiors were shot at Shepperton Studios near London.
Making his way as a professional artist, Harold repaid the support he had received from Ted Frape by showing his work exclusively at Salford City Art Gallery. He also offered his work to local sponsors and friends who had first pick at private views and their popularity meant that his pictures were sold out before the exhibitions opened to the public. His stature as an artist led him to receive commissions to paint : Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh and Popes : John XIII, Paul VI and John Paul II and United States Presidents John F. Kennedy and Gerald Ford. It was in 1962 that the twenty-eight year old Harold, had sketched in pastels, Kennedy, the year before he was assassinated.
Harold said : “Painting a portrait is rather like telling a person exactly what you think of him to his face. It’s embarrassing, especially as most people don’t want a true picture of themselves, but something that flatters them”. Harold was proud that he never did.
His portrait of John Paul II was completed after two sessions with the Pope in Rome, in which they discussed everything from previous pontiffs to football. In 2005 Harold told the Manchester Evening News : "He didn't chat away the whole time, but what he said was said with quiet authority and great humour. That's what struck me forcibly throughout the sittings - the absolute conviction and strength of a man, tied in with his humanity and sense of fun" and "He was utterly charismatic - everyone says that, but it can't be stressed enough. That is what shone through when you met him and I count it the greatest honour of my life that I had the privilege to meet him".
Harold found that by accepting commissions for three formal portraits annually, made money and left him free to undertake other work for the rest of the year. That 'other work' included, in 1963, advertising in the local paper for Salford scenes from family albums and receiving an unprecedented response.He started to document Salford in paintings, drawings and photographs and his deep affection for his home town cemented the friendship with L.S. Lowry. Of the black and white sketch he originally made in 1961 he said : “I remember a man pushing a lady in a wheelchair down Langworthy Road. It was Christmas and they hurried home. She was wrapped in a plaid blanket and he had a green cap and a United scarf. Their little black dog was tied to the wheelchair and trotted along so that the lady happily held the Christmas tree they had bought.” It was later re-worked in colour for a limited edition card for 'Age Concern' in Salford.
Also, in the 1960s he said : “One afternoon I was walking with Lowry near the old Albion dog track in Salford, where greyhounds raced. It was near the Manchester Racecourse at Castle Irwell. On a croft opposite there used to be held dog fights. As we passed there that day a dog fight was going on, watched by a large crowd, and Lowry was very interested in it. We both stood on the other side of the road and watched. Because Lowry had been intrigued by it, I did a painting of it and presented it to him the following Christmas as a gift." Apparently, he adored and 'Dog Fight' and it sat for a decade on his mantelpiece having captured a slice of 1960s life in Salford.
He was with Lowry when he was inspired to paint 'The Red House' in 1968. He recalled : “Lowry and I had gone to Pendlebury. We planned to do a drawing of Acme Mill - the first electrically powered spinning mill in the world. It was featured in a very famous painting by Lowry, from George Street. But on the day we went there we discovered it had been demolished. So instead I did a painting of a nearby street, which had a prominent red house”.
In 1970 Harold captured Lowry walking on Swinton Moss and the old man died six years later at the age of eighty-nine. He was an all-pervading influence on Harold's early work which featured bleak street scenes peopled by cloth-capped matchstick figures in sooty blues and greys and with Lowryesque titles redolent of a vanishing industrialised landscape.
In 1962 : 'Young Street Urchin Carrying a Basket' and 'Knife Grinder, Street Scene with Numerous Figures' in 1970. Harold referred to the streets as ‘theatres of colour’. He said that his attitude towards his subjects was different to that of Lowry, in that Lowry painted as a outsider looking in and Harold himself was an observer within the crowd. (link) In 1975 Greater Manchester Council awarded him £15,000 to draw and photograph local life before it disappeared for good. The deal called for Harold to produce some 40 images over three years.
At the end of the 1960s, when he was in his mid-thirties, Harold was not best pleased to be named by the 'Financial Times' among half a dozen young artists whose works were 'likely to show the greatest profits in future years'. He described this apparent accolade as : “A terrible bloody nuisance” and complained that dealers had contacted him to order paintings by the dozen, to the extent that he had disconnected his telephone.
By 1980 the accumulation of submitted material and his own portfolio formed the basis of an exhibition, opened by the Duke of Edinburgh as Chancellor of Salford University, called 'Salford 80'. In the same year, Harold spent a month away from Salford, living on the top floor of a Glasgow tenement recording the life of that city, sketching, painting and using an instant camera and a 35 mm one photographing Glaswegian scenes and people.
When it came to football, over the years he produced portraits of several Old Trafford greats, including the veteran manager Matt Busby and the striker George Best. A subsequent manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, was a keen collector of Riley’s work and owned more than a dozen of his pictures. In 2000 Harold presented Alex with a painting of the Cliff training ground, where many of Manchester United’s successes were planned. The Club has an extensive collection of his work, but the majority remains in Salford, where Harold established an archive and studio to house his paintings, drawings, photographs and sketch books. (link)
When he was eighty-three, Harold received the 'Freedom of the City of Salford'. He told the Manchester Evening News on the day he was given the accolade : “This is the greatest honour I have received - it is the highlight of my career. I love this city. I love its people.” Among those previously awarded the honour was his friend and mentor, L S Lowry back in 1965. Harold received it at Salford Museum in the company of Sir Alex Ferguson, Sir Bobby Charlton, Dennis Law and Salford's then ceremonial mayor the late Councillor Peter Connor. (link)
On Harold's death his family said :
"Salford has lost one of its most humble, compassionate and loving sons. Harold's light shone brightly for all to see and through the legacy of his art, it will never go out. He lived by simple principles: to love, to give and to serve every person equally no matter their position, colour, nationality or faith".
As Harold had said, his mission as an artist was :
"To reveal the more beautiful elements of humanity".