Artist Eric Ritchie returns from self-imposed exile

FETED in the 1950s and disillusioned by the 1980s, Eric Ritchie withdrew from the art scene 30 years ago. Now he’s back. About time, says Susan Mansfield

80 year-old artist Eric Ritchie at his home in Coldingham. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Since youth is something of a holy grail in the art world, it’s refreshing to meet an artist who’s preparing to make a splash in time for his 81st birthday. But Eric Ritchie, whose work is unveiled this week in a show at the Doubtfire Gallery in Edinburgh’s New Town, has a talent and productivity undimmed by age.

Tipped for great things at Edinburgh College of Art in the 1950s, he enjoyed solo exhibitions at prestigious galleries in Glasgow and Edinburgh, but withdrew from the art scene more than 30 years ago in self-imposed exile. Now he’s back.

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“I just wanted to try and see how I got on showing my stuff again,” he says, mildly. “Maybe because I felt that there was so much of it around. I kept on producing.” After the Doubtfire show, which he describes as “a re-establishment, not a retrospective”, he will begin work on a larger retrospective for the Watchtower in Berwick-upon-Tweed in June.

Ritchie’s paintings line the walls of the homely house in Coldingham, East Lothian, which he shares with Reena, his wife of 54 years. A magnificent trompe-l’oeil mural transforms a bare wall into a long window looking out to the Eyemouth coastline. Walking carefully, with the aid of a stick, he takes me out to his studio, a brightly lit summer house in the garden, where a colourful abstract painting sits on the easel awaiting completion. In 60 years of making art, Ritchie has never stopped experimenting and likes to move fluidly between styles. His portfolio contains photorealism, geometric abstracts, landscapes, portraits, cartoons, sculpted pieces of metal, even animated films. “You can see how I don’t stick to anything all that long,” he says. “Just my temperament. I would get bored!” His grey-blue eyes twinkle.

Jane Muir, art director at the Doubtfire Gallery, says: “We instantly made a connection with Eric and his work. There is an antiquity but fresh appeal to much of what he does. The depth, humanity and humour in his art convinced us that Eric’s work should be seen and we are delighted to reintroduce it into the Edinburgh gallery scene.”

Ritchie grew up in Aberdeen and Biggar, the son of a church organist. “My brother and I grew up with him practising Bach preludes and fugues late in the evening – he would temper it now and again with a bit of Chopin.” Although he grew up surrounded by music, Ritchie’s passion was always art. He went to Edinburgh College of Art in 1951, and went on to win the RSA’s Keith Prize for best work by a student, and the Andrew Grant Major travelling scholarship.

When the college hosted the prestigious exhibition, Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, during the Edinburgh Festival in 1954, displaying original work for the ballet by artists such as Picasso and Bakst, he was one of a handful of students chosen to paint murals on the walls. He was allocated the Paris Room, turning the walls into Parisian streets on which the posters created by Jean Cocteau for the Ballets Russes would be displayed. The exhibition then transferred to London, where it was an overnight sensation, attracting 140,000 visitors, and Ritchie had the opportunity to reprise the Paris Room on an even bigger scale.

He says working on the Diaghilev show was an enormous influence on his work and career. “I was really confronted with the original Picassos which were brought from here, there and everywhere. He has always been an important influence for me.”

The exhibition brought Ritchie’s work to the notice of theatrical impresario Sir Peter Daubeny, who commissioned the young artist to paint a mural for his Chester Square home. Thanks to Daubeny, he mingled with some of the stars of the day, including Kenneth More and Dirk Bogarde, and when his travelling scholarship from ECA took him to Rome, he sold his first painting to none other than the actor Michael Redgrave, who was in the city filming The Quiet American.

“I had a friend who worked in the British Embassy, so I was invited to some of the parties. I actually hadn’t signed the painting, so I got a phone call from Redgrave to ask if I would come and sign it. I made my way to his flat – quite awe-inspiring – but he was very approachable. I also met the Australian actor Peter Finch at a party – he was very drunk.” The eyes twinkle again. “Maybe I was too!”

Back in the UK, he was invited to paint three murals for a private theatre at Capesthorne Hall in Cheshire, where he was a guest of the Bromley-Davenport family while he worked. “I had to buy a dinner suit before I went, and it was laid out every evening on my bed by the butler. It was all quite difficult to get my head round! I was very lucky with these sorts of things, having people who supported me.”

He was back teaching a life-drawing class for former students at ECA when he met Reena. “There’s a kind of unwritten rule that when former students come back to do some drawing, nobody offers them advice,” she says, smiling at the memory. “And he had the temerity to offer me advice about my drawing. What a cheek! The first time we went out was for a cup of coffee, and during the course of the evening I drank four cups of black coffee. When I got back to my digs, I couldn’t sleep until 6am!”

They married in 1960, and both became art teachers. He continued painting, having exhibitions in city galleries, and also painted several murals in a modern abstract style for new schools being built in Edinburgh and Stirlingshire. He always preferred to work on a variety of projects, inspired by his teacher at ECA Leonard Rosoman. “I didn’t specialise. At the time I didn’t appreciate these people who devoted their lives to producing nothing but easel paintings. I like the idea that one could go in all directions. Now, in my old age, I think I see the value of specialising.”

By 1981 he felt “confused” and disillusioned with the gallery scene. His show that year at the Scottish Gallery would be his last for more than 30 years. “There was a bit of a wilderness feeling about things then. I was a bit bolshie. I didn’t want to be part of the establishment, didn’t want to be pigeon-holed.”

The Ritchies lived for ten years in Orkney, in a house overlooking the neolithic village at Skara Brae, where he continued to paint. Since moving to Coldingham a decade ago, he has worked on local commissions, including seven narrative paintings for the 900th anniversary of Coldingham Priory. He even painted the serial numbers onto fishing boats for the fishermen at St Abbs.

“I probably would have got on better in the Middle Ages if I’d been a painter in a small community,” he says, thoughtfully. “You’d be asked to do an altar piece one day, a portrait or some gilding the next day. I probably would have existed quite well then.”

At the same time, there is quiet delight that after more than three decades in the shadows, his work is going to be in the spotlight again. “It’s great that this is happening for him,” Reena tells me quietly, as I leave. “His work is so good, it needs to be seen.”

Eric Ritchie: Walking A Line, is at the Doubtfire Gallery, 3 South East Circus Place, Edinburgh, 7 March-4 April,