Born: 19 December, 1922, in Isleworth, Middlesex.
Died: 7 October, 2008, in Middlesbrough, aged 85.
ONLY a few artists have the skill, vision and integrity to rise to the challenge of their times and give us images that address its complexity and grandeur. Although known only to a relatively small circle during his lifetime, the work of the British painter Miles Richmond will surely grow in stature and popularity, and allow him to assume his place as a key figure in 20th-century British art.
Born in 1922, he studied drawing and painting at Kingston-upon-Thames School of Art, and served as a volunteer air warden. A thorough grounding in craft was accompanied by a clear-eyed patriotism, and these two qualities accompanied him throughout his life. He was an educated, articulate and literate man who single-mindedly brought every aspect of his intelligence to bear on his lifelong mission to maintain the artist's engagement with the contemporary world.
The discovery of the language and the sense of mission by which he would do this came in 1946, when he was introduced to the teaching of David Bomberg at the Borough Polytechnic in south London.
Bomberg created a powerful group around himself by means of his faith in the central importance of drawing. To reinvent drawing as a living tradition could, in Richmond's words, "help heal the serious split in our culture … between art growing increasingly subjective and science more technological but divorced from any embracing awareness of man and his needs".
The urgency of Bomberg's mission, coupled to his skill as a draughtsman, made the part-time evening class a crucible for British figurative painting and gave rise to several notable careers, including those of Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. Of them all, however, Richmond ho remained closest to Bomberg, and it was he who found himself working alongside Bomberg in Ronda, southern Spain, until Bomberg's death in 1957.
Richmond's decision to remain in Spain meant he pursued a completely different path to that of his better-known contemporaries. His career reminds us with a shock that significant British painting in the 20th century need not be abstract, urban and introverted, but that it happens with the panache of an accomplished draughtsman in the open-air wrestle with light and landscape. If Bomberg intimated the path, Richmond followed it with dogged determination.
The time in Spain was an intense interrogation of the equation between mass, light and energy in the nuclear age. He shared Bomberg's sense that "in any healthy culture art must express what science discovers, otherwise man may have heat, but no light". But, he goes on, in the light of the nuclear bomb and Einstein's famous equation, to ask: "What is the sensuous, the experiential counterpart of m x c > E?"
Richmond's career as a painter investigated this expanding, extending perception.
Like Bomberg, he turned from drawing that stated a firmly resolved relationship to light and mass to a kind of painting that used drawing as the co-ordinate for an explosion of energy. Together they discovered that the experience of mass, coupled to the radiance of light, forced an expansion of consciousness and gave rise to a new order of vision. In Richmond's words: "Matter … developed a new complexity. What had gone forever was the opacity of matter." This was alarming and exhilarating in equal measure, and if Bomberg intimated the field of research but drew back with some trepidation, then it is an invitation Richmond grasped whole-heartedly.
Richmond's 20 years in Spain produced a magnificent series of paintings whose sequence gives the opportunity to read the essential facts of his life. He mourns his teacher and friend by producing a masterpiece in contemplation of Bomberg's subject, Ronda desde el Puerto de la Muela, 1959. He works through the decades and when he returns to Britain, to East Rounton, in North Yorkshire, out of step with Bomberg's concerns, he refuses to compromise. In a painting such as Red Studio, 1974, and the associated defence of it: On the Importance of Going Out of Your Mind, he defends the transcendental quality of the vision. And from 1979 onwards he devotes himself to the landscape to place his vision squarely within the British tradition, a radical, nuclear, 20th-century companion to Sisley, Turner, Blake and Constable.
Consider Whitby, Frosty Morning, 1986. The painting is a large, Turneresque work for which Richmond evolved a palette of ecstatic primary colours that scumble across the surface, giving the picture an iridescent quality and a sheer painterly glee. The light no longer falls on the mass, but appears as an entity in the midst of things. It contains the mass, the old drawing, the physical presence of the landscape, but shimmers with it. It is music to the eye, and a fine indication of Richmond's achievement, to have gone through and beyond Bomberg's mission, to rediscover an objective potential for modern painting, and to renovate the tradition. It is a major achievement that deserves a major retrospective.
I first met Richmond in Edinburgh, at Wasps Studios in Patriothall. He invited me to visit him in Yorkshire, and, in turn, I invited him to workshops in Sutherland and Orkney. He was the oldest participant but by far the most industrious, producing scores of drawings and watercolours that we exhibited in barns and village halls. The Scottish connection reignited his commitment to a social mission, the desire to be present in the community, to work and to explain. He felt at home in the crofting community of Skerray in Sutherland, and returned frequently to paint.
The Scottish connection came to fruition in the last large-scale work of his life, a mysterious painting that shows a family group. It grew from a long period I spent writing alongside him. It is best described in his own words, and I believe the loan offer still stands: "We spoke a lot about the need for a Scottish constitution, and about the potential that Scotland's new-found autonomy has for Britain.
"The painting represents an imaginative common ground between the two countries and I preserved it because it has the role of an ambassador: it represents a meeting of the arts. It can grow in another context and it belongs in the north. For this reason I propose to loan it to the Scottish Parliament. It will be revealing to see this image in the light of Scotland."
He was an inspirational presence, a great friend and colleague, a wise and kind man whose studio was never locked. He leaves his first wife, Susanna, their four children and four grandchildren; and his second wife, Miranda, and their two children.