Published  16/09/2002

Ceri Richards – book review

Ceri Richards – book review

Mel Gooding's new book on Ceri Richards, the first major publication on his work, establishes that Richards was one of the best and most significant artists of the 20th century in Britain. Gooding has also curated the exhibition at the National Museum and Gallery of Wales to mark the artist's centenary in advance, before going on tour into next year. The exhibition will complete its tour in Swansea, close to the village of Dunvant where Richards was born.

One's first impression of the book is of the wide-ranging talent and achievement of Welsh born Ceri Richards. Born in 1903; he was a draughtsman of exceptional talent. His paintings display tremendous energy and an original and authentic dialogue with the major figures of European modernism: Kandinsky, Picasso, Matisse and Ernst. Richards took an intelligent approach to the visual arts and music: some of his finest works combine his interest in both. In the late 1940s and 1950s, he did many paintings on the subject of their interaction in life, inspired stylistically by Matisse's decorative flatness. Interior with Piano, 1949 is reproduced in the book side-by-side and on consecutive pages, with sketches and preliminary watercolour studies. Richards was steeped in knowledge of Matisse at the time; he had attended the much-celebrated exhibition in December 1945 of Matisse and Picasso at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is obvious from works of this time that Ceri Richards aspired to Matisse's 1940s interiors, rather than Picasso's brutal, linear, anti-war statements.

Richards was already in 1948 developing a uniquely original response to the visual ideas of the late Matisse, investing them with a tough painterly lyricism of his own, appropriating the economy of the Matissean 'sign' but revelling in redundancy and excess, and, the spirit but not the manner of the great Frenchman, inventing a language of Apollian celebration. What Matisse provided for Richards was a doorway into a room of his own.1

The significance of the domestic space is explained succinctly by Gooding who quotes from Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (1st English Translation, 1964) "'Space' in Gaston Bachelard's phenomenology is psychological and metaphysical in its workings on the mind and spirit".2 Artists' studios and domestic spaces are more than simply workplaces. They represent privacy where the artistic process can be nurtured. The interior space, and the objects within it, both spatially and aesthetically contrived, the mundane and accidental all become vital components in the artistic process. Bachelard wrote, "The house allows one to dream in peace … The values that belong to daydreaming mark humanity to its depths".3 Of Richards' interiors of this period, Gooding writes, "Female figures are invariably portrayed in a state of reverie, and their surrounding space encloses a world from which contingency and violence of nature is temporarily banished".4 These paintings are crowded, dramatic and intensely interesting. 'Signs' are given, ideas are alluded to, colour gloriously orchestrated; solid blues, greens and reds dominate canvases, drawing under their symbolic power: walls, musical instruments, flesh, food. Like Matisse, who was greatly interested influenced by flat Islamic patterning in floor rugs, Richards uses floral wallpapers to represent a rich domesticity.

They stand for a life enjoyed, even in its way luxurious, in the sense that they are things the need for which is a matter of feeling and spirit; they are beautiful things, the accoutrements of a civilised life in a sheltered space. In the house on Wandsworth Common, Richards was himself surrounded by the female family of his wife and two daughters, and by objects familiar and valued. These paintings with their reverberant colourism, their decorative arabesque vigour, their fullness of good things, sweet sounds and floral perfumes, reflect that contained domesticity. They are deeply tender in feeling, but detached in mood.5

In addition, the combination of music and painting in these works operates on another level, that of harmonies and dissonances of colour. In this, Richards found the writings and painting of Vasily Kandinsky greatly inspiring. Music could be used to represent reverie but it could also be more dramatic and engaged with the world at large. A complex set of signs and an original approach to a range of intellectual and artistic predecessors by Richards results in an art that makes connections to all aspects of his brilliant oeuvre. Very few artists in Britain managed to encompass such oppositions of subject, theme and mood.

Ceri Richards was born in a small mining village in Wales in 1903. He was the eldest of three children. Their father Tom Richards was a devout Christian and unconcerned with worldly advancement. He wrote poetry, directed and acted in local plays, and for 25 years he conducted one of the finest choirs in Wales. He and his wife Sarah brought their children to play piano and sing. Ceri Richards was gifted musically and played in chapel at 15, as well as piano accompaniments for concerts. In 1924 he accepted a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, supplementing it with a small income for playing the organ at the Roman Catholic Church in Fulham. Throughout his life he played piano every day, and during the early years of his marriage he often played in chamber music duets, trios and quartets with friends.

He was particularly sensitive to music, being both a passionate listener and highly accomplished executant, capable of sustained and inventive improvised compositions. From childhood, music was central to his imaginative life.6

Richard's upbringing was enriched by the peculiar mix of Welsh non-conformism, the poetry of Welsh hymns, the music of Bach, Handel and secular music. They all constituted an environment "in which the spiritual, expressed in perennial myth and through music, poetry, drama and religious rhetoric, was completely absorbed into everyday life".7 In addition to music and poetry, Richards also experienced the rich and varied landscape in Wales: rocky coastline, salt marshes, the sea, the elements.

The visual arts, however, played no part in Richards childhood or adolescent development. In fact, it was quite unthinkable from a Puritan working-class background that he should become an artist. After he left school he started an apprenticeship as an electrician and with it he took night classes in engineering draughtsmanship at the Technical School in Swansea. The electricians' firm failed and Richards (who was now aware of the Swansea School of Art and Crafts) chose to study drawing; his family gave their complete support. There he received an academic training in drawing and craft disciplines but very little teaching in painting. At the end of the final year at Swansea, he won the scholarship he needed to go to the Royal College of Art in London. Richards was a remarkable draughtsman; his rigorous early training played a vital role.

Mel Gooding, the author of this fine study, is Richards' son-in-law. Married to Richards' daughter, Rhiannon, he expresses with some regret that it was only in the final year before Richards died, that he felt able to talk to him directly about his work and his ideas on art. Gooding did not in fact record any conversations with Richards or carry out any formal interviews. Following Richards' death in 1971, it was ten years before Gooding began to write about art and another ten years before he published his first book.

Richards' wife Francis, was an artist in her own right. Gooding describes her as having 'a marvellous visual insight and a formidable intelligence. She had no doubts as to Richards' genius and a precise understanding of its nature'.8 It is to Gooding's great credit that, in spite of a somewhat slow start to this book, it is a wonderful study. It is warm and intensely human, as indeed the author portrays Ceri Richards to be himself. Richards' art in all its complexity and variety is studied with a personal commitment but also with a scholarly distance. Cameron and Hollis have produced a high quality publication with excellent reproduction and design.

1 Gooding Mel. Ceri Richards. Moffat: Cameron and Hollis, 2002, p.93
2 Ibid, p.93-4
3 Ibid, p.94
4 Ibid, p.94
5 Ibid, p.97
6 Ibid, p.8
7 Ibid, p.9
8 Preface, ibid.

Dr Janet McKenzie, Deputy Editor, Studio International

See also: Looking at Picasso's sculptures - comment by Ceri Richards, Studio International, July/Aug 1967


studio international logo

Copyright © 1893–2024 Studio International Foundation.

The title Studio International is the property of the Studio International Foundation and, together with the content, are bound by copyright. All rights reserved.

twitter facebook instagram

Studio International is published by:
the Studio International Foundation, PO Box 1545,
New York, NY 10021-0043, USA