By Heather Beales
Rigby Graham was an artist who worked within the British landscape tradition and enjoyed provoking the offence of traditionalists with his unusual juxtapositions, use of bold colour and materials. He was extremely prolific and produced a great many books and artworks in various types of printmaking, painting, illustration and stained glass. The School of Art Museum and Galleries owns a large collection of his prints, and a few of his drawings and watercolours. In 1987 John Piper admired Graham for his “unusual and indeed enviable capacity to make romantic and dramatic images out of ‘simple’ scenes – sometimes almost totally deserted ones”, (Ayad). Graham was interested in places that had history and had deteriorated with time, and many of his images are of castles, old churches and ruined monuments – and also of a shipwreck.
In 2001, when Graham was seventy years old, Mike Goldmark commissioned Charles Mapleston to make the film, Rigby Graham’s Irish Voyage. He had first visited in 1948 and returned many times throughout his life. The film shows Graham retracing old painting trips and sharing insights into his thoughts about his work and his life. The sea crossings, weather conditions and walking terrain are sometimes difficult for the older artist. Stumbling across the boulders towards The Plassey, a shipwreck, on the island of Inisheer, and carrying his fold-up chair and painting kit, he grumbles, ‘I’m too bloody old for this malarkey’. The Plassey ran on to Finnis rock on the Aran islands in 1960 and has been rusting there ever since, ageing like the historic buildings in much of his other artwork.
The artist had a reputation for his dry wit. After settling into his painting session Graham grumbles in a more humorous way about the damp sea air smudging his work and choosing to paint from the wrong angle (fig 1). He says that it’s, ‘all part of the charm and enjoyment of working under difficult conditions, and now that I’ve poured half a bottle of Indian ink down my trousers, one has the added pleasure of working in complete discomfort.’ He was pleased to have found the boat again that he first saw nearly forty years before. The title page for the film shows the image developed from this painting session, (Fig 2). It is dominated by the huge, rusty red ship and framed by the blues of sea and sky. Graham said that the sea and sky were all the same colours with the light bouncing between them. The shapes of the boat are clarified by black line work as could be seen in his painting on site. The image appears again as a woodcut in a book of poetry entitled Water in the collection at Aberystwyth University (fig 3).
In the film Graham also visits the Sceilig Islands off the south western coast of Ireland. Sceilig Micail is an exposed pinnacle of rock that towers 218 metres high above sea level. It is the breeding ground of a large colony of puffins. It has an early Christian monastery reached by climbing 600 steep steps, a difficult ascent for the painter who is seen breathing heavily as he determinedly carries his painting kit to the top (fig 4). Graham talks about the difficulty of getting to such far flung places and how it affects the work. He says that sometimes it is impossible to paint because of the mist and rain but ‘the isolation and the mystery and the splendour affect me; there is a frisson, the hairs on the back of your neck rise up. It causes an almost primitive response: partly wonder, partly fear, partly humility at the power of natural forces or the effect of the myths and tales and truths of the spiritual side of things.’
The monastery consists of several small, domed buildings made from rocks with spectacular views of other islands across the sea. Graham talks about having an affinity with the monks who lived there. He says that there is value in isolation from time to time; that it ‘gets the cobwebs and anger out of your head’. Instead of choosing to paint the far-reaching views Graham is more interested in painting the huts. His paintings are made with watercolour, and he uses wax resist for textures, by rubbing a candle into the surface. Black ink lines are painted over the top with a brush and scratchy lines drawn with a pen made from a sharpened reed. The print, Beehive Huts, 1996, (fig 5) was made from a previous visit to this place. By continuing to focus on the huts rather than the views it perhaps shows that Graham was most interested in imagining what it would have been like for the monks to live there.
Graham draws inspiration from the past, so often featured in his images. On visiting Dunamese, an impressive castle on a huge rock, he puts this into words: ‘the history and the remnants, the shards of what’s left are symbols and signs and indicators which evoke all sorts of thoughts and ideas for paintings and drawing and printmaking.’ He talks about the castles of Dunamese and Cashel as being ‘outstanding monuments that encapsulate almost, so much of the past’ (Irish Voyage).
In the woodcut, Dunamese (1988) (fig 6) the horizontal woodgrain can be seen. The castle ruins on the rock are printed boldly in black, white and sap green with a dark red sky, behind. In the Rigby Graham obituary in the Guardian, Christopher Masters writes that in Graham’s work, a red sky is not a picturesque sunset but a field of colour with an almost hallucinatory quality. He writes that ‘the artist’s debt to expressionism is evident in his wiry outlines and wild palette, as well as his penchant for the woodcut, a medium that encourages bold designs without unnecessary detail’. Red skies can also be seen in the prints, Mawla cornwall, (unknown date), (fig 7), Santa Maria della Salute, 1986, (fig 8) and Balloon Race, 1990, (fig 9, top of article). Graham’s early work was classified as neo-romantic and his vivid style startled those more used to seeing the ochre tones of 19th century watercolours: his fields could be emerald, and skies sometimes purple or scarlet. He was accused of exaggeration but his highly developed sense of colour was proved when once a friend objected to him painting a red blotch in a painting of a stone at Avebury: he tore a page from his sketchbook, ripped a hole in it and held it up against the stone, revealing that the colour was indeed red, (Times).
There are sometimes surprising juxtapositions in the prints such as the red aeroplane in the woodcut, Bodiam Castle, 1987 (fig 10) and the dominance of the 30mph sign in Breedon during a storm,1980 (fig 11). Robert Meyrick calls it ‘provocative’, and Masters writes of an ‘absurd humour in some of his paintings and prints’. This humour punctuates the trip to Ireland where Graham writes amusing anecdotes on postcards and addresses them not to his wife, but to Murphy who turns out to be his dog. In the foreword to the book Thomas Pennant, Tour or Wales, Meyrick says that ‘Graham thrives on such provocation and his art is all the more engaging for it.’
There were unusual things about Graham’s family life as a child, as described in Malcolm Yorke’s book, Against the Grain: The Life and Art of Rigby Graham. His father called the children not by name but by a series of different whistles. The children also had an unusual way of naming each other. Graham was called Bill by his brother, and Scruff by his sister. He called his brother Bill as well and his sister he also called Scruff. Yorke writes about Graham’s alcoholic father being violent and over strict causing turbulence in the family. Graham hasn’t complained about him though but instead said that he had inherited his father’s love of words and literature and sparked his interest in Ireland.
Rigby Graham was born in 1931 in Manchester. According to the Guardian obituary, his father’s work took the family to Essex just before the war and Graham was exposed to some shocking sights during the blitz before being evacuated to Ipswich. When he moved back with his family they had moved to Leicester where he was based for the rest of his life. Graham’s mother was from the Isle of Mull and he would hitchhike to Scotland in the school holidays to visit relatives and take part in Hebridean swimming regattas. He was once the Western Isles half-mile swimming champion. He also hitch-hiked through France, Switzerland and Germany before leaving school, as well to Dorset and London, so he was well travelled, and this fuelled his interest in landscape.
Graham attended art school in Leicester where he specialised in mural painting. He also explored a wide range of printmaking techniques and bookmaking as well as painting and drawing. His interest in book work stemmed from his childhood home where he grew up in a house that was always ‘filled with books and bottles even when there was not much food’ (Ayad). At college he was impressed by German Expressionists but was not encouraged to like them, ‘…they were beyond the pale, their work looked rough and splintery and unfinished. It had the very quality that I liked, and admired,’ (Britain is no country for old men blog). For Graham it is this messiness that brings life to the work. When painting the shipwreck on the beach, a tube of yellow paint had burst in his bag and while wiping the paint from his fingers he says that ‘all life is a messy business.’ He says that you could paint neatly at home in a controlled environment, but then, ‘all the spirit’s gone out the window,’(Irish Voyage).
Graham struggled financially throughout his education as his father earned too much for him to receive a grant but refused to support him sufficiently. In spite of sometimes sleeping in the railway station he managed to train as a teacher at Leicester College, where he taught for thirty years. He first taught bookbinding and later became principal lecturer in teacher training (Times). By teaching he could support his artwork without needing it to be commercial. Meyrick writes about Graham’s ‘insatiable curiosity’ and ‘intellectual rigour’ -he was an artist who researched his subjects thoroughly. He was also ‘engaging and entertaining, incorrigible and irascible’ (Meyrick, Printmaking Today, email).
Although Rigby Graham had a reputation for ‘spikiness’ he was well respected for his prolific contribution to British art (Times). A chance encounter with Mike Goldmark in a bookshop was the turning point in his career. Goldmark was building a new gallery and mentioned that he was looking for contemporary art to display. Graham left him a note in which he described himself as ‘someone who has no promise and is not worn down by potential…but who produces stuff in anger and bitterness, with hopelessness and vindictive spite.’ Goldmark liked his attitude and offered the artist the opening exhibition. Graham explained that all of his previous forty-two shows had been flops. He said that his own work was ‘an acquired taste which appeals to the lopsided and idiosyncratic.’ In spite of trying to put the gallery owner off, the show went ahead and proved successful and his work began to sell. Graham wasn’t much interested in money and was more interested to find out why someone bought a painting and ‘what colour their socks were,’(Times).
The colour of things was important to Graham. He once stormed out of his living room late at night over an argument about the colour of a catalogue cover. His friend said it was orange but Graham insisted it was red. He went out to a late-night grocer and bought a bag of oranges. On return he cried ‘this is orange!’ as he flung each piece of fruit across the room, (Times).
However, although he had a reputation for outbursts of temper, Graham retained his humility. When he received an honorary degree at age seventy-seven he said that he had often felt his work to be ‘against the grain or out of kilter’. On receiving an MBE in 2010, Graham said ‘It was a complete surprise and I have no idea which part of my work it is for. I am honoured,’ (Britain is no Country…blogpost). While sitting on top of Skellig Michael, Graham mused that he is proud and grateful to have been involved in Art. He hopes the spectators of his work get some of the same pleasure and thoughts about the places he has seen and that would mean he had achieved something, but if they don’t then ‘it doesn’t really matter at all’, (Irish Voyage).
The Goldmark Gallery, Uppingham, held an exhibition of Graham’s watercolours and prints in the summer of 2020 https://www.goldmarkart.com/rigby-graham-1/artist/rigby-graham
Ayad, Sara, Mining the Landscape: Rigby Graham, Stories, Art UK.
Britain is no longer a country, nor Leicester a city for an old, indefatigable, topographical artist called Rigby Graham, Britain is no Country for Old Men.blogspot.com 12 May 2015. Accessed 18 May 2020.
Masters, Christopher, ‘Rigby Graham Obituary,’ The Guardian, 1 June 2015.
‘Rigby Graham: Artist whose dramatic, colour-filled landscapes won him high-profile admirers but little success until a chance encounter in a bookshop.’ Times [London, England], 22 May 2015, p 48.
Meyrick, Robert, email received 18 May 2020 Heather Beales.
Meyrick, Robert, Notes on Rigby Graham woodcuts, Printmaking Today, 2004.
Meyrick, Robert, Thomas Pennant Tour of Wales, foreword, Greygnog Press,2005.
Rigby Graham’s Irish Voyage, artist DVD, produced by Charles Mapleston, A Malachite production for Goldmark Gallery, 2003.
Yorke, Malcolm, Against the grain-The life and Art of Rigby Graham, Goldmark 2015.