Rigby Graham: Recording far-flung places, encapsulating time, flinging oranges.

By Heather Beales

Figure 9
Figure 9. Rigby Graham, ‘Balloon Race’, colour woodcut on white wove paper, 44.5x53cm, 1990. Image courtesy of Goldmark Gallery

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.

Figure 1, Rigby Graham painting The Plassey from the film 'Irish Voyage' 2001 Image courtesy of Goldmark Gallery
Figure 1, Rigby Graham painting The Plassey from the film ‘Irish Voyage’ 2001. Image courtesy of Goldmark Gallery

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).

Figure 2
Figure 2. Rigby Graham, ‘The Wrecked Ship, The Plassey on Inishmore, Aran Islands’, ‘Irish Voyage’, 2001. Image courtesy of Goldmark Gallery
Figure 3
Figure 3. Rigby Graham, ‘The Wrecked Ship: The Plassey on Inishmore, Aran Islands’, woodcut on white paper, 210x330mm, 2008.

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.’

Figure 4
Figure 4. Rigby Graham climbing 600 steps up Scaelig Micael from the film ‘Irish Journey’, 2001. Image courtesy of Goldmark Gallery

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.

Figure 5
Figure 5. Rigby Graham ‘Beehive Huts, Scaelig Micail’, colour woodcut on white wove paper, 137x150mm. Aberystwyth University, School of Art Museum and Galleries.

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).

Figure 6
Figure 6. Rigby Graham, ‘Dunamese’, colour woodcut, on white BFK Rives paper, 260x355mm, 1988, Aberystwyth University, School of Art Museum and Galleries.

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).

Figure 7
Figure 7, Rigby Graham, ‘Mawla, Cornwall’, colour woodcut, 55.5×37.5cm. Image courtesy of Goldmark Gallery.
Figure 8
Figure 8. Rigby Graham, ‘Santa Maria della Salute’, colour woodcut, 76×60.5cm, 1986. Image courtesy of Goldmark Gallery.

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.’

Figure 10
Figure 10. Rigby Graham, ‘Bodiam Castle’, colour woodcut on white wove paper, 380x455mm, 1992. Aberystwyth University, School of Art Museum and Galleries.
Figure 11
Figure 11. Rigby Graham, ‘Breedon during a Storm’, colour letterpress on white wove bond paper, 251x317mm, 1980. Aberystwyth University, School of Art Museum and Galleries.

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).

Heather Beales


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

Works Cited

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.

Holden Holcombe’s ‘This Is How It Feels’ – PhD exhibition, School of Art, 22/11/2018 – 08/02/2019

HOLDENH_webThis Is How It Feels explores the intimate stories of eighteen transgender men and their journeys of transition from female-to-male. Holcombe uses new media art techniques, including augmented reality, to give audience members a glimpse of the FTM transgender experience through their own perspective. The exhibition features manipulated QR (quick-response) codes that explore the relationship between the lived experiences of the transgender man and the fabricated world of social media. These codes, in turn, ask audience members to participate in a new context of social media, both inside and out of the gallery space.

Continue reading

History of Printmaking – Lifelong Learning course for 2018/19 starts 24th October

Coursers, Harry Morley, 1931, engraving

Did you know Aberystwyth University holds an outstanding collection of prints? If you would like to learn about the different ways prints are made, and get hands-on experience of our print collection, then History of Printmaking is for you. The course surveys the development of printmaking from the 15th century to the present with reference to the work of many famous artists including Dürer, Rembrandt, Goya, Piranesi, Gillray, Whistler and Picasso. By the end of the course you will know your mezzotint from your aquatint, have a good historical understanding of the role of the print in society and be able to start collecting prints with confidence.

Tutor: Phil Garratt

Fee £110, course code CA109

Dydd Mercher / Wednesday, 1.30-4.00pm, Oct 24, Nov 7, 21, Dec 5 19, Jan 9, 23, Feb 6

 Contact Phil Garratt on pjg@aber.ac.uk if you are interested in enrolling or would like further details about the content of the course.

 ( 01970 621580   : learning@aber.ac.uk     www.aber.ac.uk/sell

Addysg Uwch yn y Gymuned / Higher Education in the Community

Postgraduate Show September 2018 – Some Impressions

Our Postgrads have worked hard to create this exhibition and they can be proud of what they have achieved. Here are some impressions of the show and the private view, which was on Saturday, 19th September.

The show is still open Monday, 24th & Tuesday, 25th, 10am-5pm, and Wednesday, 26th September, 10am-3pm. You’re very welcome to visit and explore the postgraduate show and the Sea Change & Discourse: Reynolds to Rego exhibitions in our public galleries! The latter are still on until Friday, 28th, 10am-5pm daily.

(Click on the images to enlarge them.)

Degree Show & Postgraduate Show Opening, Saturday 19th May 2018 – A Photo Gallery



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‘the TAKEOVER’ at the Arts Centre, 8th May 2018

Take Over 2018The Creative Arts 3rd year curatorial team and course director Miranda Whall are very excited to welcome you to the Arts Centre Aberystwyth on Tuesday May 8th from 12.00 – 3.00 for the third 2nd & 3rd year annual student TAKEOVER exhibition.

The exhibition includes performance, installation, text, video and audio projects.

You will be greeted at the welcome desk (outside the Great Hall) by Miranda and the students with various goodies, a publication and guide map and a cup of elderflower cordial.

Please arrive for one of the guided tours at either 12.30. 1.30 or 2.30 for the 40 minute (approx) tour, you can leave the tour at any time if you cannot stay that long.


There will be a Q&A in the cinema from 3.00 – 4.00 we would be delighted if you could also join us for that.



‘Visual Theology 1: Transformative Looking Between the Visual Arts and Christian Doctrine (1850– Now)’


Professor John Harvey will be keynote speaker at ‘Visual Theology 1: Transformative Looking Between the Visual Arts and Christian Doctrine (1850– Now)’, 19-20 October 2018, The Palace, Chichester, Sussex

For more information: http://www.visualtheology.org.uk

‘To hell with nature!’ A Reappraisal of Charles Tunnicliffe Prints – at the School of Art Gallery, 12/02/-16/03/2018

TunnicliffePrintsPoster_small‘To hell with nature!’ – A Reappraisal of Charles Tunnicliffe Prints

Painter-printmaker Charles Tunnicliffe (1901–1979) grew up on a farm near Macclesfield in Cheshire. A scholarship enabled him to study at the Royal College of Art in London. Soon after his studies, Tunnicliffe gained a reputation as an etcher of farming subjects. Today, he is widely regarded as Britain’s foremost twentieth-century wildlife artist.

Towards the end of a career spanning six decades, Tunnicliffe was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. In an interview published in the Society’s magazine, Tunnicliffe stated:

‘I have shocked quite a lot of people by saying ‘To hell with nature!’ Nature is made to be used, not to be dictator, as far as the dyed-in-the-wool artist is concerned.’

Tunnicliffe’s exclamation expresses the frustration of an artist whose pictures are often judged on the strength of their fidelity to nature. Instead, Tunnicliffe’s prints show us nature transformed by culture and outdone by art. They demonstrate their maker’s knowledge of art history, his love of design, and the need to tell his own story.

Printmaking earned Tunnicliffe his Royal Academy of Arts membership in 1954. By then, he rarely produced fine art prints. For decades, Tunnicliffe’s work in various media appeared in magazines, on calendars and biscuit tins.

The stock market crash of 1929 had made it necessary for Tunnicliffe to rethink his career. Turning from etching to wood engraving, he became a prolific illustrator. His first project was Tarka the Otter.

Anglesey was no retreat for Tunnicliffe. Working on commission, he created colourful paintings he described as ‘decorations for modern rooms.’ He also continued to turn out mass-reproduced designs that promoted anything from pesticides to the Midland Bank.

Since the mid-1930s, Tunnicliffe’s work has been appreciated mainly second-hand. Until last year, when Robert Meyrick and I put together a catalogue raisonné of his etchings and wood engravings, Tunnicliffe never had a printmaking exhibition at the Royal Academy.

For some of his early prints, no contemporary impressions are known to exist. The plates were proofed by School of Art printmaker Andrew Baldwin.

Tunnicliffe’s career does not fit into the narrative of Modernism. It is a product of modernity. In his work, at least, he never said ‘to hell’ with culture. Pragmatic yet passionate, he made images to make a living.

Harry Heuser, exhibition curator

Curatorial team: Phil Garratt, Neil Holland, Robert Meyrick, Karen Westendorf

Karen’s Cabinet of Curiosities December 2017


(Click on images to enlarge them.)

Curiosity: 2 miniature portraits of Napoleon Bonaparte

Created: 1824

Artist: Maestro di Pavia

Measurements: Full-length portrait: 183×118 mm

                              Head portrait: 74×62 mm

These two miniature portraits have come to the University museum’s collection through the bequest of George Powell of Nanteos. As with so many of his objects, we have unfortunately no idea how, when and where he bought them. Holland and Meyrick explain that “Powell was very taken with Romantic struggles for liberty and nationhood. Like many other collectors in the 19th century he collected material associated with Napoleon Bonaparte.” This and the exquisite execution of the portraits might have been his reasons for acquiring them. Continue reading

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