Saturday, 9 July 2016

57 Ceri Richards

57 Ceri Richards (photos: Music of Colours, The Pianist, Ceri Richards) - 9 July 2016

The re-opening of the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery will enable visitors to see some paintings of Ceri Richards, Swansea’s most distinguished artist, again.  However a somewhat controversial painting of his can be viewed in St Mary’s Church - The Deposition.   This portrays the body of Christ Jesus after it had been taken down from the cross, lying on a plain white sheet with debris around, and the feet of bystanders: one holds a workman’s bag which seems to contain the nails that had been removed.  What Canon Harry Williams called “this disturbing picture” is the artist’s response to sanitised portrayals of the Crucifixion.  The agony and pain is conveyed in the distorted feet and hands of the body.  The only face depicted is that of Christ, with the hands of the bystanders suggesting those who pray, those who work, and those who seem indifferent. 

The Deposition was submitted for a 1958 exhibition organised by the Contemporary Art Society at London’s Tate Gallery.  A study for the painting hangs in Leeds City Art Gallery, but with different colours, more bystanders and no workman’s bag, compared with the one inside St Mary’s Church.  Dr Rowan Williams is in no doubt of the painting’s merit, for he nominated it for an Art and Christianity award. 

Ceri Richards was born into a Welsh-speaking family in Dunvant in 1903.  His father, a rollerman in the Gowerton tinplate works, wrote poetry in Welsh and English, conducted the Dunvant Excelsior Male Voice Choir, and played the organ at Ebeneser Chapel.  Ceri, along with his younger brother and sister, was taught to play the piano, becoming familiar with the works of Bach and Handel, for music would be a lifelong inspiration for his work.  From Gowerton Intermediate School he enrolled aged 18 full-time in the Swansea School of Art in Alexandra Road, whose director then was Grant Murray.  During those years he was inspired by a week's summer school in 1923 at Gregynog Hall in Mid Wales, where he first saw canvases of Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh, and Cézanne, the sculpture of Rodin, and sheets of old-master and modern drawings – all of which confirmed him in his vocation.  That collection of Impressionist paintings is now in the National Museum of Wales.

In 1923 he won a scholarship to study in London at the Royal College of Art.  Six years later he married fellow artist Frances Clayton, and they had two daughters.

Ceri Richards spent much of his life in London, living near the Dulwich Art Gallery; influenced by Picasso he gravitated towards surrealist painting.  During the Second World War he taught for four years at Cardiff School of Art as the head of painting, and produced drawings of the Gowerton tinplate factory where his father had worked. International recognition came when his large painting Trafalgar Square (now in the Tate Gallery) was shown at the 1951 Festival of Britain.  His former student Alfred Janes introduced him to Vernon Watkins, who became a close friend.  They shared a love of poetry, music and Gower, and in the 1960s he bought a holiday bungalow on Pennard cliffs near Vernon’s home.  Some Ceri Richards paintings, drawings and lithographs were inspired by Vernon’s poetry and that of Dylan Thomas, whom he met just before the poet’s final visit to New York in 1953. 

Appointed CBE in 1960, he won the Gold Medal at the 1961 National Eisteddfod and was a prizewinner at the Venice Biennale of 1962.  He designed stained glass windows for Derby Cathedral, and for Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral’s Blessed Sacrament Chapel in 1965.

Ceri Richards died in London aged 68 in 1971, eighteen years to the day after Dylan Thomas died.  His work is in such collections as Tate Britain, the National Museum of Wales and the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery (where he held his first solo exhibition in 1930).  A blue plaque may shortly be placed outside his birthplace in Dunvant.

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