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Albert Richards' self portrait talk transcript

Kate Johnson: Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to the Walker Art Gallery. My name’s Kate Johnson and I work here in the education team across National Museums Liverpool’s galleries. First of all I’d like to say how lovely it is to see so many people here this afternoon to find out more about Albert Richards, one of our local Liverpool artists. This exhibition, New Radicals, is obviously a wonderful opportunity for the public to see the works that we have here at the Walker Art Gallery, that aren’t normally on display. And I think it is really appropriate that today for Picture of the Month that we’ve chosen an artist, Albert Richards, whose work hasn’t been displayed at the Walker Art Gallery for quite some years. So in honour of Albert Richards and this exhibition we chosen to focus August’s Picture of the Month on this self portrait by Albert Richards entitled, ‘The Seven Legends’.

We can see that it’s a self portrait because Albert Richards has very kindly provided an inscription for us in the top left hand side of the painting, just here [pointing]. And the painting is also initialled by the artist and dated to 1939 in the bottom right hand corner - it’s just visible next to the frame if you want to have a look after the talk. We can see that Albert Richards has portrayed himself in the centre of this dream-like landscape and is standing at the edge of this bay with mountains in the background. We can see he is obviously the dominant figure in this portrait as you’d expect, wearing a grey suit. He looks a little undressed, like he’s been in a rush to get ready. He’s wearing a white shirt, no shoes and he’s wearing these rather strange blue tinted round spectacles. More interestingly perhaps, we can see that he holds in his left hand a black rat by the tail, and a white rabbit peeps out from his pocket, looking out over the sea. We’ll try and make some sense of these things as we move through. One more thing to say about how Albert Richards’s portrayed himself is that he looks quite anxious in terms of his facial features, and we can see his right hand is clenched which I think is significant and we’ll come on to that later on.

Albert Richards titled this painting, ‘A Self Portrait: The Seven Legends’, and what I want to do is start us off by talking through the seven incidents or legends we can see in this painting. So from the top left we can see a parachutist who’s landing head first into a barrage balloon – his parachute not having opened. Then underneath that we have these three demon-like creatures that are emerging from out of the sea and we can they have seaweed draped round their torsos and altogether look very menacing. One of them has red eyes. And then below that we have the devil or a devil emerging from this crater in the bottom left hand side of the painting. So all very interesting. [laughs] In the top right hand side of the portrait we have another demon-like figure that’s dressed in the grey drapes and he looks as thought he’s descending on the scene, scattering some kind of material on what he can see. And then we also have these two naked winged women who are drawing two white oxen, and in turn the white oxen are drawing this rolling truck that contains what looks to be blood red tears or drops. We’ve another naked woman in the truck itself, and there’s a rather sinister looking fly that looks almost as if it’s feasting on the blood red tears or whatever they are.

Just below that we have a crucifixion scene on the far right of the painting, and there’s also a very sinister black hooded figure just featured here. And then again another crater that has all of these flames and things appearing in front of it. And then the second to last group of figures is this little group here, and we can see that we have a figure who is on a winged horse, carrying a head in this cloth, and then we have a lady in a blue cloak chained to a rock. And in between we have what looks to be a sea monster or something of that description.

Then finally the last group is a black man and a white man who are playing at rolling black and white dice, but if you look more closely you can all is not what it seems. The white figure’s body is almost inverted so his legs are back to front. So all together it is quite a troubling scene.

In interpreting this painting I think the first thing we need to consider is the influence of the surrealist on Albert Richards at this time. And that’s quite a good thing to realise when you’re trying to make sense of these things. Even though Albert Richards referred to this painting as ‘The Seven Legends’, it’s not easy for us to piece together exactly which seven legends he’s referring to, and I think critical to understanding the painting is understanding that Richards was influenced by the Surrealists at this time. So Surrealism was a movement that had gained ground in Europe in the 1920s, but in Britain the key exhibition that brought the surrealist work to our artists in the UK was an exhibition in London in 1936. And some of the work that was included in that exhibition was displayed here at the Walker Art Gallery in 1938, and that was as part of our Liverpool autumn exhibition that took place every year. And I think that something that’s really critical to understanding where this surrealist influence on Albert Richards came from. So the works that he would have accessed and seen during that exhibition was work by really well renowned names we’d know today, such as Salvador Dali and Max Ernst. And I think if you think at that time that this was such a new kind of movement in art you can imagine it would have had a real impact on a young artist who was in the early days of his career.

At the time that Richards saw those Surrealist works he was a student at Wallasey School of Art on the Wirral, so you can imagine it would have had a profound influence on him, and I think it’s really interesting in terms of the Walker’s history of providing that influence and stimulus for local artists which we hope to continue. The other thing that I think was critical about that exhibition was that there was forward thinking gallery curators at that time in the Walker who were very committed to bringing in the latest developments in modern painting to the region and to this gallery. And one of the curators for that exhibition wrote a statement in the catalogue to the Liverpool exhibition which Richards would have had access to, and that statement was:

“The artists represented in the present exhibition may all be described as Surrealist. This doctrine affirms that art, to be fully effective, must take into account not only the experience of our waking sensations and reasoning minds, but also the experience of our unconscious life, the worlds of fantasy and irrationality which intervene when the control of consciousness was withdrawn”.

Having such an explicit term in a catalogue that Richards would have had access to, we can’t ignore. And I think that’s critical when we come to look at this dreamlike landscape that has all of these demons and strange imagery included in it. It’s very important that we consider that Surrealism was a major influence on Richards.

There is one set of figures included in the painting that does perhaps link to a known myth or legend and that’s these figures here. The chap on the winged horse and the lady chained to the rock. We think that this is a reference to the Greek myth of Perseus and Andromeda, so it is possible that his figure here is Perseus returning from slaying Medusa whose head is included in this cloth. And this potentially could be the kraken or the sea monster from that myth that ravaged Ethiopia. And then this figure here could be Andromeda, and I think that’s quite and interesting reference because of course we have our painting of Perseus and Andromeda here in the gallery so it supports our view.

Audience [indistinct]: Do you know whereabouts we can see that?

Kate Johnson: Yes, it’s in room eight.

So we have here this group of figures. When I’ve been thinking about this painting, obviously the date is 1939, and I think this imagery here is really interesting when we think about what was happening in Europe at this time and the potential devastation and ravaging of the land that was going to take place during the Second World War. And I think it may be a stretch, obviously we don’t know this for sure, but it could be that Richards is referring to the devastation that the sea monster inflicted on Ethiopia and refers to some of his fears about what was going to happen to Europe with Nazi Germany. Again, that’s just my interpretation of the painting as I’ve been thinking about it so will leave you to draw your own judgment on that.

But I think certainly there are signs in this painting that the political situation in Europe was really playing on Albert Richards’ mind as it naturally would in 1939 when either war was about to be declared or had already been declared on 3rd September. And I think we can say that from this landscape of these devils and these demons, and the sense that I get from this painting is one primarily of anxiety and foreboding and not really knowing what’s going to happen.

And I think more pointedly there are two more direct links to the political situation in Europe that we can identify in this painting. I think more obviously is this parachutist who is landing in the barrage balloon. Barrage balloons were a measure used as part of civil defences during World War Two on key things such as ports. Liverpool would have had barrage balloons from 1939 so it would have been something that Albert Richards would have been aware of. And we know from an interview with his contemporary, George Jardine who was a fellow student at both Wallasey School of Art and at the Royal School of Art that Albert Richards went on to, that this was something they’d seen in London too, and it seems to have made a big impact in terms of their awareness of what was happening and could happen to the country. I think secondly we need to come back to this clenched fist of the artist’s right hand. This symbol of the clenched fist has traditionally been the symbol or salute of anti-fascist or anti Nazi regimes. It was certainly a salute that was used by the international brigades who went to join the freedom fighters during the Spanish Civil War, so it is possible that in this painting we have Albert Richards trying to demonstrate his allegiance in terms of where he sat within all of this political turmoil and what was going on in Europe. Again, none of these things were proved and tested.

We acquired the painting from Albert Richards’s mother in 1974 and there is some correspondence between her and the gallery curators at the time that are really tantalising almost. We sent her a letter saying “we remember you mentioned what the figures meant in his self portrait”, but we got no response from the artist’s mother and we think this was the time she passed away. So what we’re saying is us trying to make sense of what the painting might mean and what the artist intended.

I suppose the last thing to say is a lot of the colours are quite muted and have this blue cast on them, which could relate to the blue tinted spectacles Albert Richards is wearing. So it’s possible it’s looking at the scene negatively and reflecting the anxiety, but again that’s our interpretation of the painting.

I think another influence that’s been suggested for this painting is that Albert Richards may have been influenced by Asian devotional works that were used as aids for meditation, and it’s possible he saw this on visits to the Victoria & Albert in London with his contemporary, George Jardine, whose work is in the exhibition behind everybody over there. And again it’s difficult for us to pinpoint exactly what these images were as it’s very much anecdotal evidence, but in terms of the composition of this painting with Albert Richards as the central figure surrounded by all of these smaller individual incidents, that’s certainly a comparison we could make. And I think in terms of the appearance of some of these figures featured in the portrait, they seem to be Asian in appearance so it could be another influence that Richards was aware of and experimenting with at the time.

Our conservation team tells us the work is on a cheap piece of hardboard, and if you look closely you can see some of the brown hardboard beneath the paint surface. This vertical line here that you can see isn’t something the artist put into place. It’s something that’s happened to the painting over the years – something to do with the paint surface and a reaction with something. I wanted to explain that it wasn’t part of the original composition – it’s something that’s happened over time, and we need to do some work in our conservation department to find out what’s happened. The paint itself is made of tempera – pigments mixed with egg yolk. Again all of these combine, such as the influence of the Surrealist, experimenting with the Asianal devotional text or manuscripts, and then the use of this unusual medium for this time in terms of tempera. I think it all points to an artist in his early career – he was just 20 when this painting was made and he was at art college. I think it’s really indicative of an artist who is trying to experiment with different styles and find his own style.

At this point it would be useful for me to give you some background into the life of Albert Richards himself, because I think that’s what’s so fascinating about this painting – it was his starting point in terms of the work he was doing at the start of the Second World War, and thinking about that in relation to what he went on to do, becoming an official war artist. Albert Richards was just 20 when he made this painting and died just 5 years later during the Second World War – killed during action. He was born in Liverpool on December 19th 1919 and was the son of George and Hannah Richards. The family moved to Wallasey in 1925, so he was a very much a local boy and product of the Wirral. He attended Manor Road School and Wallasey Central School in Wirral before attending Wallasey School of Art between 1935 and 1939. Wirral School of Art was the predecessor to Wirral Met and the art college became part of Wirral Metropolitan College. And it was at Wallasey School he met George Jardine – a contemporary and fellow student. We have on our files a letter from the principle, a Mr Green, and I thought it would be interesting for you to hear how he describes Richards in his student days. He says:

“He was extremely hard worker who was keenly interested in his work.”

Then he commented:

“Richards needed special treatment as he was always extremely sensitive…”

So it’s an interesting view from someone who knew him in his student days. Richards then went on from Wallasey by winning a scholarship to attend the Royal College of Art but this coincided with the outbreak of war, so he enrolled at Royal College of Art on 4th Jan 1940 and was called up for active duty on 3rd April same year, so it was only there for a short period of time. But what we do know is that while there he met Paul Nash who is also in this exhibition, and he was one of his tutors. So again there’s another influence we know about on Albert Richards.

I think what’s really clear from reading on this artist is his burning desire to be an official war artist – it was his main goal. As soon as he entered into active service that’s what he wanted to be and set out to do. The war artists’ advisory committee as an organisation set up at the beginning of ww2 in order to commission artists to document and record what was happening during the war. That was done both on the home front and overseas. That was obviously subsequent to what happened in WW1 when the Imperial War Museum was established in 1917. During WW1 it wasn’t a particularly organised process in terms of official was artists. It tended to be more ad hoc in terms of government commissioning artists to record their various events, but there was a very systematic approach to the official war artists’ movement during WW2 which Richards was aware of. As I’ve said that was his goal, and where he saw his effort and contribution being made, where he saw his skills being best placed. How he came to be a war artist was very much something of his own making. He joined the army as an engineer and was stationed in England during the early part of his career, but what he did do was produce an incredible amount of work independently that he then sent to the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, recommending they purchase them as part of their records. He did this relentlessly. For example in 1942 he wrote to the War Artists’ Advisory Committee sending four paintings, and I think what he said in the letter is really useful to know. He said:

“This set of paintings I know are not brilliant and I feel are not a true statement of myself or my feelings. I feel I could do much better and I hope I shall improve. Now that the daylight is longer I should be able to do more in the evening. We’ve been stuck in position for the last three months so I’ve not had much chance of subjects. The only subject I see around me is boredom.”

You can imagine what it must have been like, being in England and really wanting to go and do your part for the war effort, and feeling frustration. He concludes:

“I do hope that one day I shall get a chance to be a war artist. Maybe this summer I shall send proof of my capabilities.”

I just found that statement so touching in terms of someone wanting to do something and make a contribution and doing whatever it took to bring himself to people’s attention. At that time in 1942 the War Artists’ Advisory Committee purchased a work by Albert Richards and went on to purchase further works by him. The first work they purchased we have in the Walker’s collection, and that was a painting called “Sapper erecting pickets in the snow” which was painted in 1942. So again it was surveying a scene in England with those troops stationed her. Then the work he submitted to the War Artists’ Advisory Committee then led to him obtaining a commission as a war artist – an official war artist – in 1944, and that was with the rank of a captain. So he did get his wish and became and official war artist. Following his appointment he worked with extraordinary energy, capturing the Allied invasion across France and into Holland, and that started when he was dropped into France as part of D-Day.

We know that Albert Richards was killed on 5 March 1945, near the river Maas which is on the border of Holland and Belgium, and I think in a way it was almost inevitable when you read some of his letters they become really ironic in terms of how he met his death. He was killed by an enemy mine when he was getting ready to paint a night invasion. There’s a really interesting letter he sent to the War Artists’ Advisory Committee that commented on how fed up and frustrated he got by the slow pace of movement in the procession of the army across Europe. He commented he often took a jeep out and explored himself, and obviously that’s probably what led to his death which is extremely tragic.

Albert Richards was remembered following his death by several memorial exhibitions. The first one took place in the National Gallery in 1945 along with that of other war artists’ work. Then this was followed by a memorial exhibition at the Bluecoat in 1946. We hosted an exhibition of Albert Richards’s work in 1978, and that was a touring exhibition organised by the Arts Council. The work that Albert Richards had produced as a war artist was distributed by the Imperial War Museum (IWM). So some of that work went to the IWM and some came to galleries and museums across the country and in fact across the Commonwealth. Albert Richards is really well represented in all of these different galleries. His work may not be on display everywhere but is certainly part of those collections.

I think amongst his contemporaries there was certainly a feeling that this was an artist cut down in his prime in terms of his career. And when we look at the exhibition we have here today it’s a view we share here at the Walker. We don’t have later samples of Albert Richards’s work to compare any of these works against. I think that’s a real shame. I think what we do have is this extraordinary record of what was happening in Europe and Britain at this time, so we go from this self portrait here to ‘Seacombe Ferry in Wartime’ which is capturing something happening in Liverpool during the war when one of our Mersey ferries had been struck by a bomb. You can jut see the ferry is half submerged in the River Mersey. This was a painting that Richards submitted to the War Artists’ Advisory Committee but they rejected it, probably because of the nature of the painting, focused on the home front, may not have been what they were looking for. Then finally in terms of this exhibition we have this painting, ‘Holland, Cold Holland’ which captures what life was life for civilians in occupied Europe at this time, and it really brings things home to you how hard life must have been. What we see in this scene are civilians foraging for coal at a railway. You can imagine the hardship they would have endured, and Albert Richards recorded all of that plus more in the work he produced.

The final thing I wanted to say is that Albert Richards wasn’t just remembered as an artist. He was remembered by his family, as so many people who died during World War Two were. The thing that struck me when I was reading our archive about Albert Richards is that his memory was really kept alive by his parents, Hannah and George. When we purchased this self portrait and also ‘Seacombe Ferry in Wartime’, from the artist’s mother she very kindly lent us her scrap book of all of the newspaper cuttings she kept following Albert Richards’s death. The sense you get from that is their enormous pride in their son, both as an artist but also as a soldier. I think that’s really important to remember when we look at paintings by artists is that they had a family and supporting network.

That was all I wanted to say about Albert Richards unless anybody has any questions. I hope you agree it is a fascinating artist’s story and one we hope to feature in our forthcoming new display of British modern painting in the Walker. You’ll have notices that some of the paintings that used to be in room 11 have moved into this exhibition for the summer, and we’ve closed room 11 for big refurbishment, and one thing we are very keen to put back in that display is work by Albert Richards and other war artists as we think it’s a fantastic resource we have here in the Walker and we want to give the public access to it. Finally, while there are questions I’ll just pass round a really poignant photograph of Albert Richards, the artist himself in his captain’s uniform that came to us from his mother. I also have some examples of other works by Albert Richards, and especially interesting is this one called ‘The Drop’ which documents the allied invasion - it’s quite breathtaking in terms of what’s happening in there. So I’ll pass those around, then if there are any questions feel free to ask.