Introduction to A Provincial Life – 1994 exhibition at Williamson Art Gallery Birkenhead
by Nicholas Horsfield
This title is the artist’s suggestion. To accept and enjoy the provincial tag, as Dick Young does, implies a rejection of ambition to excel in changing metropolitan styles, while preserving the means to hold on to his own individuality free from external pressure. Dick is a private painter and his own master. Within his chosen constraints he is a highly sophisticated artist. He never thrusts his opinion, but in a diffident, detached, often oblique, but deeply pondered way, he taps the nail true.
I have known him since the fifties, I have guessed vaguely at his background and wondered, not just how he has come to paint so consistently and well, but how he has acquired such depth and range of knowledge. It seems worthwhile to try to piece together the origins and influences that have made him what he is. His grandfather painted as a hobby, but Granny put a stop to that – too messy, she decreed. I find this relevent.
Dick was born in Liverpool, the younger of two children of Henry and Nelly Young. His sister spent much time away with Auntie and he was brought up rather as if an only child. His father was employed as an overseer for Anderson’s Installation Company in Liverpool. He soon moved with the job to London and the family lived for about ten years in Rotherhithe, where Dick first went to school. They must have been doing quite well, for Dick has a photograph – and made a painting – of his parents, c 1927, behind the wheel of, I guess, a T Model Ford. In the 1930’s slump his father was paid off and the family bought a sweet shop in Woolwich.
There was a brief return to Liverpool in 1933, where Dick attended Walton Church School, before moving back to London where Henry Young was re-employed to work at Battersea Power Station. Meanwhile Dick left school at fourteen and worked as ‘can-lad’ at his father’s jobs. In 1937 they moved to Newcastle upon Tyne where they remained until his father’s death in 1953. Dick carried through the long apprenticeship of Ship’s Electrician and, after a further short course, worked as a ship’s radio operator through the war. He seems to have been remarkably unimpressed by the foreign ports he visited. After a short time in London he returned to Newcastle as ship’s electrician in 1945.
This long preamble, largely lifted from Frank Milner’s excellent chronology seems a necessary base on which to fit the progress of his artistic awareness. He remembers being impressed by the chalk stage settings drawn by Mr. Steen, the art master, for Christmas plays at Walton Church School Dick made pencil copies of biblical illustrations, which the teacher commended; it was a very religious school. To amuse himself at home he made copies from prints of, among others, Fragonard and Lord Leighton. From all of these he may have learned his strong sense of silhouette.
In Newcastle he first became aware of himself as an artist, but only with extreme diffidence and as an amateur. He joined the Wallsend Art Club and found the companionship of artists; whether good, bad, amateur or professional was immaterial; companionship was essential. He remembers Frank Hendriksen, whom he describes as a robust Sickertian painter, whose pictures may still be found in the Laing Gallery. In fact Hendriksen was a frail invalid, whom Dick pushed around in his wheelchair. I would hope that he was a telling influence. There was a lot going on in the immediate post war years, but for Dick, almost entirely in the context of the local art societies. He attended classes and lectures and remembers weekend schools with occasional distinguished visiting tutors – Ruskin Spear, Harry Thubron, he missed William Coldstream.
Which was a pity. He learned no particular ‘message’ from them, but students’ discussions were lively. Dick has always been an inveterate exhibition goer (witness ‘the Old Master’ in the amusing Gallery Toper Column in Artspool Magazine) – but he remembers very little in Newcastle beyond the local artists shows at the Laing and Shipley Galleries, where he first showed a self portrait (since destroyed) in 1948.
He read Studio Magazine and anything else he could get hold of; he saw the real masters in Edinburgh – Braque, Cezanne, Degas at festival exhibitions and Joan Eardley at the R.S.A. His chronology may be a little elastic. Morandi, whom he had known from books, he saw first in a Liverpool exhibition of modern Italian paintings. He also noted the drawings of Gaudier Brzeska and Egon Schiele and liked Mark Gertler. When Henry Young died in 1953 he returned with his mother to Liverpool, working as a freelance electrician. They lived at several addresses before settling in Sandon Street in 1968. At one home he had two studios, in the attic and in the cellar; he came to prefer the cellar.
At that time the night school at the College of Art was very popular, holding classes in a wide range of subjects. Teachers came from the full time staff, with occasional help from promising ex students, notably Ron Scarland. Alfred Wiffen is widely remembered for his infectious enthusiasm, probably preferring the evening amateurs to the full time students. Dick attended several classes, up to three or four days a week. He enjoyed the company of the students and contact with the staff, all, significantly, members of the Liverpool Academy. He does not remember any particular teaching, but absorbed from them all; the atmosphere was inspiring. He was greatly impressed by paintings in the Liverpool Academy by Arthur Ballard and Austin Davies – when both were still figurative. At the time he had no ambition to be an artist; that was beyond him, to earn a living came first. But he was impelled by an intense curiosity, not just to know the how, which any one may feel, but more subtly why an artist should choose whatever style or subject. He showed a gouache of flowers on a table to Arthur Ballard, who recommended him to try for the Open Section of the 1955 Academy exhibition. This section was separately and sometimes ruthlessly selected and at least at first, it was something of an achievement to be chosen.
Dick was successful and in 1957 he was invited to submit for membership of the Academy. This was the time of Mr. Bratby and the kitchen sink school – which dominated the first John Moores exhibition. Dick showed ‘Morning Interior’, now in the University collection. If I remember rightly this is a highly colourful picture, but lacking the tonal richness of later work. Dick says that he reduced his palette to earth colours to save money and this may well be true. But more important he must have realised that on the analogy of a Cezanne dictum, he could only express true colour when he had mastered tone. In the long process he has achieved beautiful richness.
In the Academy he found the companionship he needed. When Glenys Davies, who, I think has never had proper acknowledgement for her devoted work, ran the small Academy gallery in a ramshackle building in Renshaw Street, Dick was always ready to lend a hand. He rewired the place and helped in the chaos of last minute hangs. There was a consistent programme of exhibitions through the 70s, both mixed and giving people a chance with small one man shows; Dick had one entitled ‘Nelly’ in honour of his mother.
Nelly died in 1975; his own health was not good and Sandon Street was threatened with demolition; it was a hard time. When in 1979 he had to leave, friends came to his rescue and helped install him in the Bedford Street flat. He started the Fine Art Degree Course at the Polytechnic and has never looked back.
Nicholas Horsfield, 1994