Dick Young: an Appreciation

A Provincial Life retrospective catalogue cover

Dick Young: Appreciation by Mike Knowles, from the catalogue for Young’s major retrospective, A Provincial Life, at the Williamson Art Gallery, Birkenhead, in 1994

The early encounters of  one’s career are the most important; a particular image, an influential teacher, etched in the memory.  Often they are filed away as outgrown, formative, treasured, but no longer relevant.  No so, for me, the work of Richard Young which I  first saw in the Liverpool Academy shows of the late ’50s at the Walker Art Gallery when I was the rawest and most ignorant of art students. These paintings which I recall as oval dressing-table mirrors in dingy half-lit interiors with the artist’s self-portrait lurking in the background, struck an immediate chord, a poem to a way of life with which I could identify. I thought Richard Young a fine painter then and the passing of thirty five years has only increased my regard.

Self portrait with Mirror (Red)

Perhaps I first met Richard Young properly at the old Liverpool Academy Gallery in Renshaw Street in the ’70s, by which time I was teaching at the Art College and had long since realised that he earned his living as an electrician and not, as I had at  first assumed, as an artist and teacher like much respected fellow Academicans Nicholas Horsfield and Arthur Ballard.  I do remember being flattered by his interest  in some of my work, particularly the drawings, but also being left with the slightly disconcerting  feeling of having been subject to a keenly critical eye.  I suppose what I am really trying to say  is that Richard Young has always had stature, exuding the natural authority of an artist who for the most part knows what he’s about and when he doesn’t, rejoicing in the discovery of unknown territory.

Over the years I have come to know Richard better, particularly when changing circumstances in his  life led to him taking up a place as a mature student at the Art College. I suspect that initially he saw this as something of  a sabbatical,  a chance to take stock and reorganise, for he was already  formed as an artist and certainly well beyond the influence of teachers.  However, it should have come as no surprise that he settled so readily into the company of  art students for he had once said to me “they should bring back National Service – two years in  art school for everybody!”  But it must have been the general ambience which appealed to Richard since he was  rarely seen to paint in the studios. Even so, a steady stream of drawings and paintings continued to appear, presumably the product of the small hours.  predictably he sailed through the course with First Class Honours and seemed genuinely amused to receive a degree and a bus pass in rapid succession.

Richard has an encyclopaedic knowledge of painters and painting and a catholic appetite for music  and literature; his rooms are littered with books, journals and tapes.  Frank Auerbach once said of himself  ‘I was born old’; Richard Young must have been born educated.

Frank Auerbach: portrait of Leon Kossof

I suspect that when Richard’s paintings are together in this exhibition it will be hard to find works, no matter how early, in which he can be seen to be learning his craft.  As with all the best painters his images can seem often to be deceptively   easy, betraying little of the history of  their making. Yet this is a body of work of an extremely high standard, comparable with the best in British painting.  Indeed Richard seems always to have been up with the pace of contemporary figurative painting. Despite working  in relative isolation he has turned instinctively to the currency of ideas associated with such   artists as Bomberg, Coldstream, early Bratby and Auerbach, yet has never been a follower. To this he has added something of French art, perhaps Vuillard and Giacommetti. This is awareness rather than eclecticism for above all his art is the product of a powerful personality, a poetic sensibility and an unnerving ability to perceive the extraordinary in the apparently  ordinary. His exquisite sense of tone enables him to turn a  few  cheap earth pigments, even the scrapings of cast-off paint cans and tubes, into subtle and glowing colour relationships.

Vuillard: Woman Reading, 1910

Although Richard has exhibited and sold widely (albeit too cheaply) and is known and respected by some of the country’s best artists, his preferred habitat is Liverpool’s ‘art scene’ where he is a familiar face at exhibition openings and artists’   watering-holes. Indeed this is the subject matter for his wickedly subtle humorous drawings which in themselves represent a noticeable body of work.

Richard Young is still in his artistic prime, in full flow and one hopes that this exhibition will be an important step towards the critical recognition and national reputation which he deserves.  But be that as it may it will make little difference to Richard, for his way of life and his work are inextricably bound and not open to influence by such relative superficialities – which is as it should be.

Mike Knowles, September 1994.

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