The basis of my approach to work is drawing, plus the tradition of Sickert, Degas and Bomberg.
– Dick Young
Drawing Room Only: A View of Dick Young by Janine Pinion, Artspool Issue 2, Winter 1987
I first met Dick Young at a darts match, in a pub in 1979. My friend brought him with her, and thinking he was just an eccentric loner under her maternal influence, didn’t take much notice, scored two double-eights and won the match. All evening he’d just nodded politely and looked at the table, occasionally puffing on a dilapidated roll-up. Then, in the midst of all the cheering and back-slapping (I usually missed the board) came a clear, deep, well-spoken voice: ”Would you like another drink?”
Just as his shabby appearance belied the richness of his character so his politeness disguised his devilish wit. I enjoyed listening to his tales and gossip and the hearty discussions which were hard to come by in the drunken days of college.
I was impressed the first time I saw his work. One picture, painted in four sections, filled a whole wall. Greys and pinks barely different in tone, patches merging with each other, produced, as if by magic, a scene startling in its simplicity. The scale of the picture commanded importance, stealing my attention with the promise of something grand. Yet I found myself, like a Peeping Tom, peering into a corner of his own room, books and crumpled paper all over the floor, an unlit fire, bare walls, no window like many of his paintings – just the suggestion of reflected light.
I wanted to unfold the crumpled papers and see what was written on them, and know who lived there. When I was a little girl I liked to nose in derelict houses and here I felt the same sense of curiosity and foreboding – someone might come through the door at any moment. There was the same sense of human presence here, like the life that lingers on in empty houses.
When we were fellow students I used to watch him drawing in the life-room, with a big, fat black pencil in a tiny dog-eared book, mapping out the domains of a plump Sue Lee. There was nothing slick about these drawings though I can’t recall him ever rubbing out a mark. But then I didn’t know about the years of part-time classes (since the 1930’s) and self-discipline of which I was only seeing the next stage.
He was born in Liverpool in 1921, though his family moved all over the country, finally settling in Newcastle in the 30’s where he trained as a ship’s electrician. During the war he worked as a radio operator with the Merchant Navy – a time he remembers with little relish. Some time after the war his family settled back in Liverpool and bought a chandler’s shop in Bootle, followed by a sweetshop in Kirkdale. Neither of these was very successful and by the mid-60’s had closed down. Always self-employed, he supported himself with occasional electrical and interior decorating jobs, absorbing the memories and impressions of those intimate interiors that were to become the foundation stone of his work.
Endless studies of ‘Nellie’ date back to the 50’s when, settled in Walton, Dick produced many of the drawings on which his paintings are based – views through the shop windows, front rooms, parlours, people chatting or walking the dog. One tiny sketch of two elderly ladies is called ‘So Many Loves Ago’.
His self-portraits are his own history, early drawings mingling with later studies on one large board. Here he is, his story, his face changing in his different roles over forty years, put together as if to say: ‘What you see is not all that I am’.
Here is a man who has worked in profusion over the years, yet has never been sucked into the illusion of the wealthy art-market, despite major exhibitions and work in collections all over the country. I used to think he undersold himself, lacked the confidence, perhaps, to push himself forward. Now I’m not so sure – the all-seeing eye that gave importance to the little front-rooms in Walton, with their paraphernalia of tea and cakes and lacy curtains is not so easily conned.
His paintings are far too important to be picked up and then cast aside according to the whim of the day. These are not little scenes of humble interiors designed to provoke sentiment and nostalgia. They may not have the colourful patterns of foliage flowers and fabrics seen in Bonnard’s work or the drama of Sickert. It is the element of illusion that draws you into each picture, that makes you look more closely when you think what you see is something more elaborate than its actual subject, that is the key to this work, or paradoxically when an ordinary collection of everyday items sparks idle curiosity into imagination.
In his best paintings this illusion comes full-circle. His latest works appear oversimplified, relying on old drawings for their substance. They lack the poetry of earlier work and the colours appear flat and dull. But look again – there is a terrible sadness about them, in the way the views through the windows are replaced by brick walls, remembered from earlier times and now re-written with a different meaning. Instead we see reflections in occasional mirrors of more interesting scenes, more colour and more life. But the trick is not yet complete. There is still a youthful spirit about these paintings, in their mural format and outlined shapes. The cluttered interior is still there – nothing has changed. The poetry is still there – but you must look harder.
Trick or treat? Why should it be easy for you to enjoy and pass on quickly to another one’s work? A lifetime has gone into this picture. Perhaps his work, too, is coming full-circle. Some of the recent pieces are tiny studies worked in subdued colours from the early drawings of Nellie. She sleeps or reads as memory fades the useless detail that would have trapped her in the illusion of age and time. A letter of some importance is read to a neighbour over the remains of breakfast, the cluttered table forgotten in a moment of urgency. These people are not masters of their own fate, yet are elevated into importance and dignity, their reality exposed in harsh black lines rather than imposed upon by the fickle imaginings of middle-class romanticism.
Alf Corlett (Art Historian, Newcastle Polytechnic) wrote in 1975:
As an artist Dick is predominantly concerned with city-scape and still-life but always with the imprint of human use and human concern. This tea-cup has just been set down, here is the fancy cake that no-one fancied; generations have gazed into this mirror; this crack in concrete was an amazon to the eyes of childhood; these immaculate lace curtains were a proclamation to the neighbourhood; this backyard plant grew only because it was cherished. The items are banal but the images dwell in the mind.
When interviewed in 1972, following his exhibition at the Bluecoat Gallery, Dick described himself as
an armchair painter. I just paint what’s in front of me. That’s what interests me. Some artists go out into the street or countryside, but there’s also a tradition of the intimate artist, who paints inside his own domain.
He is not an artist who sets himself apart from the subjects he paints, but he is far too shrewd an observer to excuse himself for idleness. He may transform the view from a window into simple shapes and lines selected for his own satisfaction; he may dispense with local colour as he pleases; he may re-hash the same motif in a different mode in order to experiment. But the pulse of life is never lost and his people are never compromised.
He gives them no airs and graces nor patronises their plainness. His still-lifes lack arrangement – no need to tidy up to make a pretty picture. He exposes us to our follies, reflecting our assumptions back at us with uncanny perception. Forced to confront our own stupidity we see our illusions at last. It is to our shame that we often let them trick us out
of our humanity.