Young’s contribution to post-war art on Merseyside: powerful yet underrated

Self portrait with Mirror (Green)

An extract from Liverpool Seen:Post-war artists on Merseyside by Peter Davies, 1992, pp91-96:

Richard Young has made a valuable, if quiet contribution to post-war art on Merseyside, using themes suggested to him by his immediate environment. Even his overall project as a painter has had a provisional, self-questioning and open-ended character about it, almost as if the need to paint is a transitory grace that comes and goes. His works, in the grubby domestic genre of interior still life painting, hark back through Bratby and the kitchen sink artists to Sickert’s North London bedsit realism. A touch of Bonnard’s and even Vuillard’s intimacy occurs, while the exquisite formal colour harmonies of Matisse also make themselves felt across the surfaces of Young’s occasionally masterful paintings.

Young was born in the north Liverpool suburb of Walton in 1921, though he spent the first ten years of his life in Deptford, London, not returning to Liverpool until the depression of the 1930s. He began work as a labourer, aged only 14, in a small Liverpool engineering company, but spent most of the remaining pre-war years working as an electrician in a Newcastle shipyard. In 1943 he went to sea as a radio operator in the navy, and travelled widely.  After the war he returned to Tyneside, but when his father died he went back to Liverpool with his mother, who subsequently ran a chandler’s shop in Bootle. The drawing shown here was based on the kitchen of the Bootle premises and signifies both the artist’s facility with the pencil – the exquisite balance between the need to relay enough detail while retaining a broad, wholesome, plastic vigour – and his natural ability to create a sense of beauty and grace out of apparently unpromising, poverty-stricken scenes.

Shelley Street Bootle 1957

Another interior from this period was his Morning Interior (1957), depicting the artist in striped red trousers next to a table laden with breakfast items.  Charles Sewter wrote  that the picture was indebted to Bratby, a fact that illustrates, not Young’ s derivativeness, but rather   his   unpretentiousness in feeling free to borrow at will from other artists’ work. It was bought by the University in 1989.

Morning Interior 1957 (University of Liverpool)

Throughout his working career, Young treated art as an essential activity, but not one by which he sought to live. This fact should not cast the artist in the role of amateur, but rather should illustrate the fact that his ordinary working class background never allowed art to gain unrealistic proportions, which is why Young’s work succeeds while the work of career art teachers  so often fails. He began working as a freelance electrician in Liverpool, and was invited by Nicholas Horsfield to join the Liverpool Academy in 1958.  He exhibited works every year after that, and John Moores acquired   a kitchen interior from Young.  The Academy gave Young ‘a sort of impetus that gave you a reason to continue’, and a    number of sales were generated throughout the years of his membership. […]

Young joined life drawing classes held by George Mayer-Marton, Arthur Ballard and Austin Davies at the art college. Never too proud to learn from these professionals, Young was enough of an artist to follow his own nose in the personal matter of choosing a genre and style, and after the kitchen sink phase he pursued an interest in Bomberg. Young became fascinated after seeing some articles on Bomberg, and for a time he reduced his palette to black, yellow and white. The still lifes or self-portraits acquired a rough and pronounced impasto, a kind of painterly monumentality given a dramatic edge through crude yet powerful tonal treatment.  As with the delicate pastel shades and subtly tinted greys of the monochromatic interior pictures, Young could release extremely powerful colouristic or tonal effects through the simplest and most understated of means. The key to reading many of Young’ s best pictures lies in walking away from   them.   At an adequate distance the subtle shifts and spatial interplay between forms and tones come into focus,  throwing  light on the artist’s exceptional ability to conjure coherence and harmony out of apparent chaos.

Dick Young’s subjects are conditioned by the reality of painting at home. His home provided the ambiance that seemed to suit him best. He acquired a Bridewell studio in 1980, but it was used more as a store room while his sparsely furnished front room at home remained his main place of work. On the occasions when Young departed from views of modest rooms, images of self in a mirror, or of laden tables, it was only to paint views through his own windows. The quest to say the most by the most restricted means is a hallmark of the work of many significant artists. It is a foil that releases in the artist the fullest plastic rigours and strongest formal energy.  The window, as an object that links the   outside world of  the street with the inside world of the room, has also intrigued Young as a potentially significant pictorial symbol. Ever the interpreter of the psychology of the domestic inhabitant, Young is interested in the window as an object that is sometimes looked at, or at other times looked through. The window, while providing formal visual interest with its simplified lines of composition (window frames, curtains and architecture sketched outside), also acts as a metaphor for the sitter. The consciousness of the sitter is perched, like the window itself, at the junction between the   interior (subjective inner life) and the objective outside world.

For all his down-to-earth honesty, Young has always resisted any pressure to conform to a specific Liverpool ‘group’, ‘style’ or ‘theme’ . He has always steered his own course, able on occasion to feed off the inspiration of major artists like Sickert, Bomberg, and more recently Matisse and the American Milton Avery. The interest in Matisse evolves from preoccupation with the interior, a subject that encourages association between interior design and pictorial art. Young in terms of both style and theme, could never relate to the flat, photo-based pictures of Walsh, Henri, Baum or Cockrill. Instead he comes closest to Nicholas Horsfield, who although more interested in the outside world of the Normandy landscape with its impressionist colour, does share with Young a Sickertian manner of paint handling and an earthy range of subject matter. Young admired Milton Avery’s relaxed attitude to painting that sometimes allowed   considerable areas of canvas to remain untouched. It links in with an interest in the canvas as an object that we first saw when Young’s painted view of a window doubled up as the actual window itself.

Young showed work in the large Hayward Gallery drawing exhibition in 1982. Interior L8 depicted a solitary chair in an empty room. Young has always drawn, delighting in a relaxed graphic style that is very linear in its structural  approach (always searching  for a compositional harmony).  Whether drawing or painting, he has always seemed to be feeling for the actual physical space of the flat sheet of paper, canvas or board he is working with. This is a sure symptom of a formally strong artist, and Young is one of the most powerful yet underrated artists dealt with in this book. The line in Young’ s drawings has a somewhat wobbly, febrile quality about it, emphasising   the   hand-made   and   therefore   personal   and expressive intentions behind the work.  The naive and childlike can even on occasion be alluded to, though Young’ s position as a painter is as premeditated as it is natural to him.  He once said that he could never paint a   picture with political or philosophical significance – however much he might have wanted to – a fact that leaves him ‘with a small aesthetic feeling’ deriving from a simple love of the paint   medium.  Philosophically Young shares Gombrich’s ideas about art as an illusionist device – as we have seen the   artist exploits trompe l’oeil effects. For all his interest in surrealist art, Young took an entirely different path, his imagination subsumed within the mundane compositional confines around him.

Young has exhibited frequently. In the early 1970s he had a moderately successful solo show at the Bluecoat, while he  sold three oils hung at the 1986 Royal Academy exhibition.  A willing exhibitor in less salubrious local settings, he enjoyed meeting artists from other milieux. During a ‘members’ choice’ exhibition held in the Liverpool Academy Gallery in Pilgrim Street (that included Uglow and Kossoff), Young met Alan Lowndes, an artist with whom he had some sympathy though not on account of Lowndes’ fairly ambitious careerism and commercial association with a leading London gallery.

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