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Rigby Graham - Doctor of Letters - Artist

Oration by Professor Gordon R Campbell

Rigby Graham’s career as an artist began here in Leicester. After brief periods in Lancashire and London he moved as a young child to Leicester, where he grew up and has for the most part remained ever since. He was educated at Wyggeston Grammar School, beside the university. After the war he undertook the first of a series of artistic journeys, going off at the age of 16 to draw in France and Switzerland. The next year he travelled to Ireland, where he had his first experience of sleeping rough in snow as he walked the 75 miles from Rosslare to Dublin. In 1949 he decided to train as an artist, and so became a student at Leicester College of Art and Design. In the mid-1950s he taught in Leicester at Ellis Boys’ School, Lansdowne Boys’ School and the Gateway School, and visited Brittany and the Channel Islands to paint. In the late 1950s the emphasis of his art shifted to printing and graphic design. He taught in the Printing School of Leicester College of Art and subsequently taught graphic design there. He also began to work as an illustrator, most memorably creating the lithographic illustrations of an edition of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus. A painting visit to Sicily had an unexpected consequence, in that it launched Rigby Graham into his work as a muralist, which began with a mural called Sicily for Woodstock Junior School in Leicester. The murals continued, notably with a collaborative series of murals at New Parks House Junior School, and so did the interest in schools, which occasioned Mr Graham’s move to the School of Teacher Training at Leicester College of Art.

In the 1960s and 1970s Rigby Graham worked primarily as a book illustrator for private presses, but also continued to paint murals in Leicester, notably those in Lansdowne Boys’ School and Woodstock Junior School. His painting during this period was initially focussed on Corsica, but gradually shifted to Ireland, especially its rugged west coast, and to Crete. He has never abandoned these locations, especially Ireland, but gradually he began to paint more in Leicestershire. These paintings, and art in various forms, have been displayed in a run of more than 100 one-man exhibitions throughout Mr Graham’s career; their frequency increased after he retired from teaching in 1983, thanks in part to the unflagging efforts of Mike Goldmark, who has represented Rigby Graham for decades, and whose gallery in Uppingham has long made Mr Graham’s art available to the public.

In 1989 Rigby Graham painted a mural for the Linear Accelerator Suite at the Leicester Royal Infirmary, and then in a cruel sequel became a cancer patient in the same hospital, keeping his spirits up by drawing other patients. In the 1990s he became involved in film, mostly as its subject. The first was a videofilm called Watercolour Painting with Rigby Graham. More recently, in 2003, Goldmark films released (initially in this University) Rigby Graham’s Irish Journey, a gentle and insightful account of a painting journey.

How might one characterise Rigby Graham’s art? He is certainly one of the most important landscape painters of the late twentieth century. The archive of his work, now lodged at Manchester Metropolitan University, is a central resource for the study of landscape and topographic painting, the Neo-Romantic movement, lithographic and wood-cut printing, book illustration and production, and private presses. He is a figure to be reckoned with in all of these fields. If you want to see some of his work, you should after this ceremony look just inside the front entrance of the Charles Wilson building, where we hang five Rigby Graham prints donated by Mike Goldmark, including a view of Santa Maria della Salute in Venice and a wonderful picture of an owl.

What unites Rigby Graham’s work is an ability to tease extraordinary qualities out of ordinary subjects. In his words, ‘I found ordinary buildings, vistas, streets, canals, railways, warehouses and allotments of enormous interest. The more I wandered about and spoke to people, the more I drew, painted and wondered, and the more interested I became. It was not the aesthetic, nor the historical, geographical, social or economic patterns, it was not religious, the commercial, the industrial or the residential which interested me, but perhaps something of all of these, for I became increasingly aware of the passage of time and the way in which its passing had left its mark on everything’.

Finally, I offer a tip for collectors. There was a project which never came to fruition, a book to be called The Packhorse Bridges in Leicestershire. The book was to contain an account of these bridges to be illustrated by reproductions of a series of watercolours painted by Mr Graham. The bridges proved to be elusive, but in the course of the years that followed, Rigby Graham painted thirty-five watercolours. As some of the bridges had been modernised and strengthened, some substitute bridges were found; meanwhile, Rutland left Leicestershire, so the projected book was rejigged as Some Packhorse (and other) Bridges in Leicestershire and Rutland. In the event, the book was never produced, and eventually Mr Graham’s watercolours were dispersed on the open market. They are wonderful examples of late twentieth-century landscape painting, and should you encounter one for sale, you should buy it.

Mr Chancellor, on the recommendation of the Senate and of the Council, I present to you Rigby Graham, that you may confer upon him the degree of Doctor of Letters.

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