Paul Ritchie: Obituary

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The Independent Online
Only a handful of Australian painters who left their homeland after the Second World War have remained in permanent exile, and none quite in the manner of Paul Ritchie. Likewise, very few painters have turned from writing to painting and succeeded as Ritchie did.

Once away from Australia in 1953, he settled on the island of Ibiza, where he remained for 20 years. For the first decade he lived entirely off his painting, sometimes by using ingenious stratagems. He would wade into the shallow waters of the island with a roll of work under his arm and show a Spanish businessman or an American tourist what he had been doing, often selling a piece for a ridiculously low price. This would net him enough pocket money for food and cigarettes for a week or two. He was then sharing a remote finca with the Swiss painter Hans Hinterreiter, and both of them were leading lives of almost monkish simplicity.

In 1963 his life changed. He married Diana Haas of Toronto and they moved into Santa Eulalia. Realising that paint was an inadequate medium for all he wanted to express, he had already written his first book, The Fallow Season (1961). A collection of vignettes and stories based on a term in England as a master in a reform school, this gave only a hint of the talent that would ignite in his next two books. He began to work with an almost furious intensity.

In 1966 his first novel, The Protagonist, appeared, and, in 1967, Confessions of a People Lover. The two, in very different ways, evoke a shadowy, half- fictive world reminiscent of Kafka and Beckett, writers whom he much admired, but the result is very much his own. Both are studies in negative potency and disaffection. Honey, the anti-hero of the first, is a wandering exile to whom much happens, for reasons he cannot understand. The central character in the second is an 80- year-old in an Orwellian futurist world where the permitted lifespan is 70. Bewildered by what he sees around him, he fights for survival and meaning.

The astonishing thing about both books is that, although their substance is dark and chilling, the language is highly innovative and surprising. Ritchie's prose has an extraordinary density and tactility. He often said that if you can't do anything new in a novel you oughtn't to write one. These two books certainly give us a new and, often, disconcerting music. It's as if, like Hopkins, he is trying to make with words a new dialect of painting.

The Protagonist, in particular, received critical acclaim and his play Saint Honey (1968), a dramatic adaptation of that script, was performed successfully both in England and Australia.

Ritchie thrived on controversy. He could be maddeningly difficult in discussion and his disposition was often high-pitched and even antic. Yet his judgement concerning painting, old and new, of literature, and of people was often unerring. He had a sharp nose for the genuine. A man of almost Whitmanesque relish for the whole human kingdom, he made friends everywhere, and that empathy is the first and last thing we notice in his paintings, sketches and stories.

It was no accident that, in his later years, he worked as a Samaritan. He was, for ordinary people, as well as for artists in England, Australia and Canada, not only a source of encouragement but an inspiration.

Paul Fraser Ritchie, artist and writer: born Sydney, Australia 14 August 1923; married 1963 Diana Haas (one daughter); died London 23 July 1996.