Miles Richmond: Painter who followed his teacher David Bomberg on an uncompromising artistic path

By Paul Trewhela

Miles Richmond was David Bomberg's closest student, and practised and taught his particular vision of painting in a working life of more than 60 years.

Less than 24 hours before his death he completed his last painting, Miranda and Her Family – a vision of his second wife and two youngest children, with himself disappearing in the background – from his bed in his house in Middlesbrough, in a studio saturated with the smell of oil paint. He was one of the most serious, dedicated, accomplished and literate painters of his time.

He was born Peter Richmond in 1922 in Isleworth, Middlesex, taking the name Miles much later in his life. From his father, a naval engineer, he inherited an intense love of Britain. He wrote and spoke later of the crisis when, following the outbreak of the Second World War, he told his father of his decision to be a conscientious objector. His father responded: "I'm doing what I can, your brothers have gone to do their duty like everyone else, and you choose to be a coward and a traitor."

Sent to work on the land, Richmond felt more and more awful about his choice, and set out to walk to Tunbridge Wells to enlist. Torn by indecision, as his wife relates, he "stood staring at some trees and the astonishing beauty of them, and the challenge of painting was set against the need to serve his country in the war". Richmond returned to his land work, "but in that moment vowed to himself that he would serve his country as fervently through painting as others through their sacrifices in the war".

Richmond believed that England has an unrivalled imaginative tradition. Sharing an approach with Bomberg and William Blake – his two heroes of the spirit – he pursued his vision with an informed appreciation of the dominant currents in contemporary western art, which he saw as hostile to his essentially spiritual and religious understanding. Painting for him was similar to prayer, and could not be compromised by concessions to fashion, the market or easy popularity.

From 1940 to 1943, Richmond attended Kingston School of Art. In 1946, the war over, he went to study under Bomberg – with no grant and no diploma – at the Borough Polytechnic in Southwark (now London South Bank University, of which he became a fellow). Richmond was a founder member of the Borough Group (1946-51), working and exhibiting with Bomberg and fellow students Cliff Holden, Dorothy Mead and Dennis Creffield.

To the art school establishment of that time, Bomberg's teaching was a heresy. Students went to his classes against the express wishes of the teachers in the leading schools. Richmond retained this status as an outsider throughout his working life, receiving very limited commercial success. He accepted his fate with stoicism, an equanimity of spirit all the more remarkable in the light of the commercial and critical success of two colleagues of his student youth, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff.

In 1952 Richmond moved to France with his first wife, Susanna, and then in 1954 to Ronda, southern Spain, where Bomberg had set up an art school. Richmond worked as Bomberg's assistant, staying on in the town after his former teacher's death in 1957.

This was a long period of almost hermetic isolation. For more than 20 years, between exhibiting with the Borough Group in Stockholm in 1952 and a solo exhibition at the Casa de Mondragó*in Ronda in 1974, Richmond painted intensively in the mountains around Ronda, without showing his work. This impressive body of paintings began to receive attention only at the end of his life, at a solo exhibition at the Convento de Santo Domingo, Ronda, in October 2006, at the Unicaja gallery in Malaga last January and at Robin Katz Fine Art in London in April.

Friendship with the artist Harry Thubron, then in retirement in Ronda, helped produce an artistic crisis in the early 1970s that proved crucial for his development. He put to himself the most difficult of questions for a pupil of such a strong master as Bomberg: if I remove from my work what was put there by my teacher, what is left? The paintings of this crisis of maturation, almost abstract, permitted Bomberg's powerful sense of structure to be submitted to an evocation of form through colour, both vivid and delicate.

This resulted in an extraordinary body of work. It ranges from symbolic paintings of the immediate post-war period – among them a Resurrection, a work evoking the angelic order inspired by Rilke's Duino Elegies, and a large painting with its title taken from Ecclesiastes – through the Ronda paintings of the 1950s to the 1970s, the near-abstract works of Richmond's "crisis" period, a huge panorama of London at the Millennium viewed from the Imperial War Museum through to Canary Wharf and now hanging in London South Bank University, to a lyrical body of late work, mainly landscapes painted in North Yorkshire, Rome, Ronda and London.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Richmond moved between England and Spain and taught at various colleges, including Portsmouth Polytechnic. He was an inspirational teacher, with no qualms about showing his own work along with that of his students, just as Bomberg had done. In the late 1970s he worked as tutor at Morley College in London, where his students included Tatiana Litvinov – daughter of Stalin's one-time Foreign Minister.

From 1979 he lived in Rounton, North Yorkshire, where he created an arts centre and family home at the Motorhouse. Living quarters and studio space were constructed by Richmond, his son Philip and his son-in-law David Seaton out of the derelict former garage and chauffeur's quarters of Rounton Grange, one of the great late Victorian houses of England, demolished in the 1950s.

Situated at the foothills of the Yorkshire Moors and in beautiful wooded countryside, the Motorhouse became an inspired centre of teaching in the tradition of Bomberg at the Borough and of Richmond himself at the International School in Ronda in the late 1960s, where he had taught painting. A crucial colleague at the Motorhouse in its first summer school was his close friend from Ronda, Harry Thubron. Students came especially from the former St Albans College of Art, later part of Hertfordshire University.

He moved to Middlesbrough in 1994 with his second wife, Miranda, and continued to paint. He wore himself out within a year of his death in completing a series of paintings of the North Yorkshire valley town of Richmond, working from a camper van. In his last weeks, he choose the pictures for an exhibition of his work at the Boundary Gallery in north London: a room of life studies painted as a young man in Bomberg's classes and a room of recent paintings, the work of a man in his eighties who seemed ever young. The show opens on 7 November.

Peter Richmond (Miles Richmond), painter and teacher: born Isleworth, Middlesex 19 December 1922; married 1952 Susanna Richmond (three sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1985 Miranda Sullivan (one son, one daughter); died Middlesbrough 7 October 2008.

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