The east London café is empty apart from three men sitting at a table in the corner. They're drinking tea. One is The Independent's photographer. The second is Eddie Richardson, who along with his brother Charlie was as infamous on the 1960s London gangland scene as the Krays. Charlie and Eddie's patch was Camberwell in south London; their crimes revolved around protection and extortion rackets. They were not shy of physical violence, and it is said they had a torture chamber in the basement of their nightclub where reluctant co-operators were punished. Having served two long prison sentences since the late Sixties, Eddie is now out on parole after a 13-year stretch. The third man in the party is introduced to me as Nicky. Nicky doesn't give a reason for being here, but he's with Eddie. It's like a scene in a gangster film.
Thirty years ago, Eddie and Nicky might well have been meeting to discuss the sort of goings-on depicted in such a film, but today they're here to talk about Richardson's artwork. "A lot of people were surprised to hear that I was painting," says Eddie, with a mischievous glint in his eye. "But I started off trying to do something useful in there, instead of just wasting my time." A prison sentence of 25 years leaves a man with a lot of time to waste, if he wants to. But Richardson was used to keeping himself busy on the outside, and he kept himself busy on the inside, too.
Painting is a radical departure from the past life of Eddie Richardson, the man two home secretaries labelled as one of the most dangerous men in Britain. He's used to this notoriety, and says he's no longer interested in the things peoplesay about him. "It's painful to read things [about the past] when you're inside," he says, "but it's different now. I've read everything anyone can say about me and it won't bother me if they say anything new. Well, the only new things they can say now are about my painting and this exhibition I'm putting on."
Richardson, who is well-dressed and has a dignified air, clearly has the mind of a businessman. He quickly turns the conversation to his art. He'd never painted before prison, but he began taking art classes inside for one day a week, just to pass the time. When he found that he enjoyed it, he increased it to two classes a week, then three, until he was doing art classes every day. "I'd never tried my hand at it," he says, "but once I realised I could do it, it got much easier for me." Pictures of friends and past acquaintances form the bulk of his work, and it's these he is exhibiting. "Not all of them will be in the collection," he says pointedly. Richardson favours the direct approach, and looks you straight in the eye when speaking. "Some of them will be going back to the people I painted."
He did those pictures for friends, he says. He is clear about the boundary between public and private. "They were for friends who'd lost their sons, that kind of thing." He looks over my head and nods. "There's one of my friends now." Another man arrives. Keith. I'm not sure why he's here, but we do introductions and he sits down. Nicky leans forward. "But there will be 80 other pictures in the exhibition, won't there, Eddie?" Richardson nods: "Yes, about 80."
Asking someone who's on parole about his inspiration for 80 paintings seems trite. He's unlikely to say "freedom", or whatever you think he should say. But he does cite his own experiences as an inspiration, without going into detail. There wasn't, he says, any particular thing that inspired him. So, just his experiences in general? "Yes."
There may be certain "experiences" you would expect a once-violent criminal to draw upon, but the nature of Richardson's paintings is pleasantly surprising. His pictures depict ordinary men laughing over a beer, children playing hopscotch, friendly sporting scenes. There is no sense of any ominous background in these pictures - you need to know who painted them, and where he painted them, to get a sense of what is behind the scenes. Once you know that Richardson painted these in a cell, as a Category A prisoner, they look different. His paintings were an escape route from boredom, and the world they show is ultimately relaxed: a far cry from his life before prison, and his life inside.
He has no difficulty talking about his prison life. "I've always been a double Cat A prisoner - in special units and all those places - because they think I'm more dangerous than I probably am, but anyway..." he stops and grins at Nicky: "... I suppose there was some justification, years ago."
That he was a Category A prisoner seems important to him; he mentions it several times. "Other people got leave, rehabilitated - but I didn't, because I was Cat A. Just straight out on the street." This must have been hard? "No, I just wanted to be out," he replies. But then he nods and says it has taken him a while to get back on his feet. "I've been out two years, but I was going around in circles for a while."
The fact that there are no portraits of people who were inside with him could be a clue to Richardson's mindset, and why he took to painting in the first place. There was no shortage of interesting characters. He was alongside people who, over time, included Ronnie Biggs, the train robber, and Brian Keenan, the man who is now, reputedly, the IRA's chief of staff and heavily involved in arms decommissioning talks. "Brian," Richardson says. "He was a lovely man, but not a great bridge-player."
Insights into Richardson's prison life are delivered in snippets such as this. But then Nicky nods to him: "Tell the young lady one of your stories." Richardson obliges with the tale of "Hateball" Harry, a man who came into his prison unit. During a snooker game, Harry hit someone over the head with a cue. Richardson intervened. "I said, 'What's going on?' He replied, 'The other man was laughing at me.' I said he wasn't. He said, 'He was; his eyes were laughing at me.'" Richardson throws his head back and laughs. "I think that's a classic line about the eyes." He pauses. "That's just a story, but it gives you an idea about what it was like. I've got a lot of stories."
Towards the end of his time in prison, Richardson says, the art classes stopped. "When Michael Howard [then home secretary] said to make prison more austere, the cookery classes, art classes, music classes, things like that, were cut out. They wanted to get rid of them anyway, so it was just an excuse, but by then I was an artist in my own right: I didn't need lessons." Sometimes he'd paint landscapes, but always with people in them. "People make a landscape interesting, do you know what I mean?" he says. So people would send him photographs. Lord Longford sent him a photo of himself, at Richardson's request. "I did a portrait and then gave it to Lord Longford, who had been a friend of mine for years. A nice man. I think he was quite surprised when I sent him it."
Richardson smiles again; the smile that has characterised the interview, gentlemanly and dignified, but a bulwark to any further information being imparted. The portrait of Lord Longford - a friend in a high place - gained a great deal of publicity, but Richardson wanted to keep a low profile at that stage. Lord Longford passed the painting on to a charity, which sold it at an auction. It was bought by an ex-con who, Richardson says, "did a lot for charity" after his time was done.
When our interview time is done, Richardson stands up to let me leave first. Outside, he and Nicky formally take it in turn to step forward and kiss me on each cheek. It would be a nice finish to a scene from a film. When I'm out of the frame, they're on their way to an event for Steve Norris, Conservative candidate for London mayor. They are firm supporters. It will be interesting to see if Norris supports Eddie Richardson's exhibition.
Eddie Richardson's paintings are being exhibited today and tomorrow at No 5, 5 Cavendish Square, London W1Reuse content