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Obituary: Adrian Ryan

James Beechey
Saturday 19 December 1998 00:02 GMT

ADRIAN RYAN was the most unassuming of painters. He enjoyed the friendship and respect of many better-known artists - among them John Minton, Francis Bacon, Peter Lanyon and Patrick Heron - but he never sought worldly success, and so was not accorded the recognition he undoubtedly deserved.

He belonged to an old-fashioned, gentlemanly school that found something vulgar in the overt pursuit of sales: he never painted solely to appease his critics or his public. He was a genuinely modest and self-effacing man, and was quietly amused to be given a Gulbenkian prize awarded specifically to neglected artists.

Ryan was born in Hampstead in 1920; his childhood was divided between the family homes of Hintlesham Hall in Suffolk, and Villa Santa Lucia at Cagnes-sur-Mer. Both his parents were painters, and his father, Vivian Ryan, who was deaf and dumb, particularly encouraged him. After Eton, he trained briefly as an architect before joining the Slade during its wartime evacuation in Oxford.

Excused military service on medical grounds, he was able to set himself up as an artist whilst most of his contemporaries were still in uniform. His first studio in Tite Street was shared with Augustus John's son Edwin, and one of his most important early alliances was formed in Chelsea with Matthew Smith. These two unlikely campaigners once went electioneering in Hartlepool for a wealthy Liberal patron of Smith's, Ryan acting as chauffeur and Smith squeaking high-pitched exhortations to the voters.

Ryan was taken up by Rex Nan Kivell at the Redfern Gallery, who gave him his first exhibition in 1943; four more followed during the next decade. One of the first to buy his work was the painter and collector Edward Le Bas, whose support conferred an enviable degree of distinction on the young artist.

Like Le Bas, Ryan inherited enough money - in his case from his grandfather, Sir Gerald Ryan - to build an impressive collection of pictures, predominantly of the French painters with whom he felt a special affinity including Bonnard, Modigliani, Utrillo and Soutine. In this he was encouraged notably by his friend Eardley Knollys, from whose Storran Gallery many of his purchases were made.

Later the failure of his brother's ambitious farming projects obliged him to disperse the collection, and also to seek a regular income from teaching. He joined the staff of Goldsmiths' College in 1948, and taught at Cambridge College of Art. He was a committed, if taciturn, tutor who preferred to give individual advice, and was as often to be found in a nearby pub as in the teaching studios. He retired in 1983.

Ryan was a natural and prolific painter, who never contemplated a life away from the easel, nor travelled abroad without a clutch of sketchbooks in which to record impressions for later translation on to canvas. Because he lived and worked at Mousehole in Cornwall for two periods - from 1945 to 1951 and from 1959 to 1965 - he was often associated with the nearby colony of artists at St Ives. He had many links there - in particular with Peter Lanyon, Sven Berlin and Patrick Heron, who had been one of his first champions in the New Statesman and elsewhere - and he exhibited in the third and last exhibition of the Crypt Group, the breakaway faction of the St Ives Society of Artists, in 1948. But Ryan was unimpressed by his friends' enthusiasm for abstraction, and he continued to paint, away from the excitement for Abstract Expressionism, in an idiom derived from the Ecole de Paris.

Landscapes of Cornwall, France and later Suffolk were rendered in vivid colour, and with free, expressive brush strokes. Still-lifes provided his favourite subjects (he wrote a short handbook on still-life painting) - delicious assemblies, in particular of oysters, crayfish, herrings and other seafood, which sometimes betray an unexpected undertone of disquiet.

These he showed regularly with the London Group and at the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibitions. He was given exhibitions at the Minories in Colchester in 1964 and 1985; and latterly two shows under the auspices of the National Trust, "A Kettle of Fish" at Sutton House in London in 1994 and "Four Seasons" at Petworth the following year, introducing him to a new audience. Although his work was bought by the Tate Gallery and by public museums abroad, much of the best remains in private hands. A full retrospective is certainly overdue.

Adrian Ryan's easy charm and dry, ironic humour were appreciated by many. He could be free with his affections, but he never lost the loyalty of his former lovers. He is survived by all three of his wives and by three daughters.

James Beechey

Adrian James Ryan, painter: born London 3 October 1920; thrice married (three daughters); died London 15 December 1998.

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