MALCOLM RYAN paintings
I was born in Edmonton, London, in 1938 and grew up in a working class industrial environment. Early childhood was in wartime Britain. During the blitz, and the V weapon attacks of 1944 some time was spent as an evacuee to rural Norfolk. My post-war childhood playground was of London bombsites. At the age of thirteen I was given an old bicycle by a kind neighbour, which gave me freedom to explore beyond my London environment. The by-lanes of the Home Counties then had few cars. Small towns were remote. With friends I would cycle up to fifty miles out from Edmonton into rural East Anglia. On such trips I took up sketching of old farms, churches and castles. Later, we used youth hostels to cycle further away to Yorkshire, the Cotswold's and eventually in 1956 to the European continent, crossing the Swiss Alps into Italy. About to leave school at age sixteen, I called at numerous commercial art studios in Central London with a small book of my ink drawings, hoping to get a job. Then after several days of such visits, I was taken on as a tea boy and messenger at a firm in Fleet Street specialising in airbrush illustration and photo retouching. I was trained there, and at the London School of Graphic Art in nearby Clerkenwell.
In 1957, I was called up for two years' National service in the British army. During that time I spent about ten months in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on Christmas Island, now known as Kiritimati. It was a remote but beautiful coral atoll of lagoons and rare wildlife. I witnessed two hydrogen bomb explosions while there. I returned to work in Fleet Street after my army years, and later joined a graphic design studio in London's Soho district, where I worked for seven years during the 1960s. It was a formative time, a period of self-education and enormous personal change, a vibrant time to be in London. I constantly visited the National Gallery, Tate Gallery, British Museum and Courtauld Gallery, in lunch hour visits. Also the Mayfair galleries and sale rooms, which featured at that time abstract paintings from America and France, the Pop Art movement, the new work of Francis Bacon and Henry Moore, and the exhibitions of the younger generation of painters, such as David Hockney, Philip Sutton and David Tindle.
I met my wife Maureen in 1960 at a London jazz club. We travelled with friends the next year by car to Van Gogh's village of Auvers sur Oise, then to Paris and on to Florence, Rome, and Naples, visiting the great galleries. In 1962, we married, and our first home was at Loughton by Epping Forest. During the early 60s my paintings were abstracts, influenced by de Stael, Esteve and Rothko. At Loughton they evolved into simplified landscapes, inspired by Japanese screen paintings, and Chinese scroll painting, very spare and large. It led to an interest in Oriental philosophy and religion through the writings of Alan Watts; a way of thinking that changed my life and attitude. It gave me quiet confidence, but evaporated most ambition, especially concerning money and ego, which wasn't conducive for "getting on in the world". It has, however, sustained me in a happy and fulfilled life.
While living at Loughton our two daughters Jane and Anne were born. I began exhibiting my paintings in London at lots of group exhibitions, including the Royal Academy Summer exhibitions, the Free Painter's and Sculptor's Group, and the Artists' International Association, where I had my first solo exhibition at their Lisle Street gallery behind Leicester Square, attended by just two or three friends. My paintings changed direction, as I sought to experiment and find my way. I was elected to the AIA, but was increasingly losing faith in much of modern art. Even then I had seen an exhibition of blank canvases. I had also seen the big Balthus exhibition on at the Tate Gallery on Millbank in 1968. That was, I realise now, a turning point for me, a far richer seam of expression. Balthus' paintings were of domestic life and landscape, done in the European traditions of the past, inspired by the great masters, yet admired by Picasso and Bonnard. Surely this was the way forward.To develop new ways and ideas in painting, yet to remain in the folds of the European tradition, rather than to throw everything away in destructive abandon. It was as if permission had been granted to me to paint figurative subjects in a realistic manner.
To free ourselves from the debt of a mortgage, we sold our suburban house and bought a derelict corn mill in West Suffolk, and relocated there. It meant throwing up my job, and spending about two years converting the building into a home. I had work in various West End galleries, and an uncle took some to America which brought in a small income, but not enough. I took a job in Cambridge in 1970, and a new chapter began. Eventually I built up a living from freelance illustration in Cambridge and a reputation as a painter there, participating in many group exhibitions in East Anglia, with solo shows of my own work. By that time I had finally evolved to my subject and style of painting which has remained to the present day, but is continually being redeveloped as my range and experience increases, yet always under the general subject of present day life. My "realistic" style has always been at variance with what was generally approved of by the art establishment, yet respected by other artists for its integrity. In 1976, I was elected as a member of the Cambridge Society of Painters and Sculptors, a small professional group, and later became its chairman, exhibiting with them each year at the Fitzwilliam Museum and at Kettle's Yard in Cambridge. In the late 1970s I produced a series of paintings on the Seven Ages, shown on television and subsequently at the Hobson Gallery in Cambridge, the Chelmsford and Essex Museum, and the Minories Gallery Colchester; Some were shown at the National Book League in London.