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Somerset illustrator, Richard Briggs, chats to Robert Hesketh at home in Portishead

PUBLISHED: 19:09 14 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:04 20 February 2013

Bath Abbey

Bath Abbey

Richard Briggs's vivid scenes, many from Somerset and Devon, others from his travels in Britain and around the globe, are instantly recognisable. Painting in watercolour and ink, his illustrations have a freshness and spontaneity, his bold pe...

Somerset illustrator, Richard Briggs, chats to Robert Hesketh at home in Portishead





After a teaching career that took him to West Africa and Cairo, not to mention such exotic places as Hackney and Norfolk, Richard decided to focus full-time on his art last year, making his home in Portishead. The course of his life was not obvious from the start.


"Football was my great interest at school, but as I wasn't going to play for England, I did art to fill in the timetable," says Richard. "I moved on to work with Dad in his textile business in Chard. After two years, I knew I wasn't going to make it as a business tycoon, so I went to college and got a degree in illustration and graphics."


Discovering he could draw, especially buildings, Richard began to develop his own distinctive style. "Abstract art didn't appeal to me - much of it smacks of the 'emperor's new clothes' - and a career in graphics held no interest. I focused on illustrations and sold pen and ink drawings of places, essentially what I do now, through galleries. After three years of scraping a living at that, I took a teaching qualification, with the notion that I'd draw part-time and teach part-time.




"Sometimes I draw in situ, but mainly I work at home from photographs"




"Teaching opened up the world of travel, something I'd always vowed to do. I went as a VSO teacher-trainer to Gambia where I met my wife-to-be, Rachel. She'd gone out to do a similar job. Back in England, we had various teaching jobs in various places.


"I love teaching, it's a good income and gives great holidays, but it's an exacting mistress and had me planning lessons until midnight, which stopped me drawing for years. Well, when we moved back to Somerset I thought: Now or never, I'm 40 and I've really got to give illustration another chance. I hawked a few drawings of Somerset scenes around local galleries and they took them immediately. I cut the teaching to part-time. More galleries took me on. With Rachel's backing, I gave up teaching altogether 10 months ago."


I suggest it must have been a scary move to step out of a steady career like teaching. "I've no regrets. I had a great time teaching and I miss the kids, but education is much more demanding than it was. You need to be young and energetic. There are certainly more difficult children. With central and local government constantly moving the goalposts, the job became something I never felt fully in control of. The bureaucracy is terrible and the new initiatives interminable. What a comedy it would make...


"Changing horses in mid-stream is not easy, but things are going well for me. I'm building up a list of galleries and I think there'll always be a market with them for my sort of work, but what I'd really like to do is more illustration. My old tutor admired David Gentleman's work and introduced me to it. David travelled Britain and the world, making lovely, quick, vivid watercolour illustrations in pen and ink of what he saw and turned them into books. I'd love to do that, too. Paul Hogarth is another book illustrator I really appreciate. Among many other things, he illustrated covers for many of Graham Greene's books and throughout the text in Peter Mayle's 'A Year in Provence'."


I asked Richard how he goes about his work.


"Sometimes I draw in situ, but mainly I work at home from photographs. Balancing that, I travel a lot and take my camera and sketchbooks with me. My usual technique is to use fairly heavyweight watercolour paper, sketch in pencil, then fill in with pen and ink, which gives you great strength of line. Fibre-tip pens are perfect. Next, I lay on a mix of red and blue to give dark tones and shadows, contrast and depth, before moving on to the lighter colours. I love the freshness and spontaneity of watercolours. If it's not fluid and quick, it's probably not good enough. You can't really recover watercolours; if you make a mistake the picture's ruined."




"We're surrounded by such great places. There's such variety in Somerset and in the Westcountry as a whole"




And, of course, having settled in Portishead, Richard has plenty of inspirational scenery right on his doorstep. "We're surrounded by such great places. There's such variety in Somerset and in the Westcountry as a whole. I've sought out galleries in places I really like to draw, starting with Bath and Wells and moving on to Totnes, Exeter, Porlock and Lyme Regis. I love that coast, Beer, Budleigh, Lyme... You can't fail with boats and beautiful buildings! Clevedon has a fine front and pier and is just a few miles from here. So is Clifton, with its bridge and gorge and its handsome old houses."


Strongly drawn to English towns and villages of character with a long history, Richard takes every opportunity to drive around the western counties and over to South Wales. The Cotswolds and Yorkshire are among his other favourites in Britain. He thoroughly enjoys foreign travel too - Rachel's school holidays permitting. Everywhere he goes, including Spain, Turkey and Egypt on recent trips, is grist for the mill.


Richard likes painting big city scenes, too. Not surprisingly, Venice is his favourite, but he's also made vivid drawings of London, Paris and New York. "There's something about the skylines of great cities that are superb. Modern architects can't destroy that; somehow historic cities keep their character.


"I'm not very good at stopping home and decorating. I'd much rather be off on my travels. My youthful ambition to see the world is still with me and I want to go everywhere twice. Places get better the more you see them."


Selling through galleries, Richard rarely knows who's bought his drawings. With commissions, however, matters are different. Recently, a lady asked Richard to draw a cricket scene which she could give her brother, a great enthusiast for the game. Asked who her brother was, she said nonchalantly: 'Oh, he's the Chairman of the MCC [Marylebone Cricket Club].'


'Isn't that John Major?'


'Yes, I'm his sister.'


Fortunately, Richard had been to a Test Match at the Oval with his Dad and had, as usual, taken photographs. The commission was well received.


What of the future? "It's early days yet. I'd love to travel the world, and travel Britain, drawing and painting. I don't want to make a fortune, but I don't think making a living at my art should be impossible." BY ROBERT HESKETH


FURTHER INFORMATION



Richard's work can be seen at: Alexander Gallery (www.alexander-gallery.co.uk), Clifton; Sadler Street Gallery (www.thesadlerstreetgallery.co.uk), Wells; Millwheel Gallery (www.millwheelgallery.co.uk), Porlock; Fizz Gallery (www.fizzgallery.co.uk), Clevedon; Atrium Gallery (www.atriumgallery.com), Bath; plus galleries in Exeter, Totnes and Budleigh Salterton.


Richard welcomes enquiries and commissions, including private residences, wedding venues and business premises.


For more information call 01275 818418 or visit www.richardbriggsillustration.co.uk.


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