A Short Biography of John Ridgewell

Early years

John Ridgewell was born on 26th December 1937 to Mabel and Herbert Ridgewell in Halstead, a small town in Essex once known for its cloth mills, and up until the early 1980’s it was the home of Courtaulds, a fibre manufacturing giant.

Mabel and Herbert ran a shoe shop in Head Street, Halstead, a business taken over from his father, Robert, who was a shoemaker. The advent of factory produced shoes shifted the business into sales of pre-made shoes and repairs. The Ridgewell family lived above the shop and grew vegetables in their back garden.

John started his schooling at St Andrew’s Primary School in Halstead, and moved to the Grammar School in Earls Colne at aged 12. By his own admission John tended to ‘drift through these years’, although his interest in creativity seems to have blossomed in this period, with Art and Woodwork being his better subjects.

Colchester School of Art

This aptitude for art gained him entrance to the Colchester School of Art in September 1954. The School principle at this time was John O’Connor, who taught wood engraving as part of his duties. O’Connor was related to the Surrealist painter Paul Nash, whose brother John, a noted war artist, was also at Colchester School of Art, teaching illustration.

John commented in later life that he was the artist that he was, both talented and diligent, because of John O’Connor’s guiding ideal of artistic expression married to rigorous organisation of both the individual students and the school. Some of the surviving paintings from this period are shown on the pages ‘Early Work’. The School was small, just 35 to 40 students at any one time, with a faculty staff of around 17, a pupil focussed and encouraging environment that must have been encouraging and artistically nurturing for John and his fellow pupils.

John met fellow artist Denzil Reeves, another teacher at the School, a little older than John who became a life long friend, who as well as supporting John’s artistic development, family legend has it, Denzil taught John to cook, at least to the beans on toast level required to keep students alive – John did not pursue cooking as a hobby, and was encouraged in later life to remain in his studio with his paints. Denzil himself was a talented cook and John recalled that he could he could produce a roast dinner from just a hot plate.

One of the defining features across John’s work over all his changes in style from the blocky works of the early days to the finely detailed blue and white images of his last years, has been his eye for balance and structure. John credits this ability to his teacher Richard (Dicky) Chopping who taught observational skills. He asked that his students focused on colour, form and texture. John felt that the hours spent in these classes provided him with his ability to identify potential structure in an image by knowing where to look for it in his subjects.

In John’s second year as a student Dicky took his pupil’s to a London exhibition of new art, an experience that seemed to shock John who said that after that visit his work suffered – he had become exposed to the idea that there were ways of seeing the world artistically that had previously not occurred to him. Fortunately for posterity, John was able to regain his confidence and find his own voice.

External influences included an exhibition of the work of Georges Braque in 1956, an influence that can be seen in some of the images in ‘Student Days’. John continued to admire Braque’s work throughout his life.

Other teachers remembered from that period include Hugh Cronin, an Impressionist painter who, along with other teachers, painted his own work alongside teaching, a way of seeing an artist at their own work independent of teaching, and Alistair Grant who told John that his palette looked like a fruit salad, and made him do his next work in one colour only. John enjoyed the experiment, which he said taught him a lot about tone, a feature of his paintings that particularly use blue as a distance colour, although as a couple of the images in the ‘Pictures on Pictures’ section shows, his palette remained colourful.

Nigel Henderson joined the faculty during John’s time there, and John once said of him to a friend that he ‘forced me to paint what I trod on by making me look at what I stood on, [and to understand] what I was stepping on…I am lucky enough to have the time to paint things that other people don’t have time to observe. This is all an artist can do.’ Henderson was also a photographer who encouraged John to experiment in this direction, Although later John saw photography as a tool for his painting process, his photography is often remarkable for its quality of composition and light – see Black & White photos.

Royal College of Art

In 1958 John entered the Royal College of Art, aged just 21. He shared his time their with David Hockney and R B Kitaj, and was a little intimidated at their ability to handle themselves and promote themselves with confidence. John never really left the quiet rural Essex boy behind, and remained self-effacing and modest, in the real sense of modesty, not self-aggrandisement by false modesty, and this is largely why he is unknown today – he never pushed for the high profile status that others of his generation did, and his dislike of reproductions of his art meant that images disappear into private hands.

No specific tutors were named by John as especially influential, in the way he recorded for Colchester.  But the environment encouraged him to continue on his own path, and the location of the college by the Victoria and Albert museum gave great pleasure to him, wandering the corridors of that building looking at the extraordinary range of pictures and artistic creations held with and indeed on, its walls.

In his second year at college, John married Marion Sutton and they honeymooned in a campervan through Scotland.  Visiting a scenery and lifestyle now mostly gone, including crofters in remote locations, that impressed him greatly. On returning to London the newly-weds rented a house in East Sheen, with a tiny bedroom becoming a studio, setting a pattern of studios at home that they followed throughout his life.

During his time there John, along with another eight students, was commissioned to create a mural for the St James’s Hospital Children’s Ward in Balham, which led to his appearance on a BBC television show Wednesday Magazine segment on ‘Putting Murals in Children’s Hospitals’. Sadly I can find no trace of this image, but its abstract design was well recived at the time.

His Diploma show was regarded as successful, and the New Arts Centre in London arranged an exhibition of his work, one of which was subsequently bought by the British Government. It can be viewed on this site and on the BBC Your Paintings website, where it is named ‘Landscape VI’ – John’s tendency to unhelpful titles was set from early on! <> Sadly his dissertation is lost, although John recalls that it focussed on the problem of capturing a space and bringing it into another, an issue that preoccupied him throughout his working life.

Scarborough School of Art

Having graduated from the Royal Academy, John needed to earn a living. A position arose at Scarborough School of Art and John and Marion went there in 1961, initially renting a house in Cloughton Newlands then moving to Hunmanby in 1962 where they stayed until 1966.

It is reasonable to say that John developed his personal and distinctive style here in Scarborough, with imagery inspired by the raw clay cliffs and cascades of houses into deep valley settings inspired by the dramatic North Yorkshire coast and the Victorian housing that still dominated much of the industrial north – trips to Halifax and Huddersfield, Pateley Bridge and Hebden Bridge, Robin Hood’s Bay and Whitby providing images that recur in his paintings over the next few years. The many paintings that contain a red roofed farmhouse are from the Wolds to the east of Hunmanby, a different, softer landscape than the coast or the towns, but one that recurs in John’s work.

Elm Tree House in Hunmanby became the venue for John’s vital switch from teacher and artist to full time artist, encouraged by Marion. It was also the first of several house restorations that dominated the next few moves, with Elm Tree House being in sore need of renovation to make it habitable. It was also a way of buying a larger property on a budget that normally would not have achieved this aim.

John enjoyed the teaching aspect of his life at this time, but felt restricted by a head of school who had a suspicion of new ideas. A story is told of John encouraging his pupils to to throw paint all over the floor and walk around in it, creating shapes and colours as they went. The head did not approve of such an avant garde approach to art, and his reaction is credited with helping John decide to go full time as an artist. But he enjoyed the company of his students and took them back to Hunmanby for tea on an occasion recalled by a pupil of his who remembers him fondly.

His independence as an artist was helped in no small part by the Austen Hayes gallery in The Shambles in York. Austen believed in John’s work and held several one man exhibitions there in the 1960’s. John was grateful to Austen for his faith in him and the break he got from it, and continued to hold exclusive shows in York years after he left for Suffolk. Exhibitions in London were increasing and his painting was becoming known to a discerning clientele, many of whom remained loyal to John for years, buying paintings directly or through the various exhibitions.

It was Austen who first said, as a man in the arts as purveyor and promoter, that John’s paintings could not be mistaken for anyone else’s. This is, I believe, absolutely true. Despite the several styles and subjects of his pictures, his shift in techniques from palate knife application of thick paint in early pictures to the near-watercolour delicacy of his late pictures, John’s style is unmistakable.

His time at Hunmanby saw the emergence of his surrealistic side, with doors and staircases in landscapes appearing in his work. John did not describe himself a surrealist, just as a landscape artist, and his paintings do move fluidly between direct representations and surrealist interpretations of that landscape. Many of his most striking images are from this strand, which is why the Home page of this site has one of my favourites, a huge canvas of a doorframe and staircase in a landscape. His rate of production was extraordinary, with up to fifty or sixty paintings produced every year for exhibitions. But then it was what he did for a living.

Interestingly John did not accept direct commissions of the ‘I want you to paint the south aspect of my house on a summer’s evening’ type. He would accept a commission of ‘paint a picture of my house’, provide several images of it and the commissioner was welcome to purchase, or not, which ever they wished. The understanding was that any pictures not bought by the commissioner would be offered for general sale, which has led to some odd pictures being offered on occasion. John would paint the pictures he felt moved to paint – his artistic control was never compromised. This makes him sound like a difficult man, but those who have met him would agree that John was far from difficult, with the possible exception of refusing to name his pictures, infuriating gallery owners everywhere! All who met him found a charming , intelligent, interested person who had the ability to talk to, and by interested by, absolutely anyone at all.

Moving to Suffolk

In 1966 John and Marion decided to move to Suffolk, to Great Waldingfield. The reason for this move is not entirely clear, other than perhaps some level of homesickness – the village of Great Waldingfield is not so far from Halstead and his origins than far flung Yorkshire. John and Marion always stayed linked with Yorkshire and where able to own a second home in Lastingham on the edge of the North Yorks Moors in approx 1978, and of course John showed annually at the Austen Hayes gallery in York.

Initially they lived in Maltings Barn in Great Waldingfield, and their son James was born in 1966. The young family then moved to the Old Rectory in around 1968. The Old Rectory was even more dilapidated than Elm Tree House, to the point of having a fully grown tree in the stairs – an image that must have appealed to John.

The Rectory was sold for a move to Dorset where James attended Bryanston school.  The family lived there from 1980 to 1983.  James boarded 1983 to 1984 and John and Marion lived in their holiday home in Lastingham for a short while whilst they decided whether to move to Yorkshire or back to Suffolk. Suffolk won out and they bought Campion Hill near Wissington in 1984, a 1930’s house perched overlooking a rural farmed valley.  They moved again to Half Moone House in Stoke by Nayland in approx 1993  Stoke By Nayland was a village with more facilities and road links than Wissington as the first signs of John’s bowel cancer had been diagnosed and they needed to be less remote.

John continued to work hard at Half Moone House, converting a barn that was attached to the house into a high roofed studio. His style shifted here to smaller works, more delicate in design and execution – the blue and white mug pictures are from this last period of work, along with the pictures that have a shelf with postcard views of the main subject inserted into the image – see the Doug paintings and Pictures on Pictures pages.

John and Marion moved to a flat in Bury St Edmunds in approx 2002 in order to be closer to hospital as John’s health was worsening. John died in St Leonard’s Hospice in December 2004 in the presence of his wife and son.​

Adam Baldwin January 2016