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The Art of Riley

Time spent in the company of the artist Harold Riley provides a glimpse of a rare talent and a lifetime’s obsession with the game of golf. An exhibition of his work to showcase the best of his unique sketches and paintings from the Open will be staged at the Fraser Gallery in St Andrews from July 12-19. John Hopkins travelled to Salford for a preview.

Harold Riley, the eminent portrait painter and golf enthusiast and chronicler of many golf events, is a man of Salford, near Manchester. A good enough footballer to have got to the verge of the famous Manchester United team of the 1950s, he later delivered the address at Sir Matt Busby’s funeral.

Riley and Ashraf, his wife, live in a penthouse flat in the redevelopment of the docklands a stone’s throw from Old Trafford and he works in a Victorian building in Fire Engine Square, opposite the University of Salford. “A John Riley was court painter to James I and I am court painter to the current Royal Family,” Riley said matter of factly. “Rileys have been painters in and around Salford for 800 years. Painting is in the blood.”

Yet Riley is also a man of the Open, someone who has attended every one starting with the one at St Andrews in 1946 and while there may be others who have also done this none will have such a collection of drawings, paintings and water colours of the various Opens as Riley. This is a man, remember, who has painted portraits of Popes, Presidents of the US, members of the Royal Family, Herbert von Karajan and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf.

Riley has hundreds of these paintings, water colours, pen and ink drawings stored neatly in his studio in Salford and now 100 of them from the 12 St Andrews Opens he has attended are to be put on show in an exhibition in the Fraser Gallery in South Street, St Andrews, during the Open. The Fraser Gallery will stage the exhibition again during the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in October.

Riley’s work in this exhibition is not the conventional portrait type but rather the work of a man with an eye for anything – from a sleeping dog, to a man on a shooting stick, to the railway sheds at St Andrews. The exhibits represent art of the highest quality but they also are testimony to one man’s passion and dedication to golf.

“Every time I went to the Open I did something,” Riley said. “I tend to keep sketch books for events but often things are drawn on the back of envelopes or pieces of paper. The main interest I had in going to the Open courses was not necessarily the players and the results but in making drawings of what was going on around me.

“For instance, when I was watching Ben Hogan at Carnoustie in 1953 I had a sketching book with me. On the left hand page I recorded how he played the hole, what the score was and where the ball fell. On the right hand page I recorded an impression of what I was looking at, a tree on the course, or a view across a landscape.

“Look” he said pulling out an envelope. “This is the only paper I had available to make a drawing of Seve on the putting green. That’s gone into the exhibition.

“I tend to keep sketch books for events but often things are drawn on the back of envelopes or pieces of paper. Mostly they represent my idea of trying to tell him about the excitement of what had happened when people won, and also of people I met, like Henry Longhurst.”

A good many of the exhibits are letters and drawings sent to Michael, his younger brother, who once played off scratch and has lived in the US for 40 years. Seeking permission to include them in his exhibition, Riley called Michael in the US and the conversation went like this:

“I want to use some of these letters I have been sending you” Harold said to Michael.

“Do you mind?” “What letters?” Michael replied.

“I have been writing and sending letters to you for the best part of 40 years!” Harold said.

“I never received them” Michael said.

“You never received them because I never sent them!” Harold said.

“Why haven’t you sent them?” Michael asked.

“In case you lost them. I ought to have sent you copies of them but now I am going to send you copies of them all.”

Riley chortled as he told that story and got up from his chair.

“Come and look at this” he said, leading the way out of a studio and into his adjoining office. He sat at his desk and looked rather uncertainly at a computer. He was nothing like so sure with a mouse in his hand and a computer screen in front of him as he is with a paint brush and a blank canvas.

“What’s happened?” he murmured as he failed to find what he was looking for. Suddenly there was a click and there on the screen was the catalogue of his exhibition. Another click and there was a drawing. He peered closely at the accompanying caption, his own words written alongside the drawing.

“Mr Snead driving at the 1st hole of the 1947 Open” he said.

There was another click and another image appeared on the screen.

“Mr Snead’s shoes. 13 studs. Wasn’t an unlucky championship for him.”

Riley, aged 14, had travelled to St Andrews in 1947 in a truck with his uncle, who was delivering windows. “We had only one day there. Railways were my great love at the time, which is hardly surprising because I had been brought up next to the first passenger railway line in the world – the Manchester to Liverpool. So I became intrigued with the locomotives in the sheds at St Andrews. I finished up making twenty drawings of which 17 were of the railway sheds and three of Sam Snead who just happened to pass by. These are all in the collection being shown at the Fraser Gallery in association with Alfred Dunhill.”

So it went for half an hour as chimes tinkled in the summer breeze outside Riley’s studio. A click, a moment’s pause, a barely discernible whirring as the computer did its work and another image appeared on the screen and Riley read the accompanying caption.

Click. “This is Henry Cotton near the railway sheds in 1955.”

Click. “Here is Bobby Locke at the 1957 Open.”

Click. “Here is a dog asleep, curled up at the feet of its master.”

Click. “There’s an R & A member reading his paper.”

On the walls of Riley’s studio in Salford are paintings of Henry Cotton and others. He has a row of cameras on one shelf, a cloth draped over a portrait of the Duchess of York elsewhere. But the dominant presence is that of Jack Nicklaus. There is a big portrait of Nicklaus, side on, hand resting on the handle of his putter as he sizes up a putt.

“I remember seeing Jack for the first time in 1959 while I was an art student at Slade Art School in London. That year I saw him play at two of our greatest courses: first at Royal St George’s, where he won the Challenge Vase, and then as a member of the American Walker Cup team at Muirfield, a place he must surely remember fondly. Some of the earliest sketches I made at those tournaments are here. My lasting memory is the ‘buzz’ everybody had about the strength and the power of the driving.”

The names of Nicklaus and Riley are intertwined, not only because Riley has attended Muirfield Village for every Memorial tournament for the past 20 years but because there is a mutual respect between the two men. “When you look at something that has been done by Harold, for some reason it’s always very special” Nicklaus said recently. “I’m not an art critic so I can’t properly explain what that unique quality is but I see it in Harold’s work.”

“A funny thing happened at Muirfield,” recalls Riley. “As I followed Jack around the course, as a means of trying to assess his body positions while driving, I used the artist’s device of a ‘plumbline’, constructed from a piece of string attached to a tube of paint. I believe it was W.D. Smith (whom Jack beat 5&4 in the singles) who complained to a steward that I “was a bloody nuisance with my string-and-pain-line!”. He protested that I was distracting him more than a camera man. I didn’t need to use the plumb line again after 1959 because I had worked it out. He moved his head but his eyeline remained constant.

“Another thing that struck me in those early days was Jack’s apparent isolation from the crowd. He seemed to have mastered a form of ‘tunnelled vision’, directing his concentration only to the game. This was something I saw in Ben Hogan at Carnoustie in ’53, and Nicklaus had the same way about him. I saw this particular characteristic in 1966 at St Andrews, and I must say I never saw Jack play better.”

In 2005, nearly half a century after that first meeting at St George’s, Riley was at St Andrews to see Nicklaus play his last Open. “I watched the movement and discipline of his body and how it hardly ever lapsed. There was not the same intensity that there had been when I first saw him but the movement I saw in 2005 was basically the same as I had seen in 1959.”

One of Riley’s favourite drawings was done in 2005. There is the familiar figure of Nicklaus, scorecard in his left hand, pencil in his right. The accompanying caption, scribbled in Riley’s neat writing above the drawing, reads: ‘Jack signed his penultimate card. Friday 15th July 2005. St Andrews.’

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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