British artist John Inigo Richards lit up the theatre world with his glorious scene paintings which were influenced by his efforts as a landscape artist. A fascinating personality, Richards was part of the group of British artists who were making strides to establish an eminent British art scene and develop their own unique approach to landscape painting.
Richards grew up surrounded by artistic enterprise. His father was a scene painter for the flourishing London theatre scene and was said to have worked with William Hogarth (1697-1764). Indeed, Richards claimed that Hogarth was his godfather.
Richards received training at the St Martin's Lane Academy, one of the earliest artistic institutions established in Britain. Here he studied under George Lambert (1700-1765), one of the leading landscape artists in Britain at the time. It seems likely that Richards would have joined him on a number of sketching trips across Britain, developing his education and understanding of a growing art genre in Britain.
Landscape had, before the late 18th century, typically been the reserve of foreign artists painting scenes of far-off places. With developments in travel and changes in ideas about nature, however, a market began to crop up for British artists to produce landscapes, both of their home country and places across the seas.
Within this market there began to bloom experimentation in style and representation. The classical style, as embodied in the work of Claude Lorrain, dominated the minds and brushes of artists such as George Lambert and Richard Wilson RA (1714-1782). However, they were beginning to develop more naturalistic tendencies that would come into full bloom in the 19th century with the likes of J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) and John Constable (1776-1837). This was a time of adaptation and innovation, and Richards played his part in the process.
Much influenced by his tutor and by Wilson, Richards’ works possess a clarity of composition which makes his scenes fresh and bright. Landscapes of the British countryside, ranging from the Isle of Wight to the Lake District, are laid out with a harmony much befitting of the classical influences he drew upon. Richards was much praised for his ability to diffuse light softly and gently, adding a sentimental and appealing atmosphere. One feels as if they could walk into his scenes and be overcome with harmonious peace.
Richards typically enjoyed painting scenes of ruined castles such as Chepstow Castle and Corfe Castle. He combines the reality of these ruins, painting the truth of their decay, with his imaginative uses of light and mood. The effect is to create views of the British countryside which adapt its natural state and the remains of its history into theatrical and harmonious pieces of art.
It seems unsurprising that Richards’ works are infused with theatricality. He followed in his father’s footsteps, and his main line of work came from scene painting for the theatres of London. In 1777, he became the Principal Scene Painter for the Covent Garden Theatre, a position he would hold for almost 30 years. He is also responsible for the development of the American theatre scene.
He designed the Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, the first professional theatre in America, and sent his scene paintings across the Atlantic to help furnish its stage.
It seems there was something of a co-dependant relationship between Richards’ landscape paintings and his theatre work. Not only did his landscape work inspire his theatre scenes with great drama and naturalism, but his landscapes sometimes took a basis from his theatre scenes. A piece exhibited in 1765 titled ‘A Scene from ‘The Maid of the Mill’’ was developed from an opera which had performed at the Covent Garden Theatre that same year.
Richards was much involved with the growing British art scene. He was a member of the Society of Artists, and often exhibited with them early in his career. He also exhibited with the Free Society of Artists. What the British art scene needed, however, was an institution with royal backing that could provide education and exhibition space that could rival the great institutions across Europe and make a statement about British art.
In 1768, the Royal Academy was established by a group of 36 artists, including Richards. Until his death in 1810, Richards would contribute both his works to the annual exhibitions and his time and efforts to the running of this newly established institution. In 1788 he was appointed the secretary of the Royal Academy, a position which entitled him to his own lodgings within Somerset House, the home of the RA. In this role, he would undertake the cataloguing of their collections and be involved with the day-to-day running of the institution. It seems Richards might have been better suited to a non-administrative role, however, for his peers often described him as ‘surly.’
Richards continued to produce landscapes and exhibit with the Royal Academy right up until the year prior to his death. He also undertook some restoration work on a piece in their collections by Leonardo DaVinci, ensuring the survival of this piece of work and the RA’s vital role in the art scene of not only Britain but Europe as well.
John Inigo Richards’ career spanned from the theatres of London to the Royal Academy. He produced landscapes which built upon the traditions of the genre and participated in the growing identity of British landscape art which would flourish in the 19th century.
Born in London, Britain.
Exhibited frequently at the Society of Artists.
Became a member of the Society of Artists.
Became a founding member of the Royal Academy.
Married Elizabeth Wignell.
Exhibited frequently at the Royal Academy.
Exhibited frequently at the Free Society of Artists.
Worked as the Principal Scene Painter at the Covent Garden Theatre.
Became secretary of the Royal Academy.
Paid 12 guineas to repair Leonardo DaVinci’s ‘The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist.’
Died in London, Britain. Buried in St Paul’s, Covent Garden, London.