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The early work of British abstract artist Brian Rice

Dolphin Inn, Lyme Regis 1955 by Brian Rice. (Image: Supplied by Brian Rice)
Dolphin Inn, Lyme Regis 1955 by Brian Rice. (Image: Supplied by Brian Rice)

Still working well into his eighth decade, Brian Rice is one of this country’s most important abstract painters. The 87-year-old has work in nearly 70 museum and corporate collections, mainly in the UK and USA.

Anyone who is familiar with his distinctive abstract paintings and prints is, however, in for an unexpected experience at The Art Stable this February. In the Beginning (February 2 – March 3) presents a fascinating archive of work from the 1950s when Brian was at Yeovil School of Art and then Goldsmiths College, London.

Featuring a collection of delicate landscapes and portraits alongside colourful prints hinting at this budding artist’s future, these are his earliest works. They are also from this seminal period in the 20th century, when art education was rigorous, and the teaching of skills paramount; primarily with a teaching career in view. The award of a National Diploma in Design (NDD) after four years of hard study was not easily achieved. These closely observed figurative images from an artist now so well known for his bold, purely abstract work, perhaps demonstrate the value of such a thorough foundation. Enabling the student to move with confidence into their own creative path.

Great British Life: Recent portrait of Brian Rice in his Dorset studio, showing one of his bold abstracts in the background. (Photo: Matt Austin)Recent portrait of Brian Rice in his Dorset studio, showing one of his bold abstracts in the background. (Photo: Matt Austin)

Visitors to this exhibition will recognise some of the landscapes and townscapes depicted in these lively and colourful paintings and prints, many capture a moment in local history. The lithograph Cattle Market and St John's Church, Yeovil demonstrates the changes which the town has since endured, whereas the 1953 print Floods at Muchelney (on the Somerset Levels) shows how little other things change. There are also detailed architectural drawings (Brian began art school with the aim of going on to study architecture) which required hours of close observation. His love of ancient churches has stayed with him to this day.

'Drawing was the foundation of our work,’ says Brian. ‘But we had facilities to take this into so many types of printmaking as well as painting.' His first, exquisite wood engraving of a cockerel Rare Breed is in the show. 'We also had classes in heraldry given by Elsie Kay Kohler,' he continues. 'This may seem like a strange subject to cover, but heraldry greatly influenced my abstract work and still does today.’

Born in Yeovil in 1936, Brian sowed the creative seeds for what would become his career at 17. 'My life began when I discovered Yeovil School of Art,' he declares. In the 1950s, further education was free. This would prove to be a crucial factor for his family, and he could cycle to the Yeovil School of Art from his home in Montacute. ‘At that time there were 20 fulltime students, along with three full time and three part time members of staff,’ he recalls. ‘We worked hard, from 9am to 9pm most days, but there was also a lot of fun. We went on Sketch Camps in the summer to Cornwall and Porlock Weir, and there were occasional visits to London galleries. The School of Art’s Christmas Ball was a major, and very creative event. Everyone was involved in transforming the school, and themselves, to that year's theme.’

Great British Life:  Lithograph, 1958 Cattle Market and St John's Church, Yeovil, by Brian Rice. (Supplied by Brian Rice) Lithograph, 1958 Cattle Market and St John's Church, Yeovil, by Brian Rice. (Supplied by Brian Rice)

Brian's thoughts of studying architecture quickly changed. ‘It soon became clear to me that the painting students were having a much more interesting time!' he says. Though he was not permitted to take up painting at this stage, he was able to study illustration, with textile design as a subsidiary. Sadly, the bold colourful textiles Brian produced at Yeovil, and then later under Robert Brazil at Goldsmiths College in London, have been lost in the mists of time, along with some daring and innovative ceramics made under Gordon Baldwin's tuition, also at Goldsmiths. The textiles have had a lasting influence on his later abstract work.

By the 1960s the art scene was changing. Brian moved to London, having decided that above all else art would be the focus of his life, as an abstract painter. His best friend from Yeovil School of Art, Derek Boshier, was also in London, studying at the Royal College of Art alongside other influential contemporary artists. So, the likes of David Hockney, Allen Jones, Peter Blake and Jo Tilson, became the centre of Brian's working and social life.

Between 1964 and 1967 Brian had his first solo exhibition in London, he was offered a lecturer's position at Brighton College of Art (where he continued until 2001) and he was contracted to make several series of screenprints for an American dealer. Though Swinging Sixties London was an exciting place to be, Brian's roots were firmly anchored in the South West. In 1971 he bought a cottage in Lyme Regis (where his mother’s family was based), and by the mid 1970's he was living back in Dorset.

Great British Life: 1956, Yeovil C.C. at Elevenses by Brian Rice. (Image: Supplied by Brian Rice)1956, Yeovil C.C. at Elevenses by Brian Rice. (Image: Supplied by Brian Rice)

Brian continued to have a remarkable career exhibiting his abstract paintings and prints in the USA, Europe, Japan and UK. In the 2000s he exhibited in the prestigious London Cork Street galleries, Messums and The Redfern, as well as various galleries in the West Country. And in 2013 and 2016 he published catalogues raisonnés of his prints and paintings.

Brian has lived with his wife, printmaker, ceramists and textile artist Jacy Wall, in the hamlet of Hewood, near Thorncombe for the past 40 years. He is really looking forward to sharing these lesser-known works from the start of his long and illustrious career with the public.

In the Beginning: Paintings, drawing and prints by Brian Rice is at The Art Stable, Child Okeford from February 3 – March 2. The Gallery is open from Thursday to Saturday, 10am - 3pm during exhibitions. The cafe and farm shop are open at those times too. theartstable.co.uk

Great British Life: Fairground From Ham Hill 1955, Gouache. (Photo: Supplied by Brian Rice)Fairground From Ham Hill 1955, Gouache. (Photo: Supplied by Brian Rice)



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