Visual Arts in Ayrshire

The Maclaurin Art Collection  ~  Middle Period Purchase

Bridget Riley  CH CBE b1931


2. Riley

3. Riley

Artist biography

Riley was born at Norwood, London, the daughter of a businessman. Her childhood was spent in Cornwall and Lincolnshire. She studied at Goldsmiths' College from 1949 to 1952, and at the Royal College of Art from 1952 to 1955. She began painting figure subjects in a semi-impressionist manner, then changed to pointillism around 1958, mainly producing landscapes. In 1960 she evolved a style in which she explored the dynamic potentialities of optical phenomena. These so-called 'Op-art' pieces, such as Fall 1963 (Tate Gallery), produce a disorienting physical effect on the eye.

Riley taught children for two years before joining the Loughborough School of Art, where she initiated a basic design course in 1959. She then taught at Hornsey School of Art, and from 1962 at Croydon School of Art. She worked for the J. Walter Thompson Group advertising agency from 1960, but gave up teaching and advertising agency work in 1963-4.

Group shows include Young Contemporaries, London, 1955; Diversion, South London Art Gallery 1958; an Arts Council Touring Exhibition, 1962; Tooth's Critics Choice Exhibition, selected by Edward Lucie-Smith, 1963; John Moores' Exhibition, Liverpool, 1963; The New Generation, Whitechapel Gallery 1964; Movement, Hanover Gallery, London, 1964; Painting and Sculpture of a Decade 1954-1964, Tate Gallery, 1964; and Op Art, touring Ireland in 1967. Her numerous European and American exhibitions include The Sixties Collection Revisited, Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, Ridgefield, Connecticut, 1978.

Riley was awarded the AICA Critics Prize in 1963 and also that year a John Moores', Liverpool Open Section prize. In 1964 she was awarded a Peter Stuyvesant Foundation Travel bursary to the USA. In 1968 she won an International Painting Prize at the Venice Biennale.

Her first solo exhibition was held at Gallery One in 1962 with a second solo show the following year. Other solo shows were held at Nottingham University, 1963; Richard Feigen Gallery, New York and Feigen Palmer Gallery, Los Angeles, 1965; Museum of Modern Art, New York, with US tour, 1966; Venice Biennale, British Pavilion (with Phillip King), 1968; Hayward Gallery, London, 1971; National Gallery, Prague, 1971; Hayward Gallery and Kunsthalle Nuremberg, 1992; Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, 1995; and Waddington Galleries, London, 1996.


Bridget Riley  CH CBE b1931

1.      Rose Return (1985). Bridget Riley (b1931). Oil on Linen 1630 x 1430 mm.  Purchased from the Juda Rowan Gallery.  Collection: The Maclaurin Trust.  Photograph Date 2010. ©The Maclaurin Trust.

2.   Bridget Riley in her studio, 1984.  South West Galleries Association  Catalogue illustration, Photograph ©Anthea Sieveking.

3.   Bridget Riley in her studio. South West Galleries Association Catalogue illustration. Photograph ©John Webb FRPS

The selection of a work by Bridget Riley was driven by two considerations: firstly, an enthusiasm for her work as it developed following her visit to Egypt and secondly, the relationships with some of the works by key figures in Abstract Expressionism and colour field painting.  Of course, the organisation of a retrospective exhibition her her work by the South West Galleries Association Riley has been described as a major innovator, but one who is very much aware of close relationships between what she does and things which other artists have done in the past.

Her actual technical methods are also more traditional than might appear at first sight. She considers, in fact, that she was very lucky to have received a figurative training, which included drawing from the life. But, her paintings today, however radical they may appear when we first meet them, are built up in a way which has much to do with the academic studio methods of the past. She makes detailed studies of the motifs she is going to use, which she describes as a process of 'putting formal elements under pressure', a often makes full-scale cartoons for her compositions as well, using water colours on paper. Since colour changes according to the scale on which it is used, she finds this essential if she is to be able to judge the final effect with precision.

Riley's work has obvious stylistic links with the art of earlier epochs. The most conspicuous is her link with Impressionism, and especially with its late offshoot, Neo-lmpressionism. Riley's painting is retinal. What one sees, or seems to see, happens in the eye itself, and the colours on the canvas are dynamic — a mechanism which acts on our own physiology — not something inert.

Most of these designs have one important characteristic in common. It is not only that there is an illusion of movement, but the patterns seem to lift and float slightly in front of the surface on which they are painted. Or, to put it another way, there is a shallow not quite defined space between them and the canvas. The use of this flattened space has been important in the art of the last 75 years. It first makes its appearance in the work of the Cubists, such as that of Braque or Picasso, who broke up appearances into overlapping planes or facets. It reappears in a very different kind of painting-that of the American Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock, whose dribbled skeins of paint float in front of the canvas in the same way as the planes of the Cubists. Her compositions are without a central point of focus. Our eyes are not drawn inexorably to one spot, but instead are kept in constant motion, scanning the whole canvas. This, too, is part of the dynamic effect of what she produces.

[Text based on a catalogue essay by Edward Lucie-Smith and personal recollections]

Bridget Riley  CH CBE b1931

Riley was born in London in 1931. Her father, John Fisher Riley, originally from Yorkshire, was a printer, as his own father had been. In 1938 he relocated the printing business, together with his family, to Lincolnshire.

During World War II Riley's father was drafted into the armed services and she was evacuated, with her mother and sister, to a cottage in Cornwall.The cottage, not far from the sea near Padstow, was shared with an aunt who was a former student at Goldsmiths College, London. Primary education came in the form of irregular talks and lectures by non-qualified or retired teachers.  She was educated at Cheltenham Ladies' College and later studied art at Goldsmiths College (1949–52), and later at the Royal College of Art (1952–55),where her fellow students included artists Peter Blake, Geoffrey Harcourt (the retired painter, also noted for his many well known chair designs) and Frank Auerbach. In 1955 Riley graduated with a BA degree.

Between 1956 and 1958 she nursed her father, after he was involved in a serious car crash, and herself suffered a breakdown. After this she worked in a glassware shop and also, for a while, taught children. She eventually joined the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, as an illustrator, where she worked part-time until 1962. The large Whitechapel Gallery exhibition of Jackson Pollock, in the winter of 1958, was to have a major impact on her.

Her early work was figurative with a semi-impressionist style. Between 1958 and 1959 her advertising agency work saw her adopting a style of painting based on the pointillist technique. Around 1960 she began to develop her signature Op Art style consisting of black and white geometric patterns that explore the dynamism of sight and produce a disorienting effect on the eye. In the summer of 1960 she toured Italy with mentor Maurice de Sausmarez, and the two visited the Venice Biennale with its large exhibition of Futurist works.

Early in her career, Riley worked as an art teacher from 1957-58 at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, Harrow (now known as Sacred Heart Language College). Later she worked at the Loughborough School of Art (1959), Hornsey College of Art, and Croydon College of Art (1962–64).

In 1961, with partner Peter Sedgley, she visited the Vaucluse plateau in the South of France, and acquired a derelict farm which would eventually be transformed into a studio. Back in London, in the spring of 1962, Riley was given her first solo exhibition, by Victor Musgrave of Studio One.[5]

In 1968 Riley, with Peter Sedgley and the journalist Peter Townsend, created the artists' organization SPACE (Space Provision Artistic Cultural and Educational), with the goal of providing artists large and affordable studio space.[8][9]



One day during the War, as the young Bridget Riley swam off the coast of Cornwall, 'a glitter of bright sunlight and its tiny pinpoints of virtually black shadow' made her suddenly feel like she was 'swimming through a diamond.' Forty-odd years later, in 'The Pleasures of Sight' (1984), she reflected that experiences like this had been the 'basis of her visual life'.

On the other side of what she calls the 'plate glass window' of adulthood, she works from this excitement about the experience of seeing. In 1968, her ability to communicate this in paint made her the first woman – and the first Briton – to win the Venice International Painting Prize, in a year of protests that would see Biennale prizes abolished. Coincidentally, they would return the year she did, 1986. 

In wartime Cornwall, she was cared for by her aunt, who had studied painting at Goldsmiths' College, and her mother, who passed on a taste for reading, and a delighted eye for natural colour. As she'd had a fairly irregular education up until the end of the war, Cheltenham Ladies' College allowed her to invent her own curriculum, and, aged only fourteen, she settled on a mixture of Art and 'Citizenship', a kind of social studies course.

Encouraged by the school art teacher – future Royal College of Art tutor Colin Hayes – Riley applied to Goldsmiths' herself in 1949. Her application included a copy of Van Eyck's Man with a Red Turban, chosen out of a fascination with its contrast of vivid headdress and black space, and a belief that 'copying is the old way of learning.' On acceptance, her good fortune with teachers continued with the 'disciplined and informed', methodical approach of Sam Rabin, who taught her 'about the only thing [she] ever learnt at art school': life drawing.

In 1952 she moved to the Royal College of Art, where, by her own admission, without the structure she had become used to, she 'floundered' at the question 'what should I paint, and how should I paint it?' No answers came after graduation in 1955, or for the rest of the decade. Depressed, she nursed her father after a serious car accident, and worked in a variety of jobs. One of these was teaching children, though, and she started to develop 'an interest in repetitive rhythms' and strengthen her belief in the 'inventive potential [of] strict limitations.'

At the close of the 1950s, Riley began to find answers for how her painting might use focus, abstraction, and colour. Jackson Pollock's 1958 Whitechapel Gallery show, for example, provided an example of 'multi-focal space'; painting that doesn't let the eye settle solely on one point. Although she acknowledged the development began with the Piet Mondrian, a Dutchman, it seemed peculiarly American in contrast to the 'focally centred' European art she knew.

At this point, according to Paul Moorhouse, she was 'convinced' that 'abstract form was not for her'. This began to change in 1959, when her paintings were included in the ICA's The Developing Process exhibition, an exploration of creativity curated by art school teachers Victor Pasmore and Harry Thubron. Inspired, she attended Thubron's summer school in Suffolk, where she met the older Maurice de Sausmarez, and discovered theorists like Klee and Kandinsky.

That year, she copied Seurat's Bridge at Courbevoie (c.1866-7), aiming to learn from someone who, rather than 'external reality', painted 'his own structure of sight'. She now began to 'dismember, to dissect the visual experience', and painted the figurative Pink Landscape (1960) in shimmering, coloured dots; an 'equivalent sensation' of a heat-hazed day in the Sienese hills with de Sausmarez.

Riley looked back at the 1960s as 'a unique point in time […] an explosion of confidence, elation and drive which seemed at the time to be completely normal'. But they opened with attempts to paint an entirely black piece; an expression of her frustration with de Sausmarez.

Out of her eventual failure, and exposure to 'Hard-edge' painters like Ellsworth Kelly, she produced the first of her iconic black-and-white paintings. Kiss (1961), for example, keeps two unequally-sized bodies of black acrylic tantalizingly separate with a horizontal curving sliver of white. Again, the discipline proved liberating.

Later that year, she had a run of good luck. A London rainstorm forced her under the doorway of Gallery One, and the owner, Victor Musgrave, invited her in, and asked what was in her folder. Impressed, the following Spring he put on her first solo exhibition, of pieces The Observer described as 'experiments in perceptual experience [in which] black and white patterns of geometrical shapes bring the flat picture surface alive and vibrant to an extraordinary degree.'

This gave Riley the confidence to leave her advertising job, which nevertheless, accidentally continued paying her for another two years.

In 1965, two of Riley's black and white works were included in the New York Museum of Modern Art's The Responsive Eye. Current (1964) was chosen as the cover image for the exhibition catalogue, and she became representative of 'Op[tical] art' on a world stage. Praise for the show was extravagant; John Canaday called the exhibited pieces 'the only objects being created today, as art, that can compete with launching pads and industrial machinery as expressions of the character unique to our civilization.'

Shortly after, a New York firm made a dress based on a Riley work owned by one of its directors; sensing a worrying precedent, she attempted legal action. Although directly unsuccessful, the action led to the first US copyright legislation in 1967.

Back in London, Riley, angry at her work being 'vulgarized in the rag trade' – both newspaper and cloth – complained 'it will take at least twenty years before anyone looks at my paintings seriously again'. In fact, her growing credibility was confirmed when she was nominated to represent Britain alongside sculptor Phillip King at the 1968 Biennale.

In the accompanying catalogue, David Thompson suggested 'she is exhibiting in Venice at one of those moments in an artist's development which mark both a climax and a new departure.'

Where Arrest I-III (1965) and Drift (1966) had moved into coloured greys, Chant II and Cataract III (both 1967), shown in the British Pavilion, re-introduced colour, in vertical stripes and tight, wave like-curves, respectively, both apparently vibrating in blue, red and white. The show received international acclaim, and Edward Lucie-Smith wrote 'in choosing an individualist of this stamp, the jury in Venice have done something to rescue the reputation of the Biennale.'

Riley had tried, but failed to negotiate with the student protestors at the Biennale, but later that year, she made her own major contribution to the 'year of revolution'. On her return, she set up S.P.A.C.E. (Space Provision Artistic Cultural and Educational) with Peter Sedgely in East London's St. Katherine's Dock; in 2008, the organization still provides 'affordable studios so that emerging artistic talent is allowed to fulfil its potential and London maintains its global role as a leading creative community.'

Since 1968, Riley has continued to travel, write, lecture, exhibit and paint prolifically. Rather than simply developing over time, Moorhouse argues her career has structured itself around a process of 'statement, contradiction, fusion, echo and the redevelopment and mutation of earlier ideas.'

One example is large temporary wall painting for the Berlin Kunsthalle's 1997 White Noise exhibition, which shows a continued interest in visual manipulation, this time through what Robert Kudielka called 'deep, but not illusionistic, space'.

Riley has also consistently used her enduring public profile to champion the arts; the National Gallery's Sainsbury Wing is the product of her almost single-handed campaign to reject an alternative, commercial, project for Trafalgar Square in the 1980s.

Tom Overton, 2009.


This page is based on recollections by Mike Bailey , and other published sources.   Mrs Mary E Maclaurin's Trust is a Registered Scottish Charity

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Maclaurin Art Collection ~ Updated March 5, 2016