Harold Riley, who has died aged 88, was the most famous artist to emerge from the grim purlieus of Salford from his friend and mentor LS Lowry.
Like Lowry, Riley was a prolific painter of northern working-class industrial scenes, but he was also a skilled portraitist of the highest order, accepting commissions for three formal portraits a year, which left him free to do other work for the rest. the years.
Lowry (1887-1976) had a profound influence on Riley’s early work, which featured bleak street scenes filled with cloth-matched figures in luxurious blues and graces, and Lowryesque titles that echoed a decaying industrialized landscape. as Winter Street Scene with Figures Advancing before a Building (1961); Knife Grinder, Street Scene with Multiple Figures (1970); and Young Street Urchin Carrying a Basket (1962).
“It’s a joy to see the relationship of the pictures,” declared one critic. “The little children sit with wide eyes, old people in shawls in bells walk the streets.” The artist himself rejected the term “slums”, calling the streets he depicted “theaters of colour”.
Riley’s urban landscape did not command the kind of prices paid for Lowry’s work. In 2002 his charcoal sketch of Lowry playing football in a field off Oldham Road in 1961 fetched £1,550 at auction in Chester. At the same sale, his painting of Steps, Salford (oil on board) sold for just under £2,300.
Unusually, Riley and Lowry sometimes collaborated on the same painting – three such hybrids, signed by both artists, received directly from Riley in the 1970s by Dave Sexton, football manager of Queens Park Rangers, Chelsea and Manchester United, and which sold by Bonhams after Sexton’s death in 2012. The prices were named by Lowry: one, a work entitled Street Scene (oil on board), had an estimated sale price of £30,000-£50,000.
But Riley had a wider range than Lowry, who would never have met the description of a society painter. Riley’s sitters included the Duke of Edinburgh, various royal minors, three Popes (John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II), and two US Presidents, Gerald Ford and John F Kennedy, whom he sketched in pastels in 1962, the previous year. he was killed.
In the same year Riley painted the actress Violet Carson in character as Ena Sharples in Coronation Street, complete with earnet, a portrait he donated to Manchester Art Gallery in 1994.
He painted a remarkable portrait of Nelson Mandela after his walk to freedom, an image that was later sold for $1 million at the Rockefeller Center in New York with money going towards the cost of a new school in the townships of South Africa. He also made several prestigious studies of Sir John Barbirolli, who was the conductor of the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester at the time.
“Telling someone exactly what you think of him is like painting a portrait,” Riley once observed. “It’s a shame, especially since most people don’t want a real picture of themselves, just something they like.” Riley was proud that he never did.
Focusing on his local environment in Salford, Manchester’s smaller and more deprived neighboring city, Riley’s work focused on his social conscience and his Catholicism. His pictures reflected the suffering of Salford past and present: women with faces etched by the poverty and hunger of the interwar years; meat drinkers whose desperation had led them to find the raw material of life on the streets in the 1950s and 1960s.
Riley’s talent was not limited to painting either, as she was also a renowned engraver, lithographer, graphic artist and photographer. Having met Lowry as a young man, Riley was determined to continue his hero’s mission to create a visual archive of the changing face of Salford. Lowry was still a teenager in 1901 when he began drawing local scenes, and Riley continued the work, photographing the post-war redevelopment of the city and the demolition of the streets.
In 1963 Riley advertised in the local paper for scenes of Salford from family albums, receiving an unprecedented response, and in 1975 Greater Manchester Council awarded him £15,000 to draw and photograph local life before he disappeared. The deal called for Riley to produce 40 images over a three-year period.
By 1980 the accumulation of the submitted material and his own portfolio formed the basis of an exhibition, opened by the Duke of Edinburgh as Chancellor of the University of Salford, called Salford 80.
In the same year Riley spent a month living on the top floor of a tenement in Glasgow recording life in that city, sketching, painting and (using an instant camera and a 35 mm head) photographing the sights and people of Glasgow. .
In the late 1960s, in his mid-thirties, Riley feared being named by the Financial Times among half a dozen young artists whose work was likely to show the greatest profits in the coming years. He described this proposal as “a bloody awful nuisance” and complained that the dealers were calling him to order paintings, to the extent that he had disconnected his telephone.
Riley said he was never interested in making money, and turned down an offer of £30,000 from the United States for two years of work, preferring to stay in his native Salford. A claim that he was once paid $1 million to impersonate Dick Cheney, the former US vice president, has never been verified.
Harold Francis Riley was born on 21 December 1934 in Salford. He was 11 when he first met LS Lowry, who awarded the boy first prize at the Salford Grammar School art exhibition in 1945. Their friendship lasted for more than 30 years.
Lowry invited young Harold to the Salford Museum and Art Gallery, where he persuaded curator Albert Frape to buy young Harold’s winning painting for 30 shillings (£1.50), which Frape took from his wallet and gave to the youngster. On the way home he bought a new plaid shirt from the Co-op.
Harold and his friend from Salford Grammar School, the future actor Albert Finney, made their film debut leading the parade in David Lean’s classic romantic comedy Hobson’s Choice (1954).
At the age of 17 Riley won a scholarship to study lithography and etching at the Slade School of Fine Art and did post-graduate studies at the University of London. After winning two travel scholarships to study in Italy and Spain, he did National Service in the Army on his return.
When he was dismissed in 1960, Lowry advised him not to take a job teaching art in Cheltenham, and instead to settle for a part-time job in Salford teaching two days a week. In 1962 he married an Austrian student, Hannelore Reuter, and moved into the remains of a coach house in Salford behind several large Victorian houses, which they restored with the help of friends.
As a young artist, Riley repaid the support he received from Ted Frape by exhibiting his work exclusively at the Salford City art gallery and offering his work to local sponsors and friends who opted for private viewings for the first time. Riley’s paintings were undoubtedly sold out before the exhibitions opened to the public.
His early productions were traditional etching from copper plates and lithography from etched stones. He later moved to laser printing, polymer prints and permanent man-made photocopies.
Although he painted people and scenes from around the world – over a period of 18 months he visited Mandela six times, creating 23 preparatory sketches for the South African president – for many he is still synonymous with his paintings and sketches of the streets of Salford where, as he once noted, the street lights are “always orange”.
Riley continued to record the city of Salford in his paintings throughout his life. He also painted sporting subjects, especially golf, including many drawings and paintings of golfer Jack Nicklaus.
His football pictures are mainly of Manchester United, for whom he played as a junior, before going to university. Over the years he painted portraits of many Old Trafford greats, including former manager Matt Busby and striker George Best.
A later manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, was a keen collector of Riley’s work, owning more than a dozen of his paintings. In 2000 Riley presented Ferguson with a picture of Cliff’s training ground, where many of Manchester United’s successes were planned.
The club has an extensive collection of his work, but most remain in Salford, where Riley set up an archive and studio to house his paintings, drawings, photographs and sketchbooks.
Appointed Deputy Lieutenant of Greater Manchester in 1984, Riley received the freedom of the City of Salford in 2017.
Harold Riley married Hannelore Reuter in 1962. She died in 1973, and in 1975 he married an Iranian, Ashraf Danlshzad, who survives him with a daughter from each of his marriages.
Harold Riley, born 21 December 1934, died 18 April 2023