‘No painter, dead or alive, has ever made us more aware of our eyes than Bridget Riley.’ Robert Melville, 1971
To see examples of Bridget Riley’s art visit the Bridget Riley gallery.
Early Life – 1931 – 46
Bridget Riley was born in Norwood, South London in 1931. Her father, John Fisher Riley, originally from Yorkshire, was a printer, as was his father before him. In 1938, her father relocated the printing business to Lincolnshire and the family moved with it.
The family were not to spend long in Lincolnshire. In 1939, when war broke out her father was drafted into the armed services. Bridget, along with her sister, mother and aunt went to live in Cornwall away from the dangers of the blitz.
In Cornwall, Riley had great freedom as a child and spent a lot of her time playing on the cliffs and beaches near Padstow where she lived. She spent hours watching the changing light, colour and cloud formations and stored away what she saw in memory. She has later said that these early memories have had a big impact on her visual awareness throughout her life.
School and University – 1946-55
Drawing and painting became the centre of Bridget Riley’s life from an early age and, after her school years at Cheltenham Ladies College (1946-49) she studied at Goldsmiths College, London (1949-52) and later at the Royal College of Art (1952-55).
Her studies were centred round life drawing and she worked mostly in black and white. The image to the right is a very early Bridget Riley, “Nude”, which was drawn in conte and pastels around 1951-1952 either whilst still at Goldsmiths or at the start of her time at the Royal College.
Riley’s time at the Royal College was confusing and difficult and she found the teaching and direction unrewarding. She was reaching the point where she wanted to establish her own style and express herself in her own way but found herself unable to do so in an institutional framework.
Difficult Years – The Mid- 1950s
After leaving the Royal College in 1955 Riley returned to Lincolnshire to look after her father who had been seriously injured in a car accident. The problems that had started in Riley’s final years at the Royal College were compounded by her current situation and led to a complete physical and mental breakdown for the artist.
After her father began to recover, she returned to Cornwall for three months in an attempt to recuperate. She tried to paint during this period but with very little success.
Bridget Riley returned to London in 1956 and started to paint again but made little progress. In the first half of the year she was an in-patient at the Middlesex Hospital – she later moved to a hostel – and took a job selling glass at an antique shop in Marylebone Lane. It was a bleak and difficult time for Riley.
Beginning the Recovery – 1957-58
In 1956 Bridget Riley saw an exhibition in London that had a significant impact and helped shape her creative thinking and sense of direction – an exhibition of American Abstract Expressionist painters at the Tate Gallery, the first exhibition of its kind in the country.
Riley moved into teaching and from 1957-1958 she taught art to girls aged 8-18 at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, Harrow, introducing them to the sequences of shape, line and groups of colour, hoping to release their truly creative impulses and to discourage blind copying of the real world.
Bridget started to paint again during this period in a more exploratory style – the main influences being Matisse and Bonnard and she started to visit exhibitions again and renew contact with the art world.
Maurice de Sausmarez – 1958-60
In 1958 Riley took a job at J. Walter Thompson advertising agency as a commercial illustrator.
That year she saw an exhibition called ‘The Developing Process’ based on the ideas of a teacher and writer called Harry Thubron who taught at Leeds School of Art. Thubron tried to show how modern painting was evolving in America and other European countries than the UK. He spoke of organic form, colour and form progressions and spatial investigation.
Riley was fascinated and, after applying for a teaching post at Loughborough College of Art, she took leave from J. Walter Thompson and attended Thubron’s famous summer school in Norfolk. Here she met Maurice de Sausmarez, Thubron’s assistant, who was to become the determining factor in the immediate expansion of her cultural horizons.
Bridget Riley in Italy – 1960
In the summer of 1960 Bridget Riley travelled, painted and visited galleries in Italy with de Sausmarez and was enchanted by the black and white Romanesque buildings of Pisa and the churches of Ravenna. She also refers to seeing and admiring the work of the Italian Futurist painters Boccioni and Balla.
She was encouraged by her teacher, Maurice de Sausmarez (d 1970), to study the art of Georges-Pierre Seurat. Bridget Riley’s “Pink Landscape” (shown to the right) completed in 1960 clearly shows the influence Seurat had on her.
On her return, she took a part-time teaching post Hornsey College of Art (1960-61), under the direction of de Sausmarez. The following year Riley moved to Croydon School of Art (1961-64). She also continued to work part time at J. Walter Thompson (a position she also left in 1964).
The Rise to Success – 1960-65
At Hornsey, Riley began her first Op Art paintings, working only in black and white and using simple geometric shapes – squares, lines and ovals. Although she investigated many areas of perception, her work, with its emphasis on optical effects was never intended to be an end in itself. It was instinctive, not based on theory but guided by what she saw with her own eyes.
Whilst teaching at Croydon, Bridget gained her first critical recognition. In the spring of 1962 she had her first solo show, at Gallery One in London, a defining moment.
In 1963 she won a prize in the open section of the John Moore’s Liverpool exhibition and took the AICA Critic’s Prize in London. This was followed by an invitation to show in the prestigious “New Generation” exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery alongside Allen Jones and David Hockney.
The Responsive Eye – 1965
Bridget Riley’s paintings came to International notice when she exhibited along with Victor Vasarely and others in the Museum of Modern Art in New York at an exhibition called “The Responsive Eye” in 1965. It was one of Riley’s paintings that was featured on the cover to the exhibition catalogue.
“The Responsive Eye” was a huge hit with the public but proved to be less popular with the critics, who dismissed the works as trompe l’oeil (literally ‘tricks of the eye’). A short film – ‘The Responsive Eye’ – documenting the opening night of the exhibition was made by Brian de Palma.
Despite the critics, Riley held another wildly popular exhibition at this time in the US, at the Richard Feigen Gallery in New York. Tickets sold out on the first day that they went on sale – a remarkable achievement for an artist who was still in her early thirties.
“Op Art” – 1965
It was around this time that the term ‘Op Art’ entered the public consciousness. Op Art captured the imagination of the public and became part of the swinging sixties. The fashion, design and advertising industries fell in love with its graphic, sign-like patterns and decorative value. Op Art was cool, and Bridget Riley became Great Britain’s number one art celebrity.
The basis of the Op Art movement was a form of geometric abstraction, which was in a way impersonal and not obviously related to the real world. “I couldn’t get near what I wanted through seeing, recognizing and recreating, so I stood the problem on its head. I started studying squares, rectangles, triangles and the sensations they give rise to… It is untrue that my work depends on any literary impulse or has any illustrative intention. The marks on the canvas are sole and essential agents in a series of relationships which form the structure of the painting.” (Bridget Riley)
The Emergence of Colour – 1967
“The music of colour, that’s what I want” (Bridget Riley)
Riley’s introduction of colour to her work was something she was cautious of. The black and white paintings depended on the disruption of stable elements. No such stable basis could be found for colour as the perception of colour is relative – each colour affects and is affected by the colours next to it. Over time, she began to accept this inherent instability and made it the basis of her work.
From 1967 onwards Riley increasingly began to use colour. She also started to use more stabilised forms – often simple vertical straight or wavy lines. It was the positioning of the colour itself that produced the feel of movement she wanted to convey. The colour groupings affected the spaces between them to produce fleeting glimpses of other colours and hence the illusion of movement.
Colour in Action – The 1970s
Bridget Riley’s paintings of the late 1960s and 70s became mainly concerned with the visual and emotional response to colour. She experimented with various palettes and forms during this period. Zing 1 (shown right) introduced a colour twist theme, making use of twisted vertical stripes to create horizontal zones of colour.
Following on from the innovation of Zing 1, the mid- 1970s saw Bridget use curves more and more frequently in her work. These ‘curve’ paintings saw a widening of her understanding of the relation of colour and light. Riley’s curve paintings are some of her most peaceful and emotional works, something that is reflected in their often poetic and musical titles.
Until 1978 Riley restricted herself to three colours for each of her paintings. 1978’s Song of Orpheus series expanded this to five. Further expansion was yet to come.
The Egyptian Connection – 1981
In 1981 she visited Egypt and was enchanted by the colours used by ancient Egyptian art. ‘The colours are purer and more brilliant than any I had used before,’ she wrote.
In the ‘life-giving arrangement of colours’ the Egyptians had used for over 3000 years Riley had found a group of colours which worked perfectly as a colour scheme. They retained their individual brilliance and still generated new colours and light effects in the spaces between the colour groups. With these colours she felt she had found the intensity of colour and the shimmer of light she had always searched for.
Prior to this point the use of colour in Riley’s work was ordered and its progression could be followed across the canvas. The ‘Egyptian’ paintings mark the beginnings of free colour organisation, something that she uses to the current day.
Bridget Riley – Work outside of the Studio – 1982-83
In 1982-3 Bridget Riley was commissioned by the director of the Ballet Rambert to design the sets for a new ballet known as ‘Colour Moves’. It was an unusual commission as the set designs preceded the composition of the music and the choreography and actually provided the original inspiration for the work. The ballet was first performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 1983 and was successfully toured.
Another departure from her normal studio work involved the production of a series of colourful murals for the Royal Liverpool Hospital in 1983 (shown to the right).
Riley created the interior using blue, white, pink and yellow bands of colour, which were intended to relax the patients. It seems that she was successful in what she set out to achieve; the interior was much admired and caused a significant fall in the level of vandalism and graffiti taking place at the hospital.
The Lozenge Paintings – The Mid- 1980s and 1990s
The mid- 1980s saw Bridget Riley’s work move progressively away from a build up of sensation giving rise to a perceptual response, and instead towards an art of pure visual sensation, treating form and colour as ‘ultimate identities’, as things in themselves. Units of colour were arranged according to principles of relation and chromatic interaction, but increasingly were connected to the implication of rhythm, space and depth.
Riley began to incorporate diagonal ‘lozenge’ elements rising from left to right which cut across the verticals, shattering the picture plane. Planes of colour alternately advance and recede, giving rise to contrasts in colour, tone, density and direction.
Of this period Riley said: “I try to take sensation as the guiding line and build, with the relationships it demands, a plastic fabric which has no other raison d’etre except to accommodate the sensation its solicits.”
Late period – 2000 to date
Now in her late 70s Bridget Riley still continues to work. Exhibitions of her work are held all over the world – Sydney, Tokyo, New York, Zurich, London to mention just some of the cities where her work has been shown recently.
In 2007 there was an exhibition of fifteen paintings done between 2005 and 2006 at the Timothy Taylor Gallery in London. Again her images had changed; the shapes of the ‘lozenge’ paintings of the 1980s and 1990s swept across verticals but this time they were fluid arabesques in softer colours – blues, greens, lilacs and pale oranges.
Bridget Riley is a consistent innovator in her field who experiments constantly with new ideas that mark new departures. For this reason nobody can truly know what the future will bring in terms of her original and unique art, which is demanding both of herself and of those who see them.
Bridget Riley in the Studio – How she works
Bridget Riley’s major paintings are very large and may take six to nine months to develop, almost to evolve. She begins by making small colour studies in gouache. Riley hand mixes all of the paints as the exact hue and intensity is vital and must be kept constant.
Successful studies lead to a full size paper and gouache cartoon which prefigures the final work. These are then enlarged, ruled up, under-painted with acrylic and over-painted in oils. Everything is painted by hand – no rulers, masking tape or mechanical means are used when actually applying the paints. Riley has worked with assistants since the 1960s because of the large scale and the need for great precision.
Bridget Riley CBE is a trustee of the National Gallery in London.