Richard Larter first came to public notice in the 1960s with confronting works based on the female body, politics, and a sensibility informed by British Pop. However his work also celebrates place, mood and medium.
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Painter, filmmaker, performance artist and printmaker, Richard Larter was born on 19 May 1929, at Hornchurch, Essex, the son of Thomas Larter, a claims assessor for a marine insurance company, and Dorothy Scarles, who had worked for the British War Office during World War I.
His mother was proud of her French ancestry and encouraged her children to appreciate both the work of the French Impressionists and the more adventurous Surrealist work sold at the art gallery run by her friend Fred Mayor. However his parents were less supportive when the young Richard indicated he wished to be an artist – his mother saw his future as a doctor. Richard Larter’s first formal art education came during World War II in 1944 when St Martin’s School of Art in London was kept open by running occasional classes for school children. His loathing of upper class 'military pretensions’ came from his time in National service with the British army where he served in the medical corps after leaving school. After the army he enrolled at St Martin’s as a regular student, but left almost immediately because he could not stomach either the teaching or his fellow students, who he felt came from the officer class who he continued to despise.
After leaving the army he worked from 1949 to 1952 at Perfect Lambert & Co as a trainee marine surveyor. When he could, the young artist travelled to Paris where he spent time at art museums, looking especially at the work of the Impressionists and meeting other would-be artists. In 1949 he travelled to Cornwall where he befriended the visiting American artist, Mark Tobey. The next year he travelled to Algiers where he worked with the ceramicist Zora Merabek while she was restoring the Marabout tombs. Back in London, at Perfect Lambert & Co, he met the 15 year-old Patricia Florence (Pat) Holmes who had come to be interviewed for her first job after leaving school. At the end of 1952 he left Perfect Lambert, moved out of his parents’ home and moved to Canvey Island at the mouth of the Thames to spend Christmas with Pat’s family.
On 1 February 1953 a great storm in the North Sea flooded Belgium, Holland and southern England. Canvey Island was completely submerged and 58 people died. The Holmes family was evacuated to a local school and Richard Larter married Patricia Holmes on 18 February 1953. They both became involved in adult education classes at Toynbee Hall in London, where he studied drawing while Pat supplemented her basic education. He worked at various jobs, including being a photographic model, until 1954 when he enrolled as a trainee teacher at Shoreditch Teacher’s College. He supplemented his meagre stipend by working as a rock driller, so his attendance at class was best described as intermittent.
In 1956, while working as an art teacher at Santley Street Secondary Modern School in Kentish Town, Larter was looking at the window of a medical supplies shop, saw a box holding hypodermic syringes and realised they could be used to draw lines in paint. He also saw the definitive exhibition 'This is Tomorrow’ at the Whitechapel Gallery, where he was impressed by the energy of Eduardo Paolozzi, an artist he had long admired.
No London gallery was interested in the young Larter’s art, but the Chief Inspector for Art at London County Council encouraged him to enter the Paris Salon. His painting was accepted and hung, but in 1962, by the time this happened, the Larter family were in the process of immigrating to Australia where Richard was employed by the NSW Department of Education.
Teaching in Sydney led to a friendship with Richard Cobb, who later became the manufacturer of fine artists’ paints. In 1963 the Larter family bought land and a small cottage at Luddenham on the western edge of Sydney, and Richard Larter began to teach at Liverpool Boys’ High School. Conditions at Luddenham were primitive – the water supply was a small dam and a tank – but the wilderness of the bush environment encouraged Pat and Dick Larter to develop their own reading and other interests apart from the Sydney art scene.
Although commercial galleries continued to disregard his work of this period, Larter had more success in local art competitions. In 1964 Bath Night 1, entered in the Royal Easter Show, received a favourable comment from Daniel Thomas, curator of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The following year when Thomas judged the Berrima art competition he awarded the prize to Richard Larter. He alerted Frank Watters to Larter’s work, which led to an invitation to exhibit at Watters Gallery, a new commercial gallery founded by Frank Watters and Geoffrey Legge. Perhaps because of the isolation of Luddenham, both Richard and Pat Larter were keen to experiment with different technologies. From 1966 onwards they were working on sound pieces and later they collaborated on performances and films.
In 1967, the year their youngest child Eliza was born, Richard was transferred to Penrith High School, which was closer to home. Despite being the subject of advocacy by the curator of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the first collection to buy his work was the fledgling National Gallery of Australia in 1970. At the end of 1972, Richard was sufficiently financially successful to leave school teaching and devote himself to art full-time. However his finances were sufficiently unstable for him to continually look for residencies and other opportunities to earn while making art.
In 1974 the family left Australia when Richard was appointed for a 12 month visiting lectureship at the Elam Art School, Auckland. Although Richard was the subject of the appointment, Pat Larter also participated in lectures and performances for students. As she was no longer caring for pre-school children she began to assert her own identity as an artist. The persona “Dick & Pat Larter” began to make a presence in the ephemeral movement of International Mail Art, although Richard Larter was happy to tell all that the dominant persona in that art form was Pat’s.
Despite his political radicalism Richard Larter’s art became increasingly popular with major institutions and corporate collections. In 1976 he began a long and fruitful connection with the Victorian Tapestry Workshop which created large tapestries out of several of his paintings, including Pretty As (1981) in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia.
In 1978 and 1979 Richard Larter was an artist in residence at Australia Council-funded studios at Armidale and Wagga Wagga. Neither were particularly happy experiences. This was especially true of Wagga Wagga, where the studio was in a physically remote location, and Pat stayed in Sydney where she created a major mail art event, Art Core Meltdown. However they saw the advantages of living in a large country town as distinct from the fringes of an ever growing city and in 1982 they sold the house at Luddenham and moved to Yass, to a two storied house in the centre of the town.
In 1991 Richard bought the house next door as a dedicated studio. This gave him sufficient space to work on a number of paintings at any given time. At about the same time Pat ceased to be his model, so Richard used photographic models from agencies in Canberra and Sydney for his figurative work. Both Richard and Pat began experimenting with photography and laser prints on canvas enabled by modern computer technology. In 1996 Richard was awarded the Joan & Peter Clemenger Prize for Contemporary Art. Richard and Pat Larter’s super scans were included in the 1996 Adelaide Biennial, which was the same year as a celebration of Larter films at the Melbourne Super Eight Festival. Their collaboration ended on 19 October 1996 when Pat died.
In May 1999 Watters and Legge galleries combined to celebrate Richard Larter’s oeuvre with a 70th birthday exhibition that was a revelation to many who had not recognised the breadth of his achievement. Subsequent to this there have been a number of exhibitions in public art museums. In 2002 Kelly Gellatly curated 'Stripperama: Richard Larter’, at the Museum of Modern Art at Heide, which examined the figurative tradition in his art and in 2006 Joanna Mendelssohn examined the connections within the Larter family in 'Larter Family Values’ at Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre.
In June 2008 there will be a Richard Larter retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia.