He is a man who walks with kings and presidents, with those who transcend mere fame. He is a world-famous artist who talks the language of the artisan. He is a gift to the world but has the humility of Everyman. He wanders in palaces but still lives in a modest house in the city where he was born and raised. He is a man for all seasons and of none. Harold Riley is his name and he is truly remarkable.
For almost half a century, Riley has captured the great and the good on canvas and, at 70, is still at the height of his powers. For a good many of those years he has been the most prolific and dedicated recorder of golf and golfers on the planet – there can be barely a leading player in the world who has not been portrayed by Salford’s greatest living son – and yet if his life had taken a different course, as it could have, he might now be forgotten, a footnote in the nation’s sporting history.
When he was a young man, Riley was interested in only two things, art and football, for which he had an almost equal aptitude. He was good enough to be on the books of Manchester United, during which time he formed a close bond with the late Sir Matt Busby. Years later he delivered the eulogy at the great man’s funeral.
Eventually, however, a conflict arose between these two polar opposites and it was football that was reluctantly put on the sidelines. Perhaps it was just as well. He was competing with Duncan Edwards for a place in the famous Busby Babes side. Edwards, one of the greatest English players of all time, lost his life in the Munich Air Crash of 1958. Riley says, modestly, and with a wry grin, that to have taken Edward’s place in the team would have been like beating Michelangelo to the commission to paint the Sistine Chapel. Football was the loser, art the winner. What was left was the steady climb to what he is today, probably the country’s greatest living artist.
Riley has a distinguished bloodline that is at once humble and noble. His ancestors were artisans or musicians who worked for some of Britain’s foremost families. John Riley, one of his forebears, was court painter to James I. Cedric Riley, performed a similar role for William IV. Harold continues the tradition by being a court painter for the present Royal Family.
In bygone centuries, the Riley clan worked for the de Hoghtons at Hoghton Towers near Preston, and to this day there is an area called Riley Green just below the castle. Another family member in the past worked for the de Traffords, another of Lancashire’s great families, who, neatly if serendipitously, form a forgeable link with the young Riley’s sojourn at Old Trafford.
At 17, Riley won a scholarship to the Slade School of Art in London and left Salford in the company of Albert Finney, who had been in the same class at Salford Grammar School and was going to RADA, just down the road in Gower Street. In time, Riley went to the British School in Rome and subsequently lived and worked in Florence and then Peniscola, in the province of Castellon in eastern Spain. The cosmopolitan rovings of those days were perfect preparation for his later life travelling the globe.
It would take a weighty tome to record the minutiae of his career – sufficient to say that the life of this particular Riley has been dazzling and awe-inspiring in equal measure. In his time, he has painted three Popes, four Presidents of the United States, not a few Attorney Generals and most of the present Royal Family as well as what he describes as “a few clubmakers and a few bookmakers and Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all”.
Meanwhile, he has continued to live in Salford with Ashraf, his Persian wife. For many years, he has lovingly continued a project he started with L. S. Lowry whom he knew well, of recording a century of the city – Lowry did the first 50 years and Riley took over to depict the second 50.
He started painting golf in the late fifties and, just like so many before and after him, became a hopeless addict for the game. He was a friend of Hogan and Snead and became close to Jack Nicklaus for whom he has an unconfined regard. He loves the game with a passion and it is an adoration that leaps off the canvas, even to the casual spectator. It is not necessary to love the game to see that the artist does.
To discuss with him the nature of his work is to hear a poet painting a picture with words as readily as he can apply oil to canvas. “My family have always been artisans and sometimes out of the artisans, the craftsmen, appears an artist,” he says, “The difference between the two is very significant. The artisan-craftsman illustrates – he makes things look exactly as they are.
“If you are an artisan, an illustrator, you tell the story as the writer has written it as it were. You must be objective about it. The artist on the other hand, tells how he feels about what he is looking at. He takes for granted that he can actually make a resemblance. So I don’t try to make a painting look like a person, I try to make it look as I feel about that person.”
It is that gift that makes Harold Riley the man and the artist that he is. What he applies to his canvas is the result of technique which can be taught and learnt. What is beyond either of those two things is his rare and wonderful gift of getting inside his sitter’s head and drawing hidden qualities from his exploration. Truly remarkable did we say? Oh he is that for sure – but that is not even the half of it.