Kingston, Richard Samuel (1922–2003), painter, was born 22 March 1922 at Leabeg, Newcastle, Co. Wicklow, one of five children of (Thomas) George Kingston, farmer and horse schooler, originally from Clonakilty, Co. Cork, and his wife Elizabeth (née Berry). In the early 1930s his father could no longer afford to employ labourers, owing to the effects of the economic war, so Richard was withdrawn from primary school at a young age to work full‐time on the family farm near Brittas Bay. Unhappy with the situation, he found solace in painting, to which he was introduced by an amateur watercolourist who painted in the area on yearly visits, and afforded him instruction, materials, and encouragement. After a year‐and‐a‐half of intensive private study, he attended the TCD school of engineering (1943–6), but left before completing the course. While at TCD he befriended the painter Harry Kernoff (qv), who influenced his artistic development. Emigrating to London, he worked in a variety of jobs, and experienced periods of penury and homelessness, sometimes sleeping rough in the underground. Though receiving no formal training in art, he built up a portfolio of drawings and watercolours, obtained work in design, and taught art and maths in a grammar school.
Returning to Dublin (mid 1950s), he worked freelance in commercial display, before securing a position with the Swastika Laundry in Ballsbridge (1957–64), redesigning the company’s shops, and managing the advertising and display (including the posters on their familiar vans). Painting assiduously at night after his daily work, he had begun by this time to paint in oils, but mainly used what materials he could afford, including printer’s ink and house paint. From 1957 he exhibited regularly with the Irish Exhibition of Living Art, and in 1958 had the first of several solo exhibitions at the Ritchie Hendriks Gallery on St Stephen’s Green. He showed work at the Leicester Galleries, London (late 1950s), and exhibited annually at the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) (1962–5). His painting ‘Tension area’ was one of five works that represented Ireland at the Guggenheim International Award Exhibition in New York (1960), and two of his stations of the cross were included in the Irish section at the Salzburg Biennale of Sacred Art (1962). A unique presence on the Irish art scene, he was one of the first Irish artists to embrace elements of American abstract expressionism and French tachism. His second solo exhibition at the Ritchie Hendriks Gallery (1960) was hailed by the Irish Times art critic, James White (qv), as ‘a milestone in the history of modern Irish art. Here for the first time we see a fully mature statement of feeling by an Irish artist in abstract terms.’ Kingston, White argued, was expressing in graphic terms the moods evoked by an autumn evening or a winter wood, using shapes and colours and textures, much as a composer employs the elements of music, to express feeling (Ir. Times, 9 June 1960). Nonetheless, Kingston never fully espoused the idea of the ‘abstract sublime’. Though his style of the early 1960s moved towards ever greater abstraction, it was never entirely non‐representational; in nearly all his works, an image or scene or object in the real world was the evident point of departure for his energetic excursions in paint. In the mid 1960s critics detected notes of romanticism in his use of colour.
Having won a solid reputation, he left his job with the laundry in 1964 and became a full‐time artist. Paradoxically, though he painted steadily, for the next dozen years he ceased to exhibit publicly, apart from several group shows in the mid 1960s, and a single solo exhibition in 1972. In May 1977 he opened the Wellington Gallery at 19 Wellington Road, Ballsbridge, which housed a permanent display of his work and provided a venue for frequent solo exhibitions of new work. Throughout a particularly prolific, and critically and commercially successful period of his career, he resumed exhibiting regularly at the RHA in 1979, and was often represented in the annual exhibitions of the Water Colour Society of Ireland and the Oireachtas (1980s–90s), and in other group shows. He was elected a member of the RHA (1980), and was a governor of the NGI (1982–9).
Painting in his highly individualistic, unorthodox, quasi‐abstract manner, Kingston was best known for his landscapes, demonstrating a special affinity for the mountains and coastline of Wicklow; water, in some form, is a recurring motif in his work. He also executed still lifes, flower studies, and the occasional figure composition. The influence of abstract expressionism was less pronounced than in the early phase of his career. Resolutely independent, he eluded stylistic categorisation, was completely indifferent to artistic trends, and remarkably versatile in his choices of subject, medium, and treatment. Each topic evoked alterations in his technique, arising organically from the demands of the subject. Always he was capable of surprising his audience with unanticipated departures in subject and style. Comparing him to the English landscapist Ivon Hitchens (1893–1979), critic Brian Fallon identified Kingston’s innately traditionalist sensibility allied to a spontaneous, modernist method, without a hint of conservative academicism.
Kingston often executed series of paintings and drawings based on a particular image or scene or concept or object. Some of his pictures he derived from small areas of objects such as stones, shells, fossils, fragments of wood – objects of which he was an avid collector – which would inspire the shapes, patterns, colours, and textures of the work. He addressed nature on an analytical, practical, unromanticised level, concerned especially with natural processes, with depicting how nature works. He had great technical finesse in the use of paint, sometimes to a fault; in some works the paint took over, and technique overpowered the original idea. While working primarily in oils, he also painted in pastel (which suited his penchant for richly blended colours and subtle gradations), and in watercolour, sometimes devoting an entire show to one of the latter two media. He was praised as the best Irish watercolourist of his generation, one of the few who handled the medium with real understanding and virtuosity.
Kingston’s magnum opus was one of his last. Over a period of eighteen years (1982–2000), he executed an enormous series of oils, watercolours, and drawings inspired by the Giant’s Causeway in Co. Antrim. The series was displayed in two simultaneous exhibitions (February 2001), in the RHA Gallagher Gallery (alongside a retrospective selection of his work going back to 1949), and the Solomon Gallery. Struck on his first visit to the landmark by the fact that the natural phenomenon appears to be manmade, on repeated visits Kingston came to appreciate the illusionary nature of his first impression: what is initially perceived as order, is in fact haphazard and chaotic. The individual works in the ‘Causeway’ series emulate the progression of his perception: the early pieces treating the formation as a geometric structure, an interlocking maze of hexagonal columns; the later pieces largely concerned with capturing the dynamic interaction of weather, light, and tides with the random landscape of rock pillars, thus exploring such recurring themes of Kingston’s oeuvre as the optics of light on water, and the mechanics of water streaming over stone.
Kingston’s work is held in public, corporate, and private collections in Ireland, the UK, North America, Australia, and Japan, including those of the Arts Council of Ireland; Allied Irish Banks; Waterford Municipal Art Gallery; and Crawford Art Gallery, Cork. He resided at addresses in Ballsbridge, latterly at 19 Heytesbury Lane. He married (1964) (Mary) Jennifer Fitzsimons, a painter and textile artist. They had a daughter, Cyane, a fashion designer; and two sons, Richard, a photographer, and Steven, an actor and film production designer. Kingston was remembered as a private family man, of quiet and gentle disposition, but with a roving, insatiable curiosity. An inventive and versatile handyman, gifted with exceptional manual dexterity, he was adept at welding, joinery, and many other practical crafts. His recreations included collecting and repairing antiquated pieces of machinery, restoring antiques (with a special passion for musical boxes), and meticulously rebuilding classic vintage automobiles (which he regarded as sculptural objects with intrinsic aesthetic merit). It is reckoned that, among other makes, he restored a dozen Jaguars to prime condition (more than anyone else in Ireland). In his last years he owned a 1962 MG, which he enjoyed driving in the Wicklow mountains. He died 8 February 2003 at the Royal Hospital, Donnybrook, Dublin; the funeral was from St Bartholomew’s church (Church of Ireland), Clyde Road, to Mount Jerome crematorium. An exhibition of his paintings, the catalogue of which he approved the day before his death, opened posthumously in the Solomon Gallery (March 2003), and reaffirmed his customary diversity and versatility.