Halifax-born artist Dudley Edwards’ pivotal role in the cultural revolution of the Swinging Sixties may mean he is still featuring in films about the era but a major new exhibition launched in Harrogate this weekend will show his muse is alive and kicking
His art has led him down a colourful path. Since his rise to prominence as part of the cultural storm of the swinging Sixties, when his kaleidoscopic work was found everywhere from Sir Paul McCartney’s piano to furniture and cars, the Halifax-born artist’s career has seen him commissioned to paint murals in the homes of The Beatles and produce album designs for the likes of Fats Domino and Billy Nicholls.
But it is drawing and painting from the serenity of his studio in the Yorkshire Dales today that the 75-year-old looks upon most favourably.
“I’ve got that freedom now to do what I want,” he reflects. “This is what I’ve always wanted to do. I had always done applied art in one form or another to make ends meet. That’s not to say I treated it lightly, though. I put everything into it.
“I was in seventh heaven for the first time (when I really got into painting). All those years previously, when I was doing applied art, there was an element of frustration in me. I just wanted to do painting.”
That feeling first manifested during his time at Bradford College of Art. Having not achieved the five O-levels then required to do fine art, he instead studied the applied art of graphics.
“I used to get around it by doing a lot of album covers that were like abstract paintings. The lettering was just a nuisance to me,” he says. “I’d shove it away in a corner somewhere.”
Though his artistic focus has shifted time and again over the decades since, two things have remained constant – his use of strong, bold colour and the notion of rhythm in his work.
“I’ve always tried to keep depth to a minimum, with everything close to the surface,” he explains. “Because I wasn’t allowing myself to move in and out of the canvas, the only other movement I could get was lateral. If I can help it, there’s no exit in my paintings, nothing taking the eye out of them. I use things like circuits, figures of eight, spirals, anything to keep the eye within the canvas.”
Such techniques have influenced, in part, the name of his latest exhibition – Dudley Edwards: I Got Rhythm – which launches today and features work from across his career.
“For this exhibition, I had to find a common link between my paintings, drawings, prints and photographs,” he says. “Rhythm is there in all of them.”
Its title also draws inspiration from George Gershwin and the ‘Tin Pan Alley’ era; Edwards likes to appropriate popular song titles in his work and his art has had a strong connection to music, right from his early years as an artist in London. He moved there in the 1960s and rose to prominence as co-founder of pioneering pop art collective BEV.
Drawing inspiration from immigrants from Bangladesh and Pakistan who painted their front doors in bright combinations of colours in the streets of Bradford, the collective created vibrant murals on cars, furniture and buildings in the capital.
“We wanted to paint everything in bright colours and that was also partly to do with a connection with rhythm and music,” Edwards explains. “We had not long since come from the 50s rock ’n’ roll era and the only way you could hear rock ’n’ roll in any loud decibel kind of way was when the fairgrounds came to town.
“You would go on the waltzers and hear Elvis blaring out and Little Richard, so we associated the music we liked and the excitement of it with the visuals, which was all the fairground art.
“We used the same imagery that you got on fairgrounds and applied that to furniture, cars, shopfronts all around London.”
The art became as synonymous with the decade as flower-power, mini-skirts and The Beatles, who, incidentally, were among those drawn to it.
Sir Paul McCartney commissioned the collective to paint his colourful ‘magic piano’ and Edwards later created a mural in the star’s dining room and then another in the home of bandmate Ringo Starr.
Living with each of them exposed him to a world few got to experience – and it was certainly quite the contrast to Edwards’ early childhood on a farm in rural Halifax, where he cared for his family’s pigs.
“That was idyllic,” he recalls. “We were too far away from other people so I didn’t have many friends. The animals were my friends.”
After high school, Edwards’ father, with some persuasion from his son’s art teacher, agreed to send him to Halifax School of Art. He then did three years at Bradford, following in the footsteps of famous college alumnus David Hockney.
After his time with BEV that followed, Edwards formed a partnership with Mike McInnerney, producing psychedelic posters and record covers, under the banner of OM Tentacle, for clients such as Fats Domino, Billy Nicholls and Andy Bown.
He then taught at several art colleges and his commissioned work in the years that followed included photographing the Harlem Ballet and creating a series of ceramic murals, including for a Sheikh’s palace in Saudi Arabia. “I remember getting paid at the time,” he says, “and then going into the bedroom where my wife was laid in bed and I got all this money and threw it into the air like they do in films and watched it all flutter down.”
Edwards later joined his wife Madeleine in her rugs and wall hanging business Amazed Ltd, which counts Peter Gabriel and Tori Amos among its famous clients. But today, his focus is on painting and drawing.
Whilst most of his work features figures, he has also begun to paint the shapes and curves of trees and this latest art is among his most recent pieces going on public display for the first time as part of his exhibition.
Dudley Edwards: I Got Rhythm is at RedHouse Originals Gallery in Harrogate until October 5.