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Impressionist & Modern Art

Picasso Biographer John Richardson’s Last Sitting

By Joshua McHugh

S ir John Richardson, the renowned Picasso biographer, moved to his lower Fifth Avenue loft back in 1995, and in the interim years its idiosyncratic interiors have been widely documented and discussed in glossy magazines and newspapers. Thus, last Fall when Rizzoli called to commission me to photograph a newly evolving space in his home, I didn’t hesitate—the opportunity to capture images of such an enthusiastically personal environment is catnip for interiors photographers such as myself. This would all need to happen fast, the Rizzoli book John Richardson: At Home was already in the late stages of production for its March 2019 publication date.

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A view from Sir John Richardson’s desk towards the northern end of his studio, featuring an 18th century four-poster bed stamped with the Versailles mark. In the jumble of other objects are a pair of tortoise shells, Chinese vases, and an ink-wash bullfight scene by Picasso. The desktop is strewn with an eclectic mix of personal items including a carved wooden bird from a Connecticut junk shop and a vintage photo of Richardson with Picasso and Douglas Cooper.

The following Saturday morning I was unpacking my equipment in the northern precinct of the rambling loft, what Richardson called the studio. Only in recent years had Sir John undertaken to occupy and decorate the room; as he put it, “when I bought the apartment there was a raw space at the back that I loaned to a clever Japanese friend/employee who needed somewhere to meditate and calculate. Twenty years passed before he removed himself.” When I arrived there was no doubt that Richardson had come to fully inhabit the studio, now anchored by an early 18th century four-poster bed from Versailles. Much like the other areas of his loft, it was brimming with art, furniture, objects, and books that reflected his interests and tastes. In short order I spotted an ink-wash bullfight scene by Picasso casually sitting on an ottoman, surrounded by dog-eared volumes ranging from scholarly to artistic, literate to pulpy. A menagerie of tortoise shells, Chinese vases, classical statuary casts, and colorful fabrics adorned the room. The best spot for my camera to capture all of this was perched atop Richardson’s desk. Gently setting down my tripod there, I noticed a small, vintage black-and-white photograph of a candle-lit table encircled by diners animatedly conversing, among them Picasso, Douglas Cooper (the art historian with whom Richardson lived in the 1950s), and Richardson. No doubt this image had strong associations for Richardson, given its place of distinction on his desk. As I was taking all of this in, Richardson himself arrived, freshly shaven and in a crisp white shirt.

 
A vignette from Sir John Richardson’s studio displaying a cyanotype portrait of him by McDermott & McGough from 2013, on the occasion of his eighty-ninth birthday. Above the portrait is a section of a black rubber relief sculpture by Alex Hoda.

In my profession one never quite knows ahead of time how a homeowner will react to the intrusions inherent in the picture taking process—some are keen, others disgruntled. Richardson was decidedly the former, eager to understand and embrace the work at hand. Phew! Straightaway he began asking questions about the intricacies of my lighting choices—why was I raising some blinds, lowering others, turning lights on and off? In this I recognized the curious and agile man who had spent a lifetime accumulating the diverse objects on hand. No doubt this degree of engagement was what kept Richardson so vital, what had him decorating this studio well into his nineties. For Richardson the creative, and highly personal, act of orchestrating his space had continued to produce a vivid expression of his remarkable identity. While my understanding of the significance of the items around me could only scratch the surface of their meaning, I deeply recognized them as testaments to a unique life well lived. What a privilege for me to bring my perspective to this tableau, and to spend a morning with an individual of such generosity, elegance, and brilliance.

Turns out, one image from our sitting is the final photo spread in the book, a last look at one facet of Richardson’s vision. Very sadly, Sir John Richardson died last week at the age of 95.

Joshua McHugh is a New York based freelance photographer who specializes in architecture, interior, and design related projects. His images regularly appear in national and international publications including Architectural Digest, Elle Décor, Interior Design, and Architektur & Wohnen. He also collaborates frequently with many of today’s leading architects and interior designers. Recent commissions have sent him to dramatic locations near and far: from Montana to Beirut. His images have illustrated numerous volumes on design, and his book Murals of New York City was published by Rizzoli.

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