Russel Howarth: Saddleworth in a Lifetime

8 April - 7 May 2017, Saddleworth Museum and Gallery

Russel Howarth - Self Portrait c.1955

Self Portrait c.1955 – Russel Howarth

Russel Howarth has perhaps been the most geographically dedicated painter in the north of England over the past century. His 70-year commitment of unwavering effort to draw and paint the Saddleworth area of Oldham must be regarded as a great artistic compulsion. This 90th birthday retrospective provides a rare opportunity to see a carefully selected fraction of his huge output.

Let me begin by clearing up the mystery surrounding the correct spelling of his first name. There are various versions given online, but I can confirm that the unusual, ​Russel​, is correct. “That’s how it’s spelt on my birth certificate”, confirmed the man himself when I visited him recently to discuss this biography. “I’ve never come across anyone else who has that spelling, I think that the registrar couldn’t spell!”

Russel Howarth was born on 28 May 1927 in Glodwick, Oldham to parents, James (Jim) and Linda. His father worked in a mill and his mother cared for her own mother at their home. With extra space required, the family moved to St Mary’s, Oldham in 1929. Then, in 1937, when Russel was 10 years old, the family moved again to a house in Waterhead, Oldham. Remarkably, Russel has lived in this same property since that time. His only sibling, a brother, Roy, was born in 1938, and his grandmother moved out soon after to live with another of her own children, freeing up extra room for the baby.

In 1939 WW2 began and Russel, aged 12, recalls incidents of sitting in air-raid shelters and a feeling of people’s solidarity in the adversity of war. Around this time he began going for walks through Saddleworth, observing the scenery that was to become the lifelong focus for his work.

He attended St. Mary’s Junior School and studied for his 11+ at Ward Street Central School. He was encouraged by teachers who gave him sketchbooks to take home and fill with drawings. He took them back to school when completed and jokes that he, “Never saw them again”.

Just prior to his final year at school, Russel discussed his future with his father. He had the opportunity to continue with art, or to take lessons in shorthand. It was felt that learning a skill like shorthand would always be useful and so the decision was made, which resulted in the end of his art education at school.

Russel became an apprentice toolmaker after leaving school in 1941, studying at night school for several years, achieving various relevant qualifications into his early twenties. During his apprenticeship he worked for a firm that had been established during the war years. This company closed and a now fully qualified Russel began working for Platt Brothers, a huge textile machinery manufacturer in Werneth. In the 1890s it had been estimated that Platt Brothers supported 42% of Oldham’s population.

Russel’s draftsmanship and technical skills meant he worked in the drawing office. This was a role in which he remained and thrived for the rest of his professional life, until the the demise of Platt Brothers, in the early 1980s, forced Russel to leave engineering for good in 1980.

In the late 1940s Russel took some evening watercolour classes. He was painting his Saddleworth scenes after work and at the weekends, and then, in 1951, he joined The Saddleworth Group of Artists with a couple of friends he had met in the classes. The group had only been established the year before, mainly as a reaction to the lack of direction some artists felt towards the Oldham Art Society. Russel is still a member to this day and has exhibited regularly over the years. He also recalls the many enjoyable talks that the group organised through the Carnegie Trust. Established painters like L.S. Lowry, Ruskin Spear, Keith Vaughan and Ronald Ossory Dunlop came to Saddleworth and talked about their work to members of The Saddleworth Group of Artists, Oldham Art Society and Rochdale Art Society. Oldham born James Fitton RA, is also fondly remembered by Russel – “I’ve a letter from him in a drawer somewhere” – he told me.

It irritated L.S. Lowry that he was sometimes referred to as a ‘Sunday painter’ by the art establishment. This term was used to refer to a painter who wasn’t a full-time artist, or one who hadn’t received any formal training. Lowry, like Russel, never married or had children. He studied art for many years in evening classes and managed to keep a full-time job as a rent collector through to his retirement in 1952. Lowry and Russel both show that it is possible to produce work beyond an amateur Sunday level, yet maintain a regular day job. Being single allowed both men the independence and freedom to dedicate so much of their time to art. Lowry painted well into the night. Russel would walk and paint the Saddleworth Moors with every spare chance he had.

In 1955 Russel started evening classes in pottery. This was something he hadn’t really planned to be involved with, but he knew the teacher and was invited along to try it out. He quickly found that he enjoyed it, and was rather talented too. He continued to attend for the next seven years, then in 1962 the teacher left the role. Russel was asked to take over the class and he was happy to do so. For the next 18 years he taught two evenings a week, then in 1980, when his engineering career ended at Platt Brothers, he started to teach for 3 days during the week as well. Amongst the classes held were sessions for the Women’s Institute and for children with learning disabilities. Russel’s own pottery pieces were fairly utilitarian in style, preferring simple designs for practical and usable items. He taught pottery for 30 years until his retirement at the age of 65 in 1992.

Russel’s parents died within a day of each other in 1975. He remained at the house in Waterhead whilst his younger brother Roy was married, had two children, and moved his family over to America.

Over the years Russel has exhibited his work extensively in the north-west. These include exhibitions at Tib Lane Gallery, Wendy Levy Gallery, Millyard Gallery and The Royal Northern College of Music. He has also exhibited in London at The Royal Society of British Artists. Many others galleries have shown his work, including Todmorden Fine Art, County Galleries, Colourfield Gallery, Castlegate House Gallery, The Sutton Gallery and Collect Art.

Russel continues to draw and paint to this day.

Anthony Cosgrove, March 2017