FRANCIS RUDOLPH IS NOT WHAT YOU MIGHT CALL A LISTED ARTIST. His name appears in none of the standard reference dictionaries of British painters and printmakers, his work rarely turns up at auction and, until now, Internet searches yielded little useful information.
I first encountered Rudolph’s artworks in July 2006 some months after his death. I had been invited by the beneficiary of his Estate to help clear his Wandsworth studio and make a selection of representative prints and drawings for the permanent collection of Aberystwyth University’s School of Art Museum and Galleries.
Rudolph was unmarried, he had no children, and was reclusive in his later years. There are no extant correspondences, exhibition catalogues or artist statements, and his diaries spanning 1943 to 1966 have yet to be translated from his native Latvian. Nonetheless, I present here my first attempt at a biographical sketch of the enigmatic Francis Rudolph.
A Biographical Sketch
The twin son of Aleksandrs Peders, Francis Rudolph was born Rūdolf Peders in Ventspils on the east coast of the Gulf of Riga, Latvia on 20 September 1921. Ventspils, which lies some 200 km west of the capital Riga, is one of the largest and busiest ports on the Baltic Sea.
Rudolph was born at a time when Latvia was enjoying a rare period of independence between the First and Second World Wars. A small album of photographs of drawings and watercolours dated 1936-1940 suggests that Rudolph received some formal training in Latvia at the Academy of Arts in Riga. At the outbreak of war, however, he was accused of being a sympathizer of communists and Jews and was expelled.
In 1941, when Rudolph was 19, Stalin annexed Latvia to the USSR. In an unidentified newspaper clipping dated 1956, Rudolph recalls witnessing how ‘Russian trucks laden with Latvians rumbled along […] on their way to Siberia.’ In 1944, German troops marched into Latvia. Under Nazi occupation, Rudolph was drafted into the Latvian Legion which was led by German officers. He fought on the Russian front before his battalion was transferred to Flenbsburg in northern Germany, the last holdout of the retreated Third Reich. He escaped but was caught and returned to his unit.
Soon after the fall of Germany, Rudolph’s legion surrendered to the Canadian Allied Forces. He was taken prisoner and interred in a labour camp. On registration, he assumed the name and identity of Francis Rimicans (claiming that he was born in Riga on 15 September 1923). On learning that it was the intention to send Latvians back to their Russian-occupied homeland behind the Iron Curtain, Rudolph escaped the camp. On 19 February 1947 he registered as a Displaced Person, was issued an identity card under his assumed name, and taken to a Displaced Persons Camp at Flensburg. ‘It is hard to describe how I felt.’ he reflected, ‘True identity being discovered would mean my return to Latvia and Russian bosses. For three years I was haunted by this fear. The English representatives came to the Camp. I volunteered to work in this country. Once my feet touched British soil I was no longer afraid. But I could speak no English. So I kept on being Francis Rimicans’ (unidentified newspaper clipping, 1956).
Rudolph arrived in England as a European Voluntary Worker on 10 June 1947. On 23 July, he registered as a Displaced Person with East Riding Constabulary at Beverley, Yorkshire, under the name of Rimicans. At first he was sent to Windlestone Hall, near Bishop Auckland, County Durham, onetime family home of Prime Minister Robert Anthony Eden. Eden’s brother had sold the Hall in 1936. During wartime it was requisitioned as a camp for senior German officers and, later, a rehabilitation centre for European Displaced Persons. Rudolph moved to Leicester in 1947 and to London in December 1948. From January 1949 he worked as a ward orderly at Springfield Mental Hospital, Beechcroft Road, Tooting, where he was also provided with accommodation.
During the summer of 1955, Rudolph applied for a Certificate of British Naturalization and completed the forms in the name of Francis Rimicans. At his interview with Detective Inspector Ferguson Smith of the Special Branch of New Scotland Yard he revealed his true identity. On 25 July 1955, he was charged with making a false statement in order to procure Naturalisation. In spite of advice from Smith to the contrary, he resigned from Springfield Hospital and was obliged to take temporary rented accommodation at 64 Nightingale Lane, Clapham, London SW12.
Rudolph appeared at South Western Magistrates Court on 7 February 1956 where he pleaded guilty as charged. The magistrate, A. H. Glenn Craske summed up: ‘I can understand how your original change of name came about and don’t think you can be very much blamed for that. The pity is that when you came to this country you did not make a clean breast of the matter to the authorities right at the beginning, and if you wanted to change your name you could have done so quite easily […] I think there are considerable mitigating circumstances, but this is a serious matter and I must impose a penalty. The penalty I impose is one of £10. Nobody will think very much the worse of you because of this’ (unidentified newspaper clipping, 1956). The case featured in several local papers: ‘Tooting Hospital Orderly Changed His Name: Alleged False Identity on Naturalisation Form’, ‘He Assumed False Identity’, and ‘The Man Who Feared His Own Name’.
In February 1956, Rudolph bought 5 Herondale Avenue, Wandsworth, a property in which he had previously briefly lodged. In June that year, his application for a Naturalisation was turned down. In March 1958 he became a night porter at Bolingbroke Hospital where he remained until May 1966. He was to continue running his home – which he named ‘Villa Riga’ – as a boarding house. He set up a studio and etching press on the ground floor.
The Home Office was finally to grant Francis Rudolph a Certificate of Naturalisation on 19 December 1991, the year in which 51 years of Soviet rule in Latvia ended with the collapse of the USSR.
Rudolph died in Wandsworth in October 2005.
Draughtsman, Printmaker and Painter
At Leicester, Rudolph enrolled at the School of Art. In London, his first engagement with fine art education appears to have been at the Regent Street Polytechnic where, in 1951, he made his first etching, Two Barges with St. Paul’s taken from a drawing of 1949. He learned lithography at Central School of Arts and Crafts in 1953. At this time, he was almost exclusively a draughtsman and printmaker. As a hospital night porter his days were free to pursue courses in printmaking, life drawing, head modeling, stained glass, and book binding at various art schools. In 1954 he studied printmaking under Henry Wilkinson (1921-2011) at the City and Guilds of London School of Art. Between 1954 and 1956 he worked on a series of etchings of mental patients made from his drawings at Springfield Hospital. His first linocuts, including a self portrait, were made in 1955. The etchings are often experimental in technique, some for example are on copper salvaged from the top of a discarded operating table, while there are drypoints made from old aluminium serving plates.
Rudolph exhibited his paintings and prints at the annual Chelsea Art Exhibition, Toynbee Art Club Exhibition, and the Hesketh Hubbard Art Society at the Mall Galleries. For over 10 years he was a Member of the Hesketh Hubbard Art Society, London’s largest life drawing group, and he rarely missed a class. The Society’s President remembered how ‘Francis was an exceptionally good draughtsman […] much admired for the strength and freedom of his drawing. He was also an accomplished printmaker. He served on the Council of the Society and was a very involved member who greatly contributed to the spirit of the evenings.’ Rudolph was also member of a Saturday art club ‘Painting in London’. Together members walked the city, drawing and painting the grand buildings and bridges along the Thames, St Paul’s, Southwark Cathedral, Imperial War Museum, Brompton Oratory, St Martins in the Field, Houses of Parliament and Orleans House and Park at Twickenham. As a young man Rudolph had lived in Riga, the ‘Paris of the Baltic’. It is a city rich in history, architecture and culture, with an old city centre, narrow cobbled streets, and the largest number of Jugendstil buildings in the world. It is small wonder that he was to acquire and develop a passion for architectural subjects. Rudolph was also a stalwart member of the Toynbee Hall Art Club which was established by C. R. Ashbee in London’s East End in 1886. It is an informal art group that meets fortnightly for life drawing and aims to ‘rekindle the pioneering spirit of [its] founding father, with the goal of once again teaching the craft of drawing and painting in the ethos of Ruskin and the Old Masters.’
Rudolph’s paintings and drawings of mental patients at Springfield Hospital are a consequence of his admiration for not only the grotesque portraits and penetrating studies in character of the Spanish artists, Velasquez, Ribera and Goya, but also Theodore Gericault’s paintings of lunatics made in Parisian asylums around 1820. Renoir’s nudes provided a model for his own figure paintings from life.
It was chiefly to the Impressionists that Rudolph turned when painting the city, studying closely the works of Monet, Sisley and Pissarro in London. He was clearly a most prolific and sensitive draughtsman possessed with considerable ability. His drawings were usually executed on interesting papers using sanguine or umber conté pencils applied in hatched line characteristic of French and Italian Old Master draughtsmen. Many drawings are on 18th-century ledger papers incorporating the ink manuscript and interesting watermarks.
Unable to reconcile his influences, Rudolph’s paintings lack all refinement. In his imitation of Rubens or Renoir, his intent is clear, yet such models were beyond his ability and he was unable to successfully work out the challenge. Large canvasses, such as those of nudes reclining before the Tower of London or Admiralty Arch, draw attention to his lack of training. They are vulgar, insensitive and crude in technique. As a painter, Rudolph was most accomplished when painting small-scale head and shoulder portraits from life.
An artist of unremitting determination, faith in his abilities and the importance of his work, Rudolph compiled a meticulously detailed, hand-written Catalogue Raisonné recording thousands of his prints, sketchbooks and paintings (now in the possession of Aberystwyth University’s School of Art Museum and Galleries). The prints have been numbered and painstakingly documented: the various states, papers, and edition sizes of 228 etchings, linocuts and lithographs are described and annotated. To this he added the dimensions and information about the composition of the plate or block, signatures, and where they were printed.
Likewise 1,146 oil paintings were all assigned numbers and framed, each titled and entered in the ledger, noting medium, support, dimensions and date. Numbers 1-11 were painted in Latvia, 12-40 between 1951 and 1969, and the remainder executed between 1970 to 2002. In the studio there were 175 hardback sketchbooks filled with life class and figure studies, portraits and drawings made in and around London as well as on the Continent. Each has been bound by Rudolph himself using carefully selected papers and consistently bound in grey hessian with FRANCIS RUDOLF blocked on the cover and spine in blue. These sketchbooks begin in 1985 and the last drawings date from 2004 at the life classes of the Toynbee Art Club. In addition, there exist several thousand loose leaf and mounted drawings. All works are signed Rudolfs, though Peders and Rimicans are occasional early variants.
Aberystwyth, updated 2018
Ten leather-bound illustrated diaries written in Latvian
Volume I, Spring 1943 – 1944
East Front, Riga and East Prussia, with pen and ink sketches
Volume II, Autumn 1944 – 12 April 1946
End of War, time as a Prisoner of War, interment and Flensburg
Volume III, to end June 1946
Flensburg, with pen and ink sketches
Volume IV, Spring 1946 – Summer 1947
Husum – Cuxhafen, with pencil, pen and ink sketches
Volume V, 1947
England, Windlestone Hall (County Durham)
Volume VI, 1947
Volume VII, 1 January 1949
London, mostly written on sheets
Volume VIII, 1950
written over sepia drawings done in London art schools
Volume IX, 1952
written over sepia drawings done in London art schools
Volume X, 1956-1966
written over sepia drawings done in London art schools
June – 28 August 1947
Priory Road Hostel, Hull
29 August 1947 – 28 May 1948
Windlestone Hall, Ferryhill, County Durham
29 May – 30 December 1948
General Hospital, Leicester
December 1948 – March 1956
Springfield Hospital, London
March 1958 – May 1966
Education, Artist Clubs and Societies
Latvian Academy of Arts, Riga
School of Art and Technology, Leicester
Regent Street Polytechnic
City and Guilds of London School of Art
Central School of Arts and Crafts
John Cass School of Art
Richmond Adult College
St Martin’s School of Art
Mary Ward Centre
Hesketh Hubbard Art Society
Kingsway College, Clerkenwell Centre
City Literary Institute, 6 Bolt Court
Sol Studio(?), Farrington
Fellow Printmaking Students in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s
Artists with whom Francis Rudolph was at one time a student.
Bernard Philip Batchelor RWS
Tom Darling (? Dowling or Dorling)
Mary E. Douglas-Home
L. von Heideken
J. Kounln (? Kourlu)
Rachel Ann Le Bas RE
Roland Langmaid (1897-1956)
Renate E. Meyer
Patricia A. Regnart
Edward W. Sharland
Linda S. Shineberg