John Inigo Richards was a pioneering landscape painter in oil and watercolour, a forerunner of such artists as Paul Sandby. His sketching tours yielded fresh and highly naturalistic images, often of country estates and picturesque historic buildings. These were exhibited at the Royal Academy, of which he became the Secretary, and also informed his work as the principal set painter at Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. John Inigo Richards was born in London to John Richards, a scene painter who is said to have assisted William Hogarth, in 1737, with the mural decorations for St Bartholomew’s Hospital. Richards told Joseph Farington that William Hogarth had been his godfather. A drawing made by Richards and corrected by Hogarth in 1761 – portraying the Swiss enamellist, Theodore Gardelle, who was executed for murder – appeared as an etching by Samuel Ireland in Graphic Illustrations of Hogarth (1794-99).
Richards studied under George Lambert, ‘the father of English landscape oil painting’, at St Martin’s Lane Academy and, may have joined him on sketching trips to Kent in the early 1750s.
From 1759, he assisted him as a scene painter at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, Nicholas Dall and Giovanni Battista Cipriani being numbered among their collaborators.
Between 1762 and 1768, Richards exhibited landscapes and images of ruins at the Society of Artists of Great Britain. Notable among these was A design for the first scenes of The Maid of the Mill, which was shown in 1765, and took as its subject a comic opera by Isaac Bickerstaffe, which had premiered at Covent Garden earlier the same year. An engraving of the composition, produced by William Woollett in 1768, achieved great popularity. In the same year, Richards became a foundation member of the Royal Academy, and exhibited landscapes and capriccios there between 1769 and 1809. Titles of some of the exhibits indicate locations of sketching tours, including Somerset and Wales.
Richards married Elizabeth Wignell, in Orpington, Kent, on 28 September 1769, and they soon settled in Bedford Street, Covent Garden, later moving to Bow Street. She came from a family of actors-managers, her father, John, and brother, Thomas, both performing at Covent Garden. Following the death of Nicholas Dall in 1776, Richards became the theatre’s principal painter, a position he would hold until 1803. In 1782, he also remodelled the theatre building. A decade later, he would design the Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia for his brother-in-law, Thomas Wignell, basing it, in part, on the Theatre Royal, Bath; America’s first purpose-built professional theatre, it opened in 1794. In addition, some of his scenery was imported into the United States, a practice that was common at the time.
Richards’ work as a landscape painter, including drawing in the open air, informed his designs for sets, and made them seem particularly fresh and naturalistic. However, his output as an easel painter decreased in later life as the result of other commitments and ill health.
In 1788, Richards was elected Secretary of the Royal Academy, and moved into accommodation at Somerset House. He showed strengths as an administrator, including cataloguing the academy’s collection (though many found him irascible, as Joseph Farington recorded in his diaries). He also undertook some restoration work, and in 1791 was paid 12 guineas to repair Leonardo’s cartoon of The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist, which was then in the possession of the Royal Academy.
Richards died at home at Somerset House on 18 December 1810. In his will, he acknowledged that Mary Ann Richards, who was born to the actress Ann Pitt in 1759, was his daughter. He left her a tortoiseshell snuff box, the lid of which was decorated with a picture of her mother. In March 1811, his collection of works of art was sold, including examples of his own art and pictures attributed to a range of Old Masters, notably Poussin, Rembrandt and Rubens.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the British Museum and the V&A; and National Museum Wales (Cardiff).
Further reading: Elizabeth Allen, ‘Richards, John Inigo (b London, 1731; d London, Dec 18, 1810)’, Jane Turner (ed), The Dictionary of Art, London: Macmillan, 1996, Vol 26, Page 335; Tina Fiske, ‘Richards, John Inigo (1730/31?-1810)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, Vol 46, Page 785