Observer picture archive: Bridget Riley, 25 May 1969

David Newell-Smith captured the artist in her London studio, ahead of a national tour of her drawings.

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Britain’s leading woman painter, whose exhibition is now showing in Oxford (then Bristol and Nottingham), is the Mary Quant of the art world.

Bridget Riley has powder-blue eyes and thin bones. Only in her thirties, she is firmly in the super tax bracket of the international art hierarchy, along with elderly figures like Henry Moore, Chagall and Ben Nicholson. Nowadays, every American or European museum worth its art collection needs a Bridget Riley “op” (“op” is short for optical) painting, just as the National Gallery needs Ducios and Botticellis. And they’re not cheap: a small “op” painting can cost £1,000 and a large 15ft x 8ft may even reach £4,000. In fact, there’s such a waiting list for her work that prices are being constantly revised.

Bridget Riley’s impact goes far beyond her paintings: her abstract work has already been translated into dresses, ties, cigarette cartons, and into window displays. She once sued a large London store because they’d plagiarised her ‘op’ paintings, and they paid up. Nowadays she can’t be bothered to waste nervous energy on people stealing her thoughts.

She went to Cheltenham Ladies’ College; her father is a prosperous businessman and her sister a lawyer. For a painter, she is markedly self-effacing and typically economic with words. “Mine,” she says defiantly, “is a visual sense.” (Which isn’t exactly helpful.)

She began painting when she was 14 and, rather than teach, went into advertising and drew “idealised middle-class people smiling over butter.” Like many artists today, Miss Riley employs assistants: “The actual execution takes so long that it would be frustrating to do it all myself. It’s self-evident that my art doesn’t rely on the actual handling of paint.”

So assistants at her large four-storey house in Holland Park, and her studio in an old warehouse in St Katherine’s Dock in the East End of London, simply fill ready-mixed colours between the lines that she has drawn on large primed canvases. We asked her whether her pictures were just eye-ticklers. “That’s an impoverished definition,” she snapped back with a fierce smile.

This Pendennis diary item was published on the back page of the Observer on 25 May 1969.

The Guardian and Observer archive has more than 200 years of articles and images available to view. Find out more about how to access them.

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