John Richardson, critic and Picasso biographer, dies at 95

A celebrated raconteur, Mr. Richardson was described as “the man all New York wants to sit beside at dinner.”
Knopf via AP
A celebrated raconteur, Mr. Richardson was described as “the man all New York wants to sit beside at dinner.”

NEW YORK — John Richardson, an eminent historian and critic whose multivolume series on Pablo Picasso drew upon his personal and aesthetic affinity for the Spanish painter and was widely praised as a work of art in its own right, died Tuesday morning at his Manhattan home. He was 95.

A native Londoner, Mr. Richardson wrote his first Picasso book, ‘‘A Life of Picasso: The Prodigy, 1881-1906’’ in 1991, and it was followed by editions covering 1907-1916 and 1917-1932. A fourth volume, in the works for a decade, was forthcoming, his publisher said.

Art lovers had looked forward to Mr. Richardson’s Picasso writings the way readers of politics have anticipated Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson series. Like Leon Edel’s five-volume epic on Henry James and Richard Ellmann’s ‘‘James Joyce,’’ Mr. Richardson’s books were regarded as biographies of the highest literary quality, graced by knowledge, poetry, passion, and insight. His criticism and scholarship brought him a Whitbread Award in 1991, election to the British Academy two years later, and a knighthood in 2012.


Reviewing his third Picasso volume, in 2007, The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani cited Mr. Richardson’s ‘‘intimate understanding of the artist’s temperament and endlessly inventive styles, his expansive vocabulary of myths and motifs, and, most important, the mysterious nature of the alchemy by which he transformed his own experiences and emotions into art.’’

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Mr. Richardson had admired Picasso’s work since he was a teenager, when he failed to persuade his mother to lend him $250 so he could buy ‘‘Minotauromachy’’ (a black and white print later sold for $1.5 million). He befriended the artist in the late 1940s, while both were living in the south of France, and remained close with him for years.

‘‘It must have been hell to be his child or his mistress but to his friends he was beguiling. There was never a dull moment,’’ he said in 1991, adding that Picasso seemed inspired by his friends.

‘‘He was like a human cannibal in that way. We’d all be suffering from nervous exhaustion at the end of the day from his intensity and he would have all this energy he seemed to get from us. At the age of 85, he’d go sailing off into studio and work all night long.’’

Patrician in his speech and attire, Mr. Richardson had lived in New York since 1960 and his 5,000 square foot loft on Fifth Avenue included art by Andy Warhol, Georges Braques, and, of course, Picasso.


Mr. Richardson also wrote for The New Yorker and Vanity Fair and was a board member of the Modern Library, a Penguin Random House imprint that reissues classic works. He served as managing director of the art dealers’ consortium Artemis, founded Christie’s USA, and headed the New York-based auction house for nine years.

Self-taught but possessing an unfailing eye and impeccable taste, he could spot a misattributed painting at an auction or zero in on the only gem among piles of junk at a flea market.

He also collected a wide circle of friends, including artists — Georges Braque, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Warhol — as well as writers: Jean Cocteau, W.H. Auden, Nancy Mitford, and Tennessee Williams. A celebrated raconteur, he was described by W magazine as “the man all New York wants to sit beside at dinner.”

His classic good looks made him a magnet for artists. Freud and Warhol painted him. In July he flew to Los Angeles at the invitation of David Hockney to sit for a portrait.

Born in 1924, Mr. Richardson was the son of Boer War commander and Army & Navy Stores co-founder Wodehouse Richardson. His ‘‘earliest, indeed happiest memories’’ were of his father’s business, including a Victoria Street department store where employees treated him as a ‘‘little prince’’ and hung his picture in the elevator.


But when John was 5, his father died and his mother sent him to a boarding school so ‘‘horrendous’’ that Mr. Richardson once ‘‘was left dangling by the wrists from a hook in the ceiling, my shrieks disregarded by those in authority.’’ Mercifully, by age 13 he was attending the humane Stowe public school, which featured a progressive art program that Mr. Richardson credited with ‘‘triggering an obsession with Picasso.’’

He was still a teenager when he decided to become an artist, a dream he would abandon in his 20s, but not before he had befriended Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud among others and helped design a ‘‘Britain Can Make It’’ exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

For much of the 1950s, he lived in a chateau in France with the art collector Douglas Cooper, who died in 1984.

Material from The New York Times was used in this obituary.