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Richard Leray of Fontevraud

An Illuminated Man,

by Teresa Dolan

Richard Leray is a man with a unique and exceptional talent for the ancient art of Stencil Illumination along with free-hand illumination or ‘Space Poetry’ – more of this later…. Richard was brought up in the Loire Valley by his Mother, along with his brothers and sisters. It was a happy childhood, despite the fact that his Father left to travel the world and to write when he was three. He thinks that some of his early wanderlust and interest in International subjects might stem from the latter.

At the tender age of 15 years Richard ‘fell in love’ – not an adolescent, puppy love I hasten to add – but a life long love of words and a desire to use words creatively and spiritually in a visual, illustrative form. After a brief flirtation with Mathematics, Latin and German, he gave up his studies in Angers, and travelled to Israel to live on a Kibbutz. Here he met people from across the globe and because of the diversity of languages and dialects and his desire to communicate and connect with people, Richard decided to literally draw what he wanted to say. This was the beginning of one of his art-forms, which he now calls ‘Space Poetry’ whereby a word for example the word * Timide * or * Neu * is embedded spatially and proportionately on paper or canvas. This was the late 70s early 80s and gradually Richard developed and extended his art to embrace the exquisite and painstaking process of producing the most amazing historically accurate illuminations. So what inspired him and influenced him to make the transition from a more modernist broad approach to art to the world of illumination? It seems that what had begun tentatively at school intensified as Richard travelled the world and his passion and interest in developing the craft of illumination deepened and stemmed from his looking at original illuminations such as the Book of Kells from Ireland along with ancient books, drawings and illuminations from Ethiopia, Egypt, Spain and “Arabia “. He also speaks of Cretan Spanish and Islamic documents including many ancient Hebrew texts that have inspired him. Today, when you look around his * atelier * in Fontevraud, it is like entering into a rich tableau from the past with its array of perfectly executed illuminations. The colours – apart from the more monochromatic modern works of his ‘Space Poetry’ -are rich and deep, and draw the eye with their sensory evocations of History.

Richard is emphatic about the distinctions to be made between Stencil Illuminations – he is one of only a handful of practitioners in the world – and Free hand Illuminations – which he also produces though there are many more practitioners of this method across the globe.

I asked him how he learnt the techniques of Stencil Illumination. He explains that he studied under a Master craftsperson in the form of a * Monsieur Petit *, a third generation Stencil Illuminator”. Under his tuition, and whilst studying at ‘The French School of Illumination’, he ‘fell in love again’ this time with the rigours of the latter technique, leaning how to create stencils. I rather suspect that a head for mathematics and measurement must come in useful here. Richard goes on, “ I learnt about mixing and applying colour – and about brushes”.

I am fascinated by the brushes in his studio as they are large and rather beautiful, a little like giant shaving brushes. Each one is dusted in a particular colour of rose, green, yellow or blue. He tells me that they are made by one man in France “from copper and wax and Pigs hair from China or Russia”. Many of his finer brushes are from the 19th century.

Richard has many brushes to weave his magic

Richard has many brushes to weave his magic

His * atelier * is a bright place of Tuffeau stone and whilst the visitor upon entry will get a sense of returning to a past era, the overall feel is by contrast ‘contemporary chic’ and with a whole wall dedicated to his more modern pieces, we are in no doubt that this is the 21st century. And yet we are never far away from a sense of a bygone age as some of the colours he uses in his work have a look of Lapis Lazuli – other pictures are embellished with the opulent splendour of gold-leaf. One such picture catches my eye. It is called ‘Les Vendanges’ a copy from a 15th century Book of Hours, showing the grape harvests through the lens of time. Another is of the Abbaye at Fontevraud. It captures my attention because I think that it is a water-colour as it has an almost impressionistic green wash to it. It is of course not a water-colour at all, but rather a Stencil Illumination specially created to commemorate an anniversary at the Abbaye in 2004. Richard tells me that like an earlier work of his, of the Chateau at Saumur, the picture is enhanced with a mixture of minerals and paint and actually contains elements of original Tuffeau stone from the building itself – from a piece that he was given by the Director whilst renovations were still being done. Like Richard’s picture of Mount Sinai, which also contains stone from the actual place, this is a piece of living history if ever there was one. We conclude that it is “a modern way to experiment with an ancient technique”.

Richard's application of colour is precise and authentic

Richard’s application of colour is precise and authentic

Whilst I could see that his * atelier * is perfectly in tune with what is going on in terms of history and the architecture of the area, not to mention the Abbaye which is of course both an historical monument and an arts centre, I was curious to learn why Richard had set up his studio in Fontevraud? “In fact”, says Richard “My studio could be anywhere in the world”.

His influences and sources of inspiration are wide, but clearly when he selected Fontevraud he was thinking in terms of the possibility of an international visitor and for a potential clientele. Richard has a number of clients, 50% of whom are French and the rest comprise Americans, English, Irish, Indian and even one client from Peru.

I was concerned that if so few people knew the art of Stencil Illumination what will happen if the ‘secrets of the trade’ are not passed on? In fact Richard has pioneered the authentication of the first professional diploma for the Application of Stencil Illumination in France. Four years ago, after going through the hoops of French bureaucracy, he managed to get permission for Arnaud Vitet to work alongside him in his studio and learn the trade. It took so long, because clearly Richard is an artist and up until that time the Apprentice scheme had not in France recognised that an artist might be able to instruct another person, and it was well nigh impossible for an Artist per se to take on an apprentice artist. Now Arnaud is fully instructed, and Richard is so pleased with his progress that he is now going to take him on as a full-time Employee. His hope is that he has paved the way for other Illuminators, and kindred artists, to take on an apprentice without having to wait quite so long as he did. He also plans to take on more apprentices in the future.

I was intrigued to know what qualities you need to be an Illuminator.

You must be patient of course, and intellectually curious; but equally you must also like repetition as sometimes you will be producing up to 60 plates of the same stencil”. Richard also runs workshops and is available to give talks.

Richard creating in his studio

School children also visit, and when a few years back a particular group of 6 – 8 year olds visited him when they recently returned it was to tell him that they too had been inspired by the art of illumination and calligraphy and hoped to become artists. Richard was naturally thrilled. With only two studios dedicated to the art of Stencil Illumination in France and very few across the world, we can only hope that he will continue to impart the ‘secrets of his trade’ and to enthral us with his stunning world of great illuminations.

©Teresa Dolan

Atelier Festina Lente

Richard Leray

16 allée Sainte-Catherine

49590 Fontevraud l’Abbaye

07 87 07 32 44
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