RICH IMAGINATION: Ralph with his 1991 drawing in the service tunnel of the Channel Tunnel, underneath the main tunnel.
RICH IMAGINATION: Ralph with his 1991 drawing in the service tunnel of the Channel Tunnel, underneath the main tunnel. Belinda Scott

Enjoying a timeless career of creating historic paintings

NEITHER the march of the years nor a series of strokes has daunted Dr Ralph Lillford.

Now 85, the prolific British-born artist and academic who moved to Coffs Harbour in 1997 has been drawing and painting all his life and has work in British and international collections.

He occupies two pages of the recently published British catalogue Oil Paintings in Public Ownership for London West.

He says he will never stop working, although the strokes have slowed him down.

In the aftermath of each one he has worked tirelessly to reclaim his skills with pen and paintbrush through hours of exercises over many months

A keen interest in current affairs combined with a stubborn streak and an ability to get his foot in the door has seen Ralph carry his sketchbook and paint brushes into situations ranging from the humorous to the hair raising and to countries from Russia to India.

He first won recognition for his work at the age of nine in 1941, winning an all-schools 'Dig for Victory' poster competition with Sergeant Potato, a work which is now included in the National Army Museum,

After National Service in Egypt and the Suez Canal in the 1950s, he found his work in demand by institutions discovering a dearth of records of the National Services environment overseas.

This last phase of British colonial history has recently been brought to local TV screens by the ABC in The Last Post.

In the 1970s he was chased and stoned on the Creggan Estate and detained by armed men in balaclavas after his insistence on making an independent record of the troubles in Northern Ireland put him at odds with both Irish and English forces.

In 2006 this work was the subject of Painting the Troubles, an exhibition at the National Army Museum and a book by the museum's head of fine and decorative arts Jenny Spencer-Smith.

In the late 1980s he began trying to get permission to enter the underground worksite of the Channel Tunnel.

He wanted to record what was at the time the world's largest and most expensive and daring construction project, finally completed in 1994.

He finally gained access and his images of this shadowy, dangerous world are striking ones, especially the giant boring machine which chewed its way through the undersea rock.

A stained-glass interpretation of his 1991 painting of the French tunnel-boring machine at rest holds a prominent place in the artist's Coffs Harbour home. The original was bought by the Queen

He is down to earth about portrait painting.

"You have to give people what they want - they might want you to leave out marks, change colours or make a bosom bigger."

One of Ralph's subjects, who is no longer around to object to the depiction of the shape of his nose or any other features is the English composer Edward Elgar, composer of Land of Hope and Glory, among many other works.

A larger version of Ralph's portrait of Elgar will be included in a new music centre being built in Los Angeles by entrepreneur Sir Richard Wintershaw, with international contributions.

The Elgar portrait is being sponsored by Kazakhstan and Ralph has already travelled to Paris to meet Kazakhstan's ambassador and present him with the portrait.

Ralph has recently completed a portrait of 88-year-old American Professor Ronald Paulson, a specialist in English18th century art and culture, especially artist, printmaker and satirist William Hogarth.

Ralph Lillford's doctorate was on William Hogarth's engravings illustrating Samuel Butler's satirical poem Hudibras. He also determined a method for dating undocumented Hogarth prints and helped to catalogue the collection at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

He has painted Paulson in front of Hogarth's house, with the names of Hogarth's friends incorporated in the path on one side of the figure and the names of his inventions incorporated in the grass on the other side. 

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