John Ryan and friends

Selecting the works to exhibit

The invitation from Rye Art Gallery to share the curating of this exhibition raised questions – should the works selected be a pilgrimage through my own happy childhood growing up in John Ryan’s studio? Should the display be chronological, or thematic? Self-indulgence aside, daughterly respect demanded a proper representation of my genius of a father’s work.
And then I was rescued: the gallery’s curator Isabelle Sambrook requested a display “concentrating on John Ryan’s other characters as well as on Pugwash”: what about Sir Prancelot, Mary Mungo & Midge, Cardinal Grotti and the rest? This godsend of a decision focused my mind and gave us a title: John Ryan’s Captain Pugwash and Friends. I could visualise the walls of the Stormont Room with separate clusters of fabulous characters from cartoon, book and TV film: The Hunting of the Snark here, Saint Christopher there, Dodos to the right, Harris Tweed to the left – and so on.  To keep each wall lively, there should be a combination of large and small images, colour and monochrome, finely-painted book illustration and TV film cardboard cut-outs. Comic strip would mingle with poster, and newsprint with gouache.

Sorting the hang

But how would we know if it would all fit? So I drew up and printed out elevations at a scale of 1:10 of each hanging space, noting how placement of doors and windows, radiator and room furniture resulted in 10 separate available places to hang. Positioning of works was done by sellotaping to the elevations dear little 10% size colour mock-ups of each item, and then whizzing them round and round until satisfaction was reached. Having a decent colour printer helped, plus Priscilla Ryan, family and friends, who provided practical assistance and warm encouragement, along with the gallery’s director Jane Fenn and her staff.
Then there was mounting and framing: some works belonging to Priscilla Ryan and family had previously been framed up for display in the gallery’s 2011-12 larger John Ryan Retrospective exhibition, and some, which needed refurbishing, John Ryan had himself prepared for exhibitions in the 80s and 90s. These, plus the strong core selection from Rye Art Gallery’s own John Ryan artworks, and illustrations only recently and excitingly unearthed from our archives, completed the choice – and we were ready to hang. At this point I fell back, watching the gallery staff expertly hanging my ‘clusters of works’ (some double- or triple- hung) as per my mock-ups; then they twitched them into improved positions, and lit them to their best advantage. Explanatory titles and labels were put in place, and we were finally prepared to let in the public.
Once the exhibition was open the temptation to lurk about eavesdropping on visitors’ comments was irresistible. Reactions fell into two main categories: appreciative surprise “I didn’t know John Ryan did ‘Mary Mungo & Midge’ and ‘Lettice Leefe’ as well as ‘Captain Pugwash’!” and nostalgic “ooooh, look at this, I remember this from my childhood!”
Throughout, I have heard my late father’s spirited laughter in my ear, and enjoyed the immersion in his characters so beautifully depicted: his Goodies and his Baddies, his dodos and his pirates, his knights and his dragons. I am grateful to the Rye Art Gallery to be given this chance to show the legacy that is John Ryan’s wonderful and varied work.

Photos: Isabel Ryan

Image Credits: Rye News library .


  1. I live in a house formerly known as the Peg and Whistle in the north Essex village of Helions Bumpstead where I believe your Dad was a regular customer. The pub, and the son of the last landlord were featured by your Dad in an episode of Harris Tweed. It would be great to make sure your Dad gets the recognition he deserves in the village.
    I belong to a village band and we have decided to have a go at the Captain Pugwash theme in John’s honour!


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