Richard Hayley Lever was born on September 28, 1876 in the South Australian town of Adelaide. During his youth, Lever attended Prince Alfred College, where his rudimentary artistic talent caught the eye of art instructor James Ashton. A painter himself, Ashton became a faculty mentor to Lever, instilling in him an appreciation for draftsmanship and drawing.2 After his graduation in 1891, Lever made up his mind to follow in the path of his instructor and enrolled as a student at Ashton’s Academy of the Arts. Upon the advice of Ashton, Lever left Australia to venture to England, with St. Ives in mind as his specific destination.
As a popular artist colony founded during the early 1880s, the rocky cliffs, sandy beaches, and cobbled streets of St. Ives provided an alluring backdrop for many aspiring marine painters, and Lever was no exception. Arriving at the English seaport just before the turn of the century, Lever wasted no time in making friends at the Sloop Inn, the local watering hole for visiting artists.3 He soon joined the St. Ives Artist Colony, and enrolled at the Cornish School of Landscape, Figure and Sea Painting, where he began to develop his painting techniques under the instruction of Julius Olsson and Algernon Talmage.4
Olsson was quick to encourage Lever to try his hand at night-time scenes, which resulted in luminescent works such as Harbor by Moonlight (ca. 1910), while the practice of painting en plein air was championed by Talmage, a master of tonalist landscapes. Lever recognized that his time spent at St. Ives laid the foundation that would influence the rest of his artistic career. He described his time there, stating: “I really worked there. I did not quire realize then how much my future depended upon those days when I studied diligently from morning to night.”5
Around 1906, Lever determinedly set off to tour several of Europe’s thriving artistic communities; he painted the French streets of Concarneau, and captured the watery canals found in Bruges, Belgium. Perhaps one of the most significant shifts in Lever’s style occurred as a result of his 1908 trip to the continent, where his encounter with the bold strokes and bright colors of Vincent Van Gogh left quite a lasting impression.6 In addition to a tribute work entitled Van Gogh’s Hospital(1908), Lever’s absorption of Van Gogh’s style can be seen through his incorporation of flattened, Japanese-influenced forms; brighter colors; and an increase of self portraits.
At the beginning of 1912, Lever immigrated to America, where his Cornish works were quick to gain notoriety in the New York art scene. The year of 1914 proved to be a monumental highlight in Lever’s career; he was awarded the silver medal by the National Arts Club, and went on to receive the Carnegie prize from the National Academy of Design.7 By 1915, Lever was widely known throughout New York City, and began exhibiting regularly at Macbeth Gallery. That same summer, he traveled to Gloucester, Massachusetts in an attempt to revisit an atmosphere that would remind him of his previous homes in both Adelaide and St. Ives.
Lever became a fully naturalized citizen of the United States in 1921, and by this point, his works successfully conveyed a post-impressionist sense of structural mass and volume that was enhanced through rhythmic contour lines which brought his paintings to life. Up until the 1930s, Lever was a summer school instructor for the Art Students League in upstate New York. When the Depression hit, Lever was one of the countless Americans left in financial ruin. When he became the director of the Studio Art Club in 1938, his style had reverted back to a gloomy expressionism that recalled his earlier influence of Van Gogh.
Lever passed away at Mount Vernon Hospital on December 6, 1958.