PETER COKER RA 1926-2004
Peter Coker RA (1926-2004) must be regarded as a leading exponent of the great figurative tradition of post-war painting in Britain, his work combining strong draughtsmanship with the bold use of paint. The paintings and drawings in the exhibition are an outstanding record of his work. They reveal how Coker endeavoured to capture transient and momentary experiences in paintings of great energy and vitality.
Early in his career Coker’s thickly painted works of domestic interiors and of a butcher’s shop associated him with Bratby and the so-called Kitchen Sink painters. Thereafter, landscape became the central theme of his career. Coker’s earliest landscapes were painted in the 1950s, in Epping Forest, after he and Vera moved to Leytonstone. Two drawings relating to the Epping period are on show in the exhibition (18,25).
In 1962 the Cokers moved to Mistley on the river Stour on the border between Essex and Suffolk. He began teaching at the Colchester School of Art alongside other tutors who included John Nash RA and William Packer. Nash became an important friend and introduced him to the forests of East Anglia, the source of many important works. Nash had also been instrumental in setting up the Colchester Art Society in 1946 and Peter Coker showed with the society at the Minories on several occasions.
However, Coker had a profound love of 19th century French painting and in his artistic allegiance was probably more French than English. He particularly responded to Courbet and to Nicholas de Stael and crossing to France toured the sites favoured by the artists he revered. Courbet was directly responsible for Coker’s choice of Etretat as the principal area for his first visits to France in 1955 and 1956 and of the many of his early landscape paintings.
The outstanding quality of these, and of his later landscapes, is their energy and vitality which captures a concentrated feeling of light and of landscape. He vividly records the changing aspects of the sky, gliding clouds and oncoming storms.
In the mid 1950s Coker first became aware of the work of Nicholas de Stael. It was his delicacy, finesse and refined sense of colour that Coker found so attractive. De Stael was fascinated by lighthouses, which may explain Coker’s numerous images of the lighthouse at St Valery en Caux, three watercolours of which are in this exhibition (1,3,9).
Coker’s sketchbooks were always of great importance to him. They were made to his specification of high quality paper. The drawings make very satisfying works of art in their own right in a much freer, impressionistic style than his more finished work, which frequently come direct from sketchbook drawings made on the spot. A sense of urgency leaps out from the pages.
Coker was reluctant to sell work from his sketchbooks regarding them as his reference library. Cobbold and Judd Fine Art are lucky to have in this exhibition 15 works from one of his sketchbooks, sketchbook 29 dated 1989, which have never previously been shown: Varengeville (13), the preparatory sketch for the oil painting Orchard Varengeville (14) and Sea, Quiberville (6), the preparatory sketch for Seascape, Quiberville (7). Both paintings and sketches are displayed in the exhibition.
Coker continued to visit France throughout his life. Normandy pre-dominated but he also stayed with friends near Antibes and at Bargemon. From 1985 the Coker’s paid many visits to Badenscaillie the home of friends on the North West coast of Scotland. On the earliest visits Coker concentrated on the crofts and hillsides in the area and there is a fine example in the exhibition (24).
Coker’s work has been described as being balanced between tradition and experimentation. His painting commands attention with it’s combination of strength and energy. Delacroix once said ‘The first merit of a painting is to be a feast for the eye’. Coker’s work, time and again, achieves this objective.