Obituary: Peter Coker
PETER COKER was one of the foremost realist painters in England.
He first came to attention in the 1950s with tough, workaday still lifes and interiors. In these he achieved a material solidity equivalent to the harsh reality of the bare kitchen tables and animal carcasses which he painted. Their crusty surfaces were created by lining the board on which he worked with white lead and oil, a mixture used by plumbers to secure pipe joints. Powerfully designed, their sinewy architecture owed much to a subtle interplay of verticals and horizontals. These paintings immediately associated him with the Kitchen Sink artists - John Bratby, Derrick Greaves, Edward Middleditch and Jack Smith.
Although the critic John Berger read into these and other Fifties realist paintings political intent, Coker always denied that he had any such aim. Nevertheless, his paintings betray a strain and melancholy that can be related to the tensions and unrest of the period; and the affront caused by his work and that of other Kitchen Sink artists found its counterpart in the plays and novels of the "Angry Young Men".
Prominent among his early output were the series of works based on his local butcher's shop. These "meatscapes", as the critics dubbed them, were freshly acknowledged in 1979 when a touring retrospective of Coker's butcher's shops paintings and drawings was shown at the Royal Academy. But, in the late Fifties, the reputation Coker had so rapidly achieved was equally suddenly undercut by the arrival in England of American Abstract Expressionism. For the next two decades, while American art and theory dominated the contemporary art scene, Coker's affiliation to the great tradition of European realism limited the recognition he received.
He continued undaunted, painting with great tenacity and stubborn ambition. The consistency of his preoccupations, the mobility of his imagination, his avoidance of an artistic rut, his fierce passion and artistic integrity forged an outstanding career. It is beautifully encapsulated in the monograph Peter Coker RA, published in 2002, with texts by David Wootton, John Russell Taylor and Richard Humphries.
Peter Godfrey Coker was born in 1926 at the Royal Free Hospital in Gray's Inn Road, London. Both his parents came from the East End, but his father, having gone into trade and become manager of a wholesale confectionary company, moved his family out to Leytonstone, Essex, soon after Peter was born. Among his childhood memories was the experience of his maternal grandfather's engraving workshop, where the array of tools and materials and the purposeful atmosphere awoke him to the dignity and pleasure of craftsmanship.
On leaving school, he initially worked under his father as an assistant at Kerland and Haskin, the confectioners. He hated it and soon moved on, becoming a studio assistant at Odhams Press in Long Acre where he was encouraged to attend St Martin's School of Art, first in the evenings and at weekends and then on a day- release scheme. Then, in 1943, aged 17, he decided to enlist, finding eventual placement in the Fleet Air Arm. He returned to St Martin's in 1947, now able to sign up as a full-time student on a war service grant. During the next three years, he learnt much from Vivian Pitchforth and James Stroudley. Many years later he wrote obituaries of both men for The Times.
Before entering the Royal College of Art as a post-graduate student in 1950, he discovered Courbet. He never forgot the excitement of finding one of Courbet's Etretat paintings filling the central fold in an article in the Saturday Evening Post. In the summer of 1949, after a visit to Italy on his first trip abroad, he stopped in Paris and experienced Courbet at first hand, being particularly impressed by his Funeral at Ornans, by its audacity, breadth and scale. He was joined in Paris by Vera Crook, whom he had met two years earlier and married in 1951. Their son Nicholas was born in 1952.
While at the Royal College of Art, where he remained until 1954, Coker won two scholarships and acted for a while as a studio assistant to Rodrigo Moynihan, then Head of the Painting School. Though he coincided with Bratby, Greaves, Middleditch and Smith, and shared their interest in realism, he remained a solitary figure and did not exhibit with them at the Beaux Arts Gallery. Instead he waited until he felt ready to mount a solo exhibition and then found a venue of his own choice, the Zwemmer Gallery, in Litchfield Street, round the corner from the famous bookshop in the Charing Cross Road. The success of his first one-man show in 1956 was followed by three further shows at Zwemmer's, in 1957, 1959 and 1964.
Living at Leytonstone, in a house which belonged to his father and had at one time been the family home, Coker made a series of paintings based on Epping Forest. Landscape now became his prime subject, and the pattern of his life for the next 18 years settled around his part-time teaching at St Martin's School of Art and regular visits to France. He first visited Etretat in 1955. Other places of especial importance to him were Aldeburgh, Antibes, Audierne, Bargemon and the garden at the Clos du Peyronnet at Menton- Garavan, to name just a few.
After the closure of the Zwemmer Gallery in 1967, the Thackeray Gallery became Coker's main outlet, followed by Gallery 10, both in London, but he also exhibited every year in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions, becoming an ARA in 1965 and a full Academician in 1972. He remained always a loyal member of this institution, even when outspokenly hostile to some of its practices.
One of his colleagues at the Academy, Frederick Gore, was the first to discern a shift of focus in Peter Coker's art in 1968, after a summer spent in the north of England:
At first he had used particular motifs or landscape details . . . in much the same way as he had originally treated the ingredients of still life. His observant sympathy had therefore gone to the turbulent thicket of the forest, the rough cliff face, the cavern, the beach with the wave, things which the mind could isolate and grasp in their entirety, intrepret in paint and reorganise.
Now he saw as paintable something different; landscapes which surrounded him and which were in perpetual movement, landscapes structured not only by geological strata but also by light . . . The life of the landscape had become at least as important as the ritual of painting. Thus the very breadth of Yorkshire's high countryside and its atmospheric changes led him to altogether thinner paint.
Another alteration, in 1962, had been the move to Mistley, on the edge of Manningtree, in north Essex, which from then on remained his base. Having initially worked for the Scient-ific Civil Service, a job she resigned in 1957 in order to care for her mother who was dying of cancer, Vera had become Peter's bedrock, not least because her cooking matched his gourmet standards.
This close and happy marriage was hard hit in 1985 by the untimely death of their son. That summer they made the first of many visits to Badenscallie, in Ross-shire, where Peter Coker painted a series of obscurely moving works based on fishing nets, strung out on poles for mending. Then, five years later, in 1990, he suffered two serious heart attacks and a debilitating stroke. Earlier, in 1959, he had been diagnosed with Cushing's Disease. Now, once again, he was beset with a series of medical problems.
Although he continued for a while to work with Vera's help, he gave up in 1992 after a visit to Menton. His artistic sensibility, however, remained active and was fed by his voracious interest in exhibitions, catalogues and books. Then, after a gap of 10 years, the frustration attendant upon pent-up creativity proved too great and he began painting again, though now confined to a wheelchair. Taking as his starting point a set of drawings he had made in Paris in the 1970s, he produced an astonishing body of work which formed a travelling exhibition and is currently on show in the Graves Art Gallery in Sheffield.
Coker will be remembered for the refreshing nature of his astringent vision, for his consummate mastery as a draughtsman, painter and etcher, and as a proud and vigorous inheritor of a great artistic tradition.
Peter Godfrey Coker, painter: born London 27 July 1926; ARCA 1953; ARA 1965, RA 1972; married 1951 Vera Crook (one son deceased); died Colchester, Essex 16 December 2004.