Peter Coker 1926-2004


Caroline Steane


2017, London, Piano Nobile, Peter Coker: Mind and Matter, 5 April - 13 May 2017, cat. no. 4, col. ill. p. 21.


A. Lambirth and C. Etter, A monographic exploration of Peter Coker's 1958-9 'Sunflowers' (Piano Nobile Publications, 2012), col. ill. p. 4. 
During his final year at the RCA, Coker fixed upon the subject that evolved into the material for his first solo exhibition at Zwemmer Gallery in 1956, featuring drawings and paintings of animal carcasses, obsessively rendered in impasto oil. The show propelled him to fame alongside fellow realists John Bratby, Jack Smith, Derrick Greaves, and Edward Middleditch, who were all exhibited by Helen Lessore at the Beaux Arts gallery. Reluctant recipients of the Kitchen Sink Group title, a phrase coined by critic David Sylvester, the group were lauded by Marxist critic John Berger for finding valour in the everyday. From 1954, Coker began to introduce carcasses of animals into his art, drawing from life either at his local butcher’s or purchasing pig and deer heads, rabbits, and fish, which he laid out on a grainy wooden bench to use as subject matter. Distancing himself from the legacy of Cézanne’s still-lifes, Coker instead consciously aligned himself with the morbid realism of Chaïm Soutine, whose work he probably saw at an exhibition in Paris at Galérie Weil in 1953.

The ritual of butchery has parallels with Coker’s emphasis on the physicality of the very act of painting: “I always believe that it’s out of the process of painting that everything is generated.” Introducing Coker’s touring retrospective 1972-73, Frederick Gore
wrote, “Perhaps the aim of all ritual is to show that pain or cruelty of life is subject to a moral order…the pleasures of the eye and the enjoyment of very lavish and sumptuous paint have to be shaped, even at great labour, into a design which firmly embraces the essentials and not the accidents of the subject.”

In 1955, Coker produced a series of dead hares, including this work, Dead Hare, and three oils shown at his 1956 Zwemmer Gallery exhibition: Dead Hare on Table, Arts Council Collection [Fig. 2], Still Life with Hare and Grapes, Chelmsford Museum, and
Still Life with Hare, Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery. Unlike the skinned example in Dead Hare on Table, Dead Hare illustrates the hare intact, a perfect specimen, untouched by signs of death, laid out on a table. Working in charcoal, Coker focuses on the lush texture of fur and the taut, elongated muscles of the hare’s powerful hind legs. Although ostensibly a still-life, the macabre subject of a dead hare was designed to shock, to repulse, to force the still-life genre joltingly into modernity.