Peter Coker 1926-2004

Provenance

The artist's estate

Private Collection, UK

Exhibitions

1964, London, Zwemmer Gallery, Peter Coker

Literature

David Wootton, John Russell Taylor and Richard Hamilton, Peter Coker RA, (London: Chris Beetle, 2002) 
Peter Coker was born in London in 1926. While working as a printing assistant, he attended evening classes at St Martin’s School of Art from 1942. He served with the Fleet Air Arm from 1943-46, returning to studies at St Martin’s after the war until 1950, then at the Royal College of Art from 1950-54. Zwemmer Gallery held his first one-man exhibition in 1956 and the same year he was included in John Berger’s influential ‘Looking Forward’ exhibition which helped confirm his place as part of the ‘Kitchen Sink’ painters lauded under Berger’s critical support of social realism.

Coker’s early realist period was influenced by Corbet, Chardin and texturally by Nicholas de Stael's more abstract work. De Stael’s retrospective exhibition in London in the early 1950’s was particularly important to Coker’s development of his own visual expression. His chosen subjects of butcher’s shops, dead animals, forests and sunflowers were all painted in thick impasto with strong expressionistic lines and powerful drawing.

John Berger highlighted the “wonderful conviction of surface and form” found in Coker’s work. Yet ‘surface’ only tells part of the story in the context of ‘The Brett, Suffolk’, such is the depth evoked by Coker’s handling of paint. The entire canvas is heavily laden with paint which strives to physically evoke the reality it depicts: water is rendered smooth and flowing, blending gradients of light; grass on the river bank is rendered in scrubby clods of paint with a roughness which belies the masterful control of the medium necessary to achieve the effect; the sprawling branches of the tree, the painting’s primary subject, crack with layers of brown pigment like the bark they embody. Berger’s notion of ‘conviction’ acknowledges how Coker manages to bind together his observed subject and the artifice he creates. The effect is a powerful and immediate realisation of the painting’s value which does not rely on complex associations of narrative, philosophy or esoteric reference.

The present work was exhibited at Zwemmer Gallery the same year it was painted. Reviewing the show, The Guardian’s critic Frederick Laws picked out the particular beguiling and ambivalent value of Coker’s trees, writing how they can be “dramatic, elegiac, pure pattern or simple botany”. Landscapes populated or focussed through trees were a major preoccupation of Coker’s at this time. Trips to Epping and Tunstall Forests inspired distorted perspective of rolling arboreal scenes. The present work takes it view over the River Brett near Dedham Vale just west of Ipswich, well-known as ‘Constable Country’. Perhaps with John Constable’s close-cropped studies of trees in mind, Coker allows his tree to govern his picture. It bends steadily over the water, spreading to the very edges of the canvas. Like the artist’s still lifes of dead animals, this tree is also dead, leafless in the summer sun as Coker captured it on his June trip. This only appears to increase the power and dignity of it branches which dwarf the man-made buildings behind. Even after death, Coker’s trees are lent strength by the artist confident use of oil paint and his forest scenes draw their emotional potency from his wrestling with pictorial conventions. It is, therefore, fitting that these scenes bare the weight of Coker’s legacy as a landscapist and place him among esteemed predecessors such as Constable and Corbet, as well the social realist contemporaries with whom he often found company.

Following his first one-man exhibition at Zwemmer’s in 1956, Coker showed regularly there until moving to Gallery 10. He was elected a full Royal Academician in 1972 and in 1979 he received a retrospective exhibition at the Royal Academy which toured the country. Through the nineties, Coker was canonised amongst the ‘Kitchen Sinkers’, being exhibited alongside Edward Middleditch, John Bratby, Jack Smith and Derek Greaves. His work is now held in major UK public collections at Tate, The Royal Academy of Arts, National Maritime Museum, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, and the Arts Council Collection.