Peter Godfrey Coker, RA (1926-2004) ‘One of the foremost realist painters in England … 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.’ (Frances Spalding, Independent, 20 December 2004)
Peter Coker was born in London on 27 July 1926. He first studied at St Martin’s School of Art (1941-43; 1947-50), and began to exhibit regularly at the Royal Academy from 1950. Though he was a contemporary of John Bratby and Edward Middleditch at the Royal College of Art (1950-54), his work related only briefly to the raw figuration of the Kitchen Sink School. This was signalled by his paintings of a Leytonstone butcher’s shop which were included in his highly successful first solo show (Zwemmer Gallery 1956). His development as a landscape painter originated in his first encounter with the canvases of Gustave Courbet on a trip to Paris (1950).
By the mid 1950s, he was an established landscapist in the French manner, working from the motif on the coasts of Normandy (1955) and Brittany (1957), and drawing inspiration from such contemporaries as Nicholas de Stäel. Later in the decade, he revived the spirit of Barbizon in his paintings of Epping.
Coker moved with his family to Manningtree in Essex (1962), and added occasional appearances at Colchester School of Art to teaching at St Martin’s. Nevertheless, he concentrated on his work, and made time for painting trips to France, the North of England and Scotland. He held solo shows at the Zwemmer Gallery (1960s), the Thackeray Gallery (1970s) and Gallery 10 (1980s), and continued to exhibit regularly at the Royal Academy. He was elected an Academician (ARA 1965, RA 1972), and had his early images of the butcher’s shop presented at the RA in one of an increasing number of public retrospectives (1979).
From 1972, Coker made several visits to Bargemon, Provence, during which he gradually accepted the character of the South of France, and integrated its startling light and colour into his established palette and handling. Late in the decade, he applied this approach to an ideal motif, in beginning a series of paintings of the garden of the Clos du Peyronnet, Menton. Following the death of his son Nicholas in 1985, he stayed at Badenscallie, Ross-shire, Scotland. There he began an impassioned series of landscapes, extended on subsequent visits, which focussed on salmon nets drying at Achiltibuie. These reaffirmed his essential identity as ‘a northern painter’, which had actually become more strongly emphasised by his contrasting achievement of painting the south. The many studies and paintings inspired by both Mediterranean France and the West of Scotland comprised important elements of such recent retrospectives as that of drawings and sketchbooks at the Fitzwilliam Museum (1989) and that of paintings and drawings at Abbot Hall Art Gallery (1992).
In October 2002, Chris Beetles mounted a major retrospective of the work of Peter Coker and, at the same time, launched the artist’s authorised biography. The beautifully produced hardback book, with over 250 illustrations, contains contributions from Richard Humphreys (Tate Gallery), John Russell Taylor (The Times), and David Wootton (Chris Beetles Ltd). The book includes a comprehensive biography and chronology, essays, appraisals of his work, a catalogue raisonné and lists of his exhibitions and sketchbooks.
While the monograph and retrospective were being planned, it seemed that the artist’s career might have been drawing to a close. However, the joint project revived his energies significantly. This was manifested by a range of new work, which was shown at Chris Beetles Ltd during spring 2004. The motifs are mostly familiar, being drawn from existing sketchbooks, and range across France and encompass Britain. Yet the handling was freer than ever, and the palette more vibrant – accomplishments of which Peter was justifiably proud. This display was complemented by an exhibition of recent Parisian subjects, touring to Gainsborough’s House, Sudbury, the Royal Academy of Arts, and the Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield.
Peter Coker died in Colchester, Essex, on 16 December 2004.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including Tate; and Museums Sheffield.