Essay by James Hyman
Royal Academy Magazine
One of the quirks of art history is that the reputation of an artist can rest on his least typical work. Thus it is that a landscape painter should be famous for a handful of paintings of a butcher's shop. Peter Coker's reputation like that of the `kitchen-sink' painters of the mid 1950s, with whom he was initially associated, remains defined by just a few atypical works from just a few years. Yet, with the possible exception of John Bratby, what these artist's produced in those heady years was atypical. Edward Middleditch was never really engaged with the urban, social or even human subject, concentrating on natural forms, and above all the play of light and dark on water. Jack Smith became a poetic painter of light-dissolved still-life and then an abstract artist of complex originality and Derrick Greaves moved towards a greater lyricism and then to a flatter schematic depictions of his subjects.
Coker's most famous works, depicting a butcher's shop near his home in Leytonstone, dominated the artist's first exhibition in Zwemmer's in 1956 and formed the basis of a Royal Academy exhibition in 1979. But they came in a brief, marvellous, moment when he was trying to paint his way out of a creative block, and give little indication of the preoccupation with landscape, which would subsequently sustain the artist.
Nonetheless this was an important foundation for what was to follow and as I show in my own book The Battle for Realism, in the 1950s Coker succeeded in creating a robust new representational art that held a distinguished place not just alongside the social realists of Britain but also those of France and Italy, from Montané and Rebeyrolle to Zigaina and Treccani.
In the years since then Coker has pursued landscape motifs, travelled extensively and exhibited widely, yet it may be argued that it is only now that he is achieving the level of acclaim that he deserves. A major new monograph and accompanying exhibition, presenting not only paintings but also sketchbooks, are a welcome opportunity for wider reassessment and appreciation.
What they emphasise, above all else, is Coker's consistent, unidealised, appreciation of landscape. One is awed by the physical presence of his thickly impastoed paintings and struck by the grip on form achieved in powerful drawings often though not always in charcoal. A fishermen's net becomes a diagram of movements in space, plants appear to grow before are eyes, trees are there to be climbed and hillsides rear up before our eyes.
Coker's is a significant achievement and this handsome new book and moving exhibition are a fitting tribute to a half-century of endeavours that deserve to be better known.
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