A 'must read' but also a 'must have' biography
Book is Informative and generously illustrated
It is somewhat surprising that Alan Cotton is not one of Cornwall's leading landscape painters. Although he numbers the late Terry Frost, Denis Mitchell and John Wells among his friends, admits that Stanhope Forbes's painting "Village Philharmonic'' made an impact upon him, and has painted in the county, regretfully, he has never painted as often or as seriously here as he has done in his adopted Devon. Devon's gain is definitely Cornwall's loss for, if any artist ought to be acclaimed as an interpreter of the Cornish landscape, then it should be Alan Cotton.
His story has been waiting to be told for some time and, happily, author and art historian Jenny Pery has now done Just that, and done it extremely well, in "Alan Cotton: On a Knife Edge", published by Halsgrove in association with David Messum Fine Art Ltd at £29.95.
I first met Alan Cotton Just over 20 years ago, as did "influential art dealer David Messum", when involved in the making of the BBC-TV film concerning the Newlyn School of Artists "An Artist on Every Corner". While my meeting with him had no effect whatever on his future career, David Messum's meeting with him certainly did. Although Alan Cotton's artistic star was already in the ascendancy then, with the full support of his wife Pat and their family he had only recently given up full-time teaching to start full-time painting, it was his meeting with David Messum which was to open the door of the art dealer's London gallery, lead to a number of highly successful solo shows there, and rocket him to fame.
Born in Redditch, Worcestershire, Alan Cotton began painting when very young - "To keep him occupied when he was small, his mother made paint brushes for him out of her own hair, tied on to a stick, and aptly enough, with cotton" - and it was painting which "took him out of the monochrome grime of the town into a landscape where the light sparkled on ears of corn, where the colours were fresh, and where he could create his own perfect world, a pastoral idyll like that of a Samuel Palmer painting."
He studied at Redditch and Bournville Schools of Art, at Birmingham College of Art where he spent three years in the Painting School, and at the University of Birmingham. For a while he then taught and lectured in the Forest of Dean and it was there, in 1965, that he made one of his first knife paintings, using a palette knife instead of a brush, "St Briavel's Common". Shortly afterwards he experienced his first taste of Devon when "he came south to Exeter University to do a year's Advanced Diploma in Education". It was a taste which gave him an appetite for the south-west and it was not long before he obtained an appointment at Rolle College in Exmouth, where he was to stay for a dozen years. For a year, in the 1970s, he was a Research Fellow at the University of Exeter. However, despite his success in education, the desire to do his own thing became so pressing that, in 1982, he and his wife Pat gave up the Jobs they had been doing to start a new life together as a painter and a business partner.
A bold and brave move: as it happened, it also proved to be a wise one. Since then, as well as exhibiting often with David Messum, some 16 solo shows altogether, he has exhibited extensively in this country and abroad, has been the subject of a number of TV films, and is now represented in public and private collections in the UK and abroad from the USA to South Africa.
An artist whose stated belief, "You must follow your heart in painting", has taken him from Ireland to Italy in search of the muse, equally at home painting in Provence as in Piemonte, one whose "love of paint and the whole process of painting is as strong as his love of landscape", his richly textured, seemingly sculpted, knife-edge paintings are in a class of their own.
Informative and generously illustrated with more than 100 full colour plates, readable and as rewarding as it is revealing, Jenny Pery's look at the life and work of Alan Cotton, an artist who, as she says: "Holds a position deep at the heart of English landscape painting", albeit with palette knife rather than brush, is not only a "must read" but also a "must have" biography