Painting Grounds

by Judi Spiers Devon Life - November 2008

Alan Cotton's paintings celebrate his love of oil paint and his delight in looking at extraordinary places. Judi spoke to this distinguished artist at his studio in Colaton Raleigh.

The Alan Cotton print Piemonte in Diano d'Alba - sold to Judi Spiers! Yes! After years of receiving Alan Cotton's glossy catalogues through the post accompanied by beautifully hand-written invitations to attend viewings, none of which, I'm sorry to say, I ever attended, I had bid for a framed print at a charity dinner at Michael Caines and been successful.

I have met Alan Cotton many times over the years through a mutual friend, the late Kevin Crooks, who made several local television documentaries about him. As well as being one of Britain's most distinguished landscape painters, with work in private collections in Europe and North America, including the Royal Collection, he is warm and wickedly funny.

Alan working on an Italian painting

He was also founder member and President for the first 6 years of South West Academy of Fine and Applied Art. I have also interviewed him several times on Radio Devon, the last time being in 2005 just after he had accompanied His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales to Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji as his Tour Artist. I vowed the night at the auction that the next invitation I received I would accept, but I never expected to attend a private viewing at his studio of his latest work, destined for an exhibition to mark the 20th year since his first one at Messums Galleries in London.

What an honour. Trust me to almost blow it. Faced with a studio full of stunning paintings of Hartland, the west coast of Ireland, Tuscany, Morocco and Provence, what was the first thing I said? "Ooh, I love those gold frames!" Alan's response? He laughed and admitted that he too had "lusted" after them when he'd first seen them, only to be told when he tried to purchase some, 'Oh no, you can't buy them; these are made for individual paintings and rather special clients'.

"I was quite deflated," he said. "I have never forgotten the exact words he said to me: 'Our man is in Somerset. If you give him a ring, he may care to accommodate you'."

Alan did just that and was deemed worthy of the said frames, and since then Michael Beddoe, Master Frame Maker and Guilder, has made all of the frames for his London shows for the last 16 years, and as Alan says "we're great friends".

Alan also enjoys a very special friendship with David Messum, his dealer for 20 years. I say 'special' because, as Alan told me, "there is a kind of folk law that there's always a bit of a battle between an artist and his dealer".

They first met when Alan was making a film about the Newlyn School of Artists for BBC TV. An auction of paintings was in full swing and some of the local dealers had told Alan that a big dealer from London, David Messum, was coming down to bid for the star work, a painting by the Newlyn artist Thomas Cooper Gotch. The cameras were rolling and the painting was on the easel, but still no sign of David Messum. Then, as the bidding rose, a silhouette appeared in the doorway, as Alan says, "like John Wayne in an early western".

David took up the bidding and clinched the sale. Afterwards, as the highly valued painting rested against the dirty hubcap of a car, Alan interviewed him about his contribution to the revival of the Newlyn School of Painting, Halfway through the interview, as Alan told me, "David suddenly stopped and said, 'Hang on a minute, I've just placed you. You're Alan Cotton, painter. What are you doing this lark for?"

It turned out that he had seen a group of Alan's Hartland paintings, which he very much liked, and was about to approach him. They later met at his gallery and David offered to represent him. Alan was, of course, delighted, but having just resigned as Senior Lecturer in Painting and Art History at Rolle College in Exmouth to pursue his passion, and with four children at home, he needed an income whilst he worked towards a London show. As an act of faith David offered to pay him £1,000 a month in advance of the show, to be set against forthcoming exhibitions, which if not unique in British art is certainly unusual.

Alan Cotton working at Hartland

Born in Redditch, Worcestershire, Alan began painting as a small child, with brushes made from his mothers hair, and at 15, as he puts it, "had the audacity to send work to the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists". He actually sent three paintings and had them accepted, and then went on to study at Birmingham College of Art and the University of Birmingham before coming to Devon.

For years, as a young art student, Alan had walked down Cork Street in London looking at some of the great exhibitions, dreaming of what it would be like to exhibit in the West End. At that time he had found the galleries intimidating and not at all welcoming to young students, dripping water over their carpets and polished wooden floors. Now, here he was working towards his first exhibition in the centre of London. Seeing his name emblazoned in red across the window for the first time was as Alan said, "the most amazing feeling," admitting that "even 20 years later I still feel the same excited anticipation as I arrive to see the show beautifully hung and lit by the gallery team."

Well, the 20th anniversary exhibition was a spectacular success, with the majority of paintings selling and friends and family travelling up from the Westcountry. He is currently working on a series of paintings of Venice for the Vice Principal of Cunard and his wife to be installed in Miami by Christmas, but is once more opening his studio to give a South West audience a chance to see where he works and view a selection of his paintings. Do go if you get the chance but if I were you I'd keep the comments about the frames to yourself!