Rich rewards of life on a knife edge

by Frank Ruhrmund Western Morning News - Friday 5 December 2003

Frank Ruhrmund previews a Christmas show by an artist he has known for two decades

One of this country's leading landscape painters, Devon artist Alan Cotton, is opening the doors of his studio this weekend for a Christmas exhibition of paintings and prints. It will also mark the Westcountry launch of his biography, On A Knife Edge by Jenny Pery.

It's been a busy and exciting year for Alan. In June he completed a series of paintings for the main staircase on the new Queen Mary 2, which led to an invitation to join a cruise.

In October he was the only non-Irish painter in an exhibition in County Kerry to mark 50 years since the inhabitants of Great Blasket Island left to join the mainland. As well as the Irish show, his work was on show in Messum's Fine Art in London.

Now the story of this extraordinary artist is told by author and art historian Jenny Pery 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 when involved in the making of a BBC-TV film concerning the Newlyn School of Artists. While 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.

Creating his own perfect world, a pastoral idyll

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."

A grammar schoolboy who was good at art, 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 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 not long before he obtained an appointment at Rolle College in Exmouth, where he was to stay for a dozen years becoming its Senior Lecturer in Painting Despite his success in art 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.

Painter follows his heart from Ireland to Italy

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 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 believes "you must follow your heart in painting", has travelled from Ireland to Italy in search of the muse. Equally at home painting in Provence as in Piemonte, his 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.

Jenny Pery's look at the life and work of Alan Cotton, reveals an artist who "holds a position deep at the heart of English landscape painting."