Foreword by Catherine Milner
The year 2020 will be remembered as one when we all became aware of the British coastline – not only because the Brexit debacle made one conscious of the isolation that the water surrounding our islands provides, but also because of the mass exodus of people from the city travelling to the British seaside in lieu of holidaying abroad.
Not since Edwardian times had the beaches of Devon and Dorset, Cornwall and Somerset been inundated with so many modern-day charabancs, windbreaks and sun hats.
This exhibition features forty works that document the more savage and lonelier parts of the coast; the craggy rocks of North Somerset or County Kerry or the leaden skies of Skye and Jersey.
Alan Cotton does not attempt to paint the ‘pretty’ parts of the coast, preferring instead the fierce and most dra- matic parts of it; the bits that point like daggers into the spray or stretch as muddy estuaries where there is barely a wave to be seen. Unusually for an artist, he often dives beyond the coast into the water; it might seem hard to animate something so formless but Cotton weaves extraordinary texture into what could otherwise be a featureless expanse of water.
Born in Redditch, Worcestershire, Cotton was brought up in a small house which he shared with his parents and four siblings.
‘We all lived in one room with no electricity and my job was to fetch coke from the coke factory for the neighbours’ he recollects. ‘My mother was saintly; she worked incredibly hard – up at 6.30am to work at the milk factory. After finishing that she would go to school to help with the school dinners and then, in the evening would return to the milk factory for the evening shift. She did anything to make some money.’
The countryside saved him, he says, from his cramped domestic circumstances – the vast expanses of cornfields and open skies offered a liberation.
His instinct – which has never left him – was to lose himself through painting. ‘I wasn’t a very good pupil at school because I was always in the art room’ he says. Not being able to afford proper brushes, the earliest he used to be made by his mother from her own hair.
After leaving Redditch grammar school, Cotton went to Bournville and then Birmingham art schools where the distinguished naïf landscapist, Norman Neasom, was his tutor.
‘He taught me to be myself and like me was a local boy made good – he was a great inspiration.’
Since this period Cotton has moved to Devon and expanded his practise beyond just landscape painting.
The paintings in this show depict the varying moods of the sea; what Cotton particularly relishes are the precipitous groynes of rock and crags that form our coastline, embodying the quiet convolutions of nature and its constancy.
There is a strong structure that underpins Cotton’s works; each painting is based on copious sketches giving his pictures vigour and substance but – with his subtle understanding of nature – there is also a delicacy.
Cotton is a master of painting with a knife not a brush; a technique he favours because it allows for a variety of mark-making and celebrates the full sensuality of the paint and its pigment. His thick impasto application of paint means that even reflections on the water’s surface appear as substantial as any object in a scene. Equally, thin traces of paint made with the side of the knife give full definition to pattern and detail.
‘Since the time of the Impressionists, I think it has been recognised that the mark and the quality of the mark is the dynamic of the painting,’ says Cotton. ‘For me the knife allows me to produce so many different marks that I really believe I have a fair bit of control…and the guts of the painting – the whole language of painting – is in the marks. People look at the images and places, but I am as much concerned with the dynamic of the painting – the physical surface, which is very tactile and very sculptural.’
A favourite subject for the artist is the coast at Hartland, the most north westerly point of Devon which is a place that Cotton has returned to again and again to paint the spectacularly folded sequence of shale descending into the sea.
Two beautiful works contrasting the golden light of autumn and the lavender light of winter upon the grassy bluffs are particular highlights of the show.
Others include the snaking sands of the Isle of Skye and the shimmering rock pools of County Kerry that stretch to infinity, the light of the sky creating almost a halo along its edge where it meets the sea.
In addition to his career as an artist, Cotton has been a major force in fostering artistic talent amongst the young. In 2000 he founded the South West Academy for Fine and Applied Art and he was awarded Honorary Doctorates by the Universities of Exeter and Bath for his ‘outstanding contribution to the arts.’
Much of his career has been spent painting abroad – the south of France, Tuscany, Morocco and the Alps – and in 2005 he accompanied HRH Prince Charles, to Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji as his tour artist.
This show is about his coming home – to places that are familiar but never seen in just one way.
Alan Cotton’s output over more than 30 years has been prodigious. He paints about sixty major works every year and the total number of paintings enjoyed by collectors around the world runs into the thousands.
‘Not for years has so much thought been given to Britain’s coast and borders’ said Johnny Messum, founder of Messums Wiltshire. ‘Alan’s paintings capture the essence of our shoreline, its variety and drama as it has become the focus of attention as contortions of rocky terrain.’