Messum’s St James, London
Foreword by John Nettles
Driving down from the north Devon coast, away from Clovelly and the tall cliffs of Hartland, through the sunlit Devon countryside to Exeter to the prettily named Newton Poppleford – and then to Colaton Raleigh, there to meet up with Alan Cotton, the nonpareil of contemporary British landscape painters and a delightful man to boot. I am remembering when I first encountered his work decades ago now, 1997 to be exact, when the late but great purveyor of popular television, Kevin Crooks was making a show called ‘Animal Passions’ and employed me as a cheap and handy minor celebrity to present the stories of animals engaged in funny or unusual behaviour. It was not an entirely successful enterprise, the otter hounds looked splendid but would they go a’hunting for the otter? No they would not. Just could not be arsed – any more than could that cuddly old Devon cob horse be to drink his pint of beer from his special tankard at the bar in the local pub. It can be said that the show was not entirely successful though it did get an award – just for trying I do believe (that and because there was only one show in the documentary category and that was ours) But – one good, indeed excellent, thing did come from that experience. Kevin introduced me to the work of Alan Cotton. Now Kevin was a great friend of the artist and spoke wisely and knowledgeably about his artistry. I, who possessed not so much insight into the art world as would clog the foot of a flea, listened carefully to Kevin’s words, looked at Alan’s work through Kevin’s eyes and, as it happened, through his ears too. “When you look”
said he “at one of Alan’s paintings, you not only see it but you will hear it as well!” Well that sounded a bit fantastical but I did the looking and it was something I found to be true, true to the point that now I challenge anyone to look, for example, at Alan’s pictures of the hefty Hartland cliffs on the north Devon coast, without hearing in his head the rumble, rasp and roar of the Atlantic seas as they smash and crash into the rocks at their base, a sound track to the dramatic scene in front of you. And dramatic these works truly are as in ‘Off the cliff edge at Hartland’
‘Come on Sir, here’s the place. Stand still. How fearful And dizzy ‘tis to cast one’s eyes so low! (King Lear)
It is no wonder that actors like his work so much.
But Alan has been on his travels far away from Devon and in foreign parts to create many of the works for this, his latest exhibition. He has been to Provence, the most beautiful part as many would say of La Belle France. He is there following in the footsteps of Cézanne, Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and a myriad of other artists who have gone there, drawn there as surely as that little bear to honey, because of the extraordinary quality of the light. It is the most beautiful light imaginable possessed of a ‘transcendent quality like nowhere else, a clarity that sharply defines everything, yet at the same time has the ability to create an almost translucent effect,’ as the travel guide grandly and correctly declares. I can vouch for the truth of that for once. In another life, the BBC filmed over a one year period a whole series of Bergerac in delightful Provence and for that very same reason – the magic of the light and the sheer beauty of the place. The scripts were terrible but the scenery was wonderful. Filming was definitely not helped by having the unit base set up in a vineyard where the pleasant French proprietors were more than happy to supply us actors and crew with large quantities of their excellent product any time we asked and we asked a lot. The series was axed the next year. But I remember Provence well and most of all do I remember it because of the gentleness and the quiet of the place, the soft colours, the perfect blue of the sky, the long siesta of the Provençal countryside.
And now driving towards Alan’s home in Colaton Raleigh, I got to thinking that this dreamy French Provence was a long long way from north Devon, Hartland, the epic cliffs and mountainous seas. A long way, too, from the west coast of Ireland where our artist friend has painted many a canvas, like the Devon pieces, full of energy, fierce skies, dark rain-boltered countryside, small cottages hunkered down against the impending storm, all the good Irish folk hiding inside. Now none of these elements are to be found round about the Luberon which is that area of Provence in which Alan had been working. How would he handle these differences artistically? What would be his vision of Provence?
I was soon to find out. I saw at last the sign for Colaton Raleigh, drove down the narrow road towards the ancient Church and found Alan’s lovely white and spacious house standing on an incline a little back from the road. Greeted at the door by Alan and ‘Tricia. Into the pretty little back garden for tea, cake and conversation by way of pleasant prologue to the studio visit and a viewing of those paintings, particularly from Provence, being prepared for this present exhibition. Alan led the way down the hall, impressively agile and quick. I followed behind, not agile at all and rather slow. And there they all were, the new works from Provence together with some from Ireland and from New Zealand. But it was the Provence pictures I had come to see which fascinated me most of all. Gazed at them – and saw the answer to my questions. Our artist, of course sees quite clearly the languorous beauty of the landscape in precisely the same way as Cézanne and a score of others have done before but Alan will not close his eye for the dramatic, the immediate, the vibrant elements in that countryside. He goes a’hunting for those features of the landscape which are most alive and active and makes of them contrasting features in an otherwise languid, even placid, landscape. He finds a threatening ‘Stormy Sky above the Cherry Orchard’. There are sharply pointed trees like knives ‘Across the Luberon’ and most impressive of all in ‘Spring Orchard Below Bonnieux’, those glorious trees in the foreground have an extraordinary forceful energy about them, they are blossoming, growing, thrusting upwards towards the sky before our very eyes full of life and urgency. Not a lot is peaceful or elegiac about them! And I see that most of these Luberon paintings have these exuberant, lively features and usually in the foreground all making for an unusual, insightful not to say refreshingly exciting view of Provence. What a treat! Being there in the Colaton Raleigh studio looking through new eyes at these energised visions of Provence. Couldn’t think of any place else I would have rather been. But wait! There was more and a lovely bit more at that.
But not this time about Provence. Sitting a little bit lonely on the floor leaning against the wall was one of the most delicious paintings it has ever been my good fortune to see. It is entitled ‘Morning Light in Venice’, prosaic title for what is in fact a masterly work of art, a clever and artful confection fashioned from shades of grey, orange, blue and gold. Here is Venice at its most evocative and beguiling – Jessica and Lorenzo might have walked down here to this glittering canal on their way to Belmont, Antonio that unfortunate merchant of Venice might be heard lamenting his lost love behind those dark walls and somewhere Shylock will be bowed in silent grief at the loss of his everything – while the Christians laugh and dance in the streets
What a lovely creation it is! And like the other paintings it is all done with such skill and artistry. Structurally we can say that this Venice painting is a clever exercise in self-similarity, the smaller parts having the same shape as the larger parts, (the largest shape
here being that of the gondola) which gives a stylistic unity to the whole painting. Yes indeed, and of course we appreciate all that, but how come the painting in this picture, as in all his other work, is so precise, so fine, so detailed. ‘How?’ I enquired of Alan ‘do
you do all that. How do you achieve such exquisite delicacy using only a palette knife, no brush in sight? The cherry blossom in the Provence pictures, the foam atop the waves running into Hartland, the fluffy clouds in the Irish skies. How? Alan grinned, disappeared
into a dark corner of the studio and re-emerged holding a slender and quite ancient palette knife, long handle, lozenge-shaped blade with a rounded tip, quite small. ‘With this. Had it for years!’ said he holding it reverently between finger and thumb. And it was
clear that this was much more than a simple tool, for Alan it was a talisman, a caduceus, a wand. Alan was Prospero, this was his staff and with it he conjures up wonders for our pleasure and delight. And what a deal of pleasure and delight he brings to us. We’re
lucky to have him, Master craftsman that he is.