On the Road to Transylvania


Foreword by John Nettles

It was as unlikely an introduction to a master of the canvas as can be imagined. It was the mid-nineties. Kevin Crooks television producer and director of note and my younger self were driving northward up the splendidly named Atlantic Highway towards Bideford and Westward Ho!. We were making a documentary and in search of animals that behaved in funny, intelligent or commercially viable cute ways that might, we hoped, entertain a certain section of the viewing public. It had been a less than wonderful experience so far what with a pug beauty contest (!) an aromatically enhanced interview with an ancient lady in Paignton who kept 200 hamsters in the front room of her tiny council-house to say nothing of a horse lady, full of brandy, up in a corner of Exmoor who bade us goodbye by dancing like Isadora Duncan in the driveway of her manor house and wearing not very much at all…

Kevin drove on. The road took us away from Bude and Kilkhampton along the coastline, past Sharpnose Point, up beside Hartland Point and on to Clovelly … Beautiful scenery all about. Big sky. Big Cliffs bathed in a golden sunlight that is God’s special gift to Devon. Nonetheless I was a bit depressed. Kevin had the cure. ‘I can get you’ said Kevin, ‘a painting by Alan Cotton. Now that will cheer you up!’
‘Who’s he?’ I asked in somewhat ungracious fashion. ‘You mean you don’t know?’ he responded, aghast and scornful. (Kevin Crooks did aghast and scornful very well.) ‘Then I think you should find out’.
I did find out and so was I introduced to the works of Alan Cotton. Kevin died in the last year of the last century, taken from us at a tragically early age but I thank him now wherever he may be, for pointing the way into Alan’s joyful, irrepressibly optimistic and often sublimely beautiful world.

And Alan has indeed travelled all over the world for subject matter. From his native Devon to Provence, from Tibeta to New Zealand, from Venice to Scotland, Ireland to Transylvania, Alan has brought back to us extraordinary images. Mount Everest, huge and magnificent, the pretty villages of Provence atop their little hills glimpsed through the trees, the canal waters of Venice transformed into abstract patterns of light and reflected colour, the west coast of Ireland rain-sodden, vibrantly green and stormy … and more, many more.

How does he do it? How does he go about creating these amazing works? Well, Alan achieves his effects in a rather special way. He does not use brushes at all, though you may be forgiven for thinking he does when you look at the gentle modulations and almost imperceptible elisions in, for example his Moroccan canvases. No, Alan has developed a particular style of applying paint to canvas by using a knife, or rather a series of five palette knives of various shapes and sizes. In the many studies of Hartland Point you can most obviously see this technique at work where the huge vertical slabs of rock are repeated and mimicked by great slabs of impasto applied using the broad knife and in this way the work becomes more than just a representation of Hartland, it takes on the very life of the place.
It is true, of course, that this is not a new technique for it was adopted, at least in part by a number of artistic pioneers including, most notably Van Gogh and a great Russian-born painter, Nicholas de Stael. Van Gogh did have recourse to the brush on occasion but de Stael, like Alan relies entirely on thick layers of impasto laid on exclusively by the knife to achieve a distinctive effect as does perhaps the best known of English knife-wielders, another man from the west country, Neil Murison. Both these artists produced predominantly gentle, abstract and usually quite simple images in their work. Alan doesn’t do that for it is at this point that we see how much Alan differs from them and how he makes his own very distinct, contrasting and hugely impressive contribution to the great European tradition of landscape paintings.

Unlike de Stael and Murison with their quiet, somewhat removed and abstract non-representational works, Alan’s paintings have much stronger ties with realism. There is usually a much more intricate arrangement of marks on the canvas which gives an energy, a sense of constant busyness to the surface, everything seems to be in motion, and, more than that, as Kevin, my original guide on this artistic journey, remarked, Alan’s pictures are not quiet, ‘You know you don’t just see an Alan Cotton painting, you hear it too’ and, remarkable as it seems, I know this to be true and particularly so when looking at, say, the studies of Hartland where the steep cliffs pitch down vertiginously to the rumbling sea, dark skies overhead. In my mind I swear I can hear those waves rasping on the sand, the seagull shriek and the wind soughing about the dark rocks.

Because of this, as with all his canvases, there can be an absorbing, complete and always pleasurable interaction between the observer and the observed which does not fade or diminish with the passage of time or repeated viewings. They are truly joyful works full of a restless, questing energy pervading and lifting the flatness of the image into shapes of great dramatic power and of sumptuous colour, a life-affirming delight to behold.

I am lucky enough to possess a few of Alan’s paintings. They have been hanging in pride of place upon the walls of our Devon home for many a long year now and they are a source of constant delight, more than the work of any other artist I have acquired. We think of them as friends we love to see every day and of whose company we never tire, these spaces filled in a most beautiful way. Alan Cotton. We are lucky to have him.

John Nettles OBE