Paintings from Ireland and elsewhere
Wednesday 30th September to
Saturday 17th October 1998
Foreword by Sean Day-Lewis
Whoever first coined the consolatory meteorological observation from the Irish West, that "it only rains between the showers," penned an incontrovertible half truth. A half truth that misses the constantly shifting skies, the often thrilling and sometimes awe inspiring variations of light that are the wonder of the Irish Atlantic coast from Bloody Foreland in Co. Donegal to Mizen Head in Co. Cork. These startling interludes may be mere chinks between passing showers and more persistent rain, hardly even a tease for would-be sun-bathers, but they have a vital quality not to be found elsewhere. It is no wonder that Alan Cotton, intensely romantic landscape painter that he is, should have become the latest travelling artist to be seduced by such gritty grandeur.
As last year the thrust of his 1998 paintings are the result of time spent in Ireland, particularly round the rugged Dingle peninsula of Co. Kerry and the vivid Connemara area of Co. Galway. As a half-Irishman settled in East Devon, for as long as Alan Cotton has been alive, I have the absentee's infinite capacity for romanticising all things Hibernian. My many holiday mind-prints collected in earlier years at or near Alan's stopping places have doubtless expanded in the memory. Yet I find the contents of my mind's eye wonderfully refreshed and strengthened through many of the pieces in his Paintings from the West Coast of Ireland exhibition.
How is this alchemy worked? A feeling for paint and landscape steadily developed since Alan was first smitten by both as a schoolboy in his native Worcestershire. Special talent, skill, application and experience. All these things obviously help towards what we now see before us. The additional secret is the evolution of his methods, perfectly timed for West of Ireland conditions. He has become a painter who travels light and saves the full force of his imagination for his Devon studio.
"As a student I used to take every bit of gear and arty paraphernalia around with me, it loaded me down, I was like van Gogh with easel and kitbag," he told me. "It really gets in the way, it is the mind which is the important thing, you need to have it uncluttered. Most of the time now I just take a drawing book and pens."
In the past he has enjoyed sun blessed painting in Tuscany and Provence, as well as Venice, regions where the climate is largely predictable. Location painting in such places is possible if not necessarily his best way of producing a finished work. "In Ireland you can never guarantee weather conditions from minute to minute," Alan continues. "Most of my drawings have got rain sploshes on them but you have to stand firm so that when the sun does come through the clouds you see those dramatic contrasts of light and colour. It can be so sombre, like the end of the world, and then suddenly a shaft of light comes through and illuminates a swash of landscape and magic happens... It really does amazing things to me, makes me desperately want to paint it."
Observation and sketching is not done in a vacuum. Before Alan chooses to devote himself to a particular landscape he will have walked through it, read round it and met some of the locals. If there are hints of unexpected darkness in his Irish pictures they refer to thoughts of a population scratching an existence from a barren land, of famine and enforced emigration, of the cruel carelessness of British rule. He never comes back to Devon with colour references. His drawings are reinforced by memory, an informed imagination, and with such tools and inter-mixing of palettes he is able to invent and knife his colour sequences.
The absence of people in Alan's Irish landscapes may be thought to signal a solitary. Out of his studio he is the most gregarious of artists. Even when their four progeny are away, all through university now, he and his wife Pat entertain a stream of guests at the Colaton Raleigh home he built in circa 1970. At my first meeting with the Cottons earlier this summer I soon realised that Alan was not the self-preserving host who sits back and waits for others to offer conversational leads. He presides generously with words as well as wine.
Though he gave up student teaching in 1982 the urge to communicate art enthusiasm does not diminish. He is a familiar face on south-western television screens, a fluent on-screen presenter of his own art films. In East Devon he is welcomed as a generous encourager at the various leisure painters' clubs scattered about our small towns and large villages. Far from intimidating the less competent he looks to commend the enthusiastic amateur above the pretentious would-be professional. As a reviewer of television for national newspapers (mostly The Daily Telegraph) for 30 years and more I have long rated John Berger's Ways of Seeing on BBC2, the most illuminating of all art series. Alan Cotton did better than admire through a screen. At a crucial moment of his development, when they coincided in the Gloucestershire village of St. Briavels, he was able to show the most penetrating of living critics his drawings, watercolours and paintings over days of to and fro conversation. "You have a real feel for paint and the enjoyment and sensuality of the medium, continue with the knives and see how far you can develop it," summed up Berger. The advice was needed and heeded, the results are clear and we can all be grateful.