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Peter Coker, ‘Sunflowers’

by Andrew Lambirth

A powerful realist painter, Peter Coker (1926-2004) began showing his work professionally in 1956 and was often associated by critics with the so-called Kitchen Sink School of social realism. Despite serious illness early and late in life, he pursued a very successful career, being elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1965 and a full member in 1972. Principally known for his inventive and expressive landscapes, Coker also painted the figure, made fabric designs and was a consummate etcher.

After leaving the Royal College in 1954, Coker embarked on a series of vigorous still-life paintings of meat and dead animals. Coker was interested in making paintings which echoed and emulated the raw facts of his subjects – and which had a potent physicality of their own. Texture is of the utmost importance: the extreme tactility of surface in Coker’s pictures accounts for at least half their effect. The other half is down to effective drawing and pictorial design. From 1956, his work became more landscape-based, and he gave up still-life painting.

As a subject, sunflowers occupy an interesting middle ground. Too large to make a tidy flower arrangement, they resemble more a growing bush, thus effectively combining studio and outdoor compositions. Coker made only three oil paintings of sunflowers, the first one dating from 1958-9, one from 1960 and then a final one from 1961 (in the Pallant House Gallery collection). Coker also made a number of drawings and studies of sunflowers, mostly in black chalk and charcoal. It seems that he began planting sunflowers in his garden in 1958, and continued to grow them for the following two or three years. The first sunflower painting was exhibited at Coker’s 1959 solo show at the Zwemmer Gallery in London.  Coker seems to have worked directly from the subject in this painting, though it is evident from a close examination of the surface that however spontaneous the paint may appear, it was built up with extreme care and attention over a period of time.

However, the matter of accurate dating fades into insignificance when the quality of the painting itself is considered. Here Coker draws brilliantly with the paint, using a palette knife to direct and control the slabs of pigmented matter. This painting has an intensely physical presence, the heavy impasto standing proud of the board to which it has been applied (canvas would not easily have supported the weight), and yet at the same time bonding with its background to make a powerful image in shallow relief. Careful scrutiny of the surface suggests that Coker used some white lead to add weight to the paint, to enhance its material quality. This use of impasto may seem to contradict the lightness of the subject depicted – the petals and leaves of a flower – but the intention was to make a convincing equivalent, not a copy. The viewer must judge how plausible Coker has been, but his seamed and layered paint makes an undeniably impressive impact.

By comparison, the black chalk drawing, ‘Sunflower Head’ (1958), is a powerful evocation of the densely-packed seed-head just prior to its explosion, whirling like a dark vortex behind what looks like a fine-spun gauze, mesh or grid. The sense of contained movement here is like the eddying of water in a whirlpool, and these swirling rhythms move hypnotically in a vegetal heart of darkness. The effect is quite the opposite of that usually proposed by the genial sun-worshipping yellow flower that rears up like a spot-light in cottage gardens. And this is what is so interesting about Coker’s interpretation of the subject in the painting. He does not choose to depict the flower in its full glory, huge disc-head following the sun, but rather selects a moment of decay. Why does he do this? In one sense, Coker could be using the plant as a memento mori, but it is more likely that he simply preferred the shapes made by the dying flowers, and found them both less obvious and more interesting formally. The intense orangey yellow petals begin to take on different collective and individual formations, and to resemble draggled feathers or the trailing fingers of tattered gloves. The fact that they suggest the shapes of other things makes them more complex emotionally, with an added depth of resonance. The straightforward painting of a handsome flower thus gains in significance, and becomes in some ways symbolic – at the very least, it becomes richer in meaning and reference.

It is clear that the artist loved to paint the forms of living vegetation, whether forest trees or the palms and agaves he painted in later years. Coker’s mother was keen on flowers, but he originally planted sunflowers in his Leytonstone garden because his son, Nicholas, was given seeds at his infant school as part of a competition to grow the best sunflowers. Certainly the sunflowers liked the East London soil and grew to a great height in their sheltered plot. Coker, never one to neglect a good subject that was in front of him, first of all drew and then painted these sunflowers. He continued to grow and paint them for three years, but when he moved to Essex, the seed didn’t take happily to the different soil, and the plants did not flourish. No more sunflower paintings were attempted.