This drawing in black and white chalk and gouache on white paper is a study of dense and dark foliage. In the foreground, loose, often single, strokes suggest uneven terrain or tall grass. For the foliage beyond, Coker used closely drawn lines, which create a jagged silhouette and suggest the thorniness of gorse. The paper is oriented horizontally and there is a narrow, vertical margin that is blank at the paper’s left edge, along which the sheet was folded by the artist. As a working drawing, it bears signs of use in the studio, with occasional oil stains, paint spots and finger marks. The work is signed and dated 1956 in pencil in the lower right and left corners respectively.
Coker produced T07914 while on vacation in Brittany, France, where he made several visits in the 1950s, including at Easter 1956. It is a preparatory sketch for The Gorse Bush (T04113), which the artist painted in 1957, following a trip to Audierne in Southern Brittany in the summer of the same year. Although ‘1956’ is written on T07914, in a letter to Tate some thirty years later, Coker referred to sketching a range of landscape elements during the 1957 trip, including, ‘coastal fields, stonewalls, cabbage plots and close-ups of gorse and bracken bushes’ (quoted in Tate Gallery Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1984–1986, London 1988, p.128).
The painting, The Gorse Bush, measures almost 150cm in height by just over 120cm in length; thus the support is oriented vertically compared with the oblong format of the drawing. As in the study, Coker focused on the density and darkness of the gorse, which dominates the scene, but the foliage is sharply cut off at the left edge of the canvas. A view towards the horizon is included on the right. The artist used thick paint and uneven brushstrokes to create texture, but the thin and pointing upper branches of the bush appear more delicate than in the drawing and are set against a cloudy sky. The Gorse Bush is a companion painting to Bracken and Gorse 1957 (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery), in which Coker again painted the gorse with thick strokes, and similarly built up the view towards the horizon in strips of colour, but the sky in this painting is mostly blue and details of a stone wall on the right are clearly defined.
Coker’s interest in landscapes in the mid-1950s provides a counterpoint to the urban and social realist themes with which he is often associated in this period, which are exemplified in his butcher’s shop paintings, including Butcher’s Shop I 1955 (Sheffield City Art Galleries, reproduced in Wootton, p.42). At this time, Coker was deeply influenced by French artists associated with the realist tradition, such as André Dunoyer de Segonzac (1884–1974). He first encountered Segonzac’s work at the Tate Gallery and admired the sense of immediacy that the older artist created in his landscapes, as, for example, The Farm on the Estate 1923 (N05069), acquired by Tate in 1940 (Wootton, p.49). He felt the impact too of the work of contemporary artists including Nicolas de Staël (1914–55), who returned to landscapes in his last years and was, according to Coker, ‘the realist amongst abstract painters’ (quoted in Wootton, p.49).
In the late autumn of 1957, Coker exhibited paintings and drawings of a number of Breton subjects at his second solo show at the Zwemmer Gallery, London. The artist commented in 1986: ‘[T]he exhibition was well received by the critics who in the main were relieved that the angry young painter of the butcher’s shops had now passed on to less provocative subjects’ (quoted in Tate Gallery Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1984–1986, p.128). Nonetheless, despite the change in subject, Coker applied the same intense, unsentimental realism to this drawing and the related painting as he had to his earlier work.
Peter Coker, exhibition catalogue, Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Bristol 1992.
David Wootton, Peter Coker RA: From Kitchen Sink Still Life to Romantic Realist Landscape, London 2002.
Peter Coker RA: A Juxtaposition, exhibition catalogue, Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield 2004.