Andrew Lambirth

In love with paint

Peter Coker died in December last year after a long illness. He had been involved in the initial choice of material for this small but representative memorial exhibition, and would I think have approved of the final result, which succeeds in bringing together work from the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s. It’s a commercial show that has been six years in the making, as the gallery’s director, Robert Travers, gradually acquired good examples of the artist’s oeuvre. The most recent find was a superb still-life, ‘Fish with Grill’ from 1954–5, which brought to the show the required gravitas to enable it to go ahead, and was inevitably among the first things to be sold. There are no late paintings here. Coker was incapacitated by two heart attacks and a stroke in 1990, and was unable to work for a decade. Remarkably, he began to paint again in 2002, but that final flowering is very much to be seen as a separate period of his career, and it has been extensively exhibited as such. What we have at Piano Nobile is a fine introduction to the principal themes and interests of one of our strongest mid-century realists.

Coker is often pigeonholed with the Kitchen Sink painters, that quartet of artists who exhibited with the gifted dealer Helen Lessore at her Beaux Arts gallery, and represented Britain at the Venice Biennale of 1956. Certainly he was the same generation as the others, being born in the same year as the most famous of them, John Bratby, but he determined early to go his own way. He first achieved prominence with a powerful group of interiors and still-lifes on the subject of a local butcher’s shop, near where he then lived in Leytonstone.

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