British painter Tom Coates: “travels with my pochade”

Art and auctions, Events, Exhibitions, Maritime Art, Paintings and Sculpture — By on March 23, 2018 at 11:30 PM

The Old Ferry, Frankston.

British painter Tom Coates: “travels with my pochade”

By James Brewer

Tom Coates entitles his new exhibition Travels with my Pochade. What is a pochade? It is a handy wooden box that in scale and structure might remind some people of a generously-sized tablet computer. Into it the keen artist packs everything he or she might need for painting on location.

Location, location is the concept long favoured by veteran painter Tom. His latest survey ranges the world: England, France, Italy, India, Egypt, Morocco, Australia, Switzerland, Spain… and the studio. In all, 68 compositions, all oil on board or canvas, pack the walls of the Piers Feetham Gallery in Chelsea, until April 7, 2018.

Tinderbox Headland, Tasmania.

For nearly 50 years Tom has been considered one of the leading lights in the English figurative art tradition. He has always since the 1960s, when he studied at and graduated from the Royal Academy Schools, had at hand his sketchbook and his specially designed pochade box.

Even though much of his oeuvre is in subdued colours – visitors to the new exhibition remarked on his ready skills with greys and greens – he is adept at capturing the essence of scenes abroad, bringing out the contrast between what some would consider the exotic, with relatively serene scenes in his native Britain. He fills the frame with men and women in about their daily work or leisure stroll, whether it be fishermen at the nets, the intensity of  a steam laundry in Kerala, a market in Marrakech, or dog walkers on the beach. He loves approaches and footpaths to the sea. Meanwhile, the solidity of his architectural features such as city walls is a recurring quality.

Blue Sea, East Coast, Tasmania.

Perspectives and angles switch from one setting to the next. A stroll through the gallery is a surf through a restless succession of cameos. Attention is grabbed for large and for small canvases, and his portraiture skills are evident in several examples of his wife Mary painting in the shade of bougainvillea or fern. Everything is a fit subject, even Fresh Sardines and My Favourite Hat, Spain.

For a man who espies his material everywhere he goes, a pochade is more than a boon, it is an essential. The word pochade is derived from the 19th century French verb pocher, which meant to sketch. Pochade boxes, usually made of wood and marketed by all the leading art suppliers, are made to carry everything needed for painting when out and about, especially en plein air. A hinged lid acts as an easel, there is a palette, compartments for storing brushes, paints, thinners and other materials, and space in the back for paintings still wet.

Most models take up to three painting boards, but that is not enough for aficionados like Tom, for whom seven is a lucky number.

Tom said that his introduction to the pochade was as a student at the Royal Academy Schools, watching Peter Greenham and Bernard Dunstan RA using fairly small boxes.

Chinese fishing nets, Kerala.

According to an article in a Tate research publication by Stephen Hackney about the Camden Town Group artists, perhaps the group’s best-known member Walter Sickert (1860-1942) carried little painting panels (pochades) to fit in his pocket. “For Sickert, this initial drawing was about capturing an idea to jog the memory, not necessarily to be slavishly copied, but to be revisited and developed, just as Degas had repeatedly reworked images in pastels and chalks.”

In 1885, Sickert took on to the beach at Dieppe small wooden panels which he called ‘sunlight pochades’ for painting what he saw on the spot.

Tom said: “Sickert took his box into the theatre during the performances as I’ve done with mine.

​“Over the years I’ve developed my pochade with more space, holding at least seven boards in various sizes, along with paints, a few brushes and a spot for the turps holder.  ​It’s my constant companion.”

He said: “Painting with my pochade gives me a chance to catch the intimacy of the moment in time. It concentrates the mind, there’s no room for hesitation, spontaneity is paramount.”

Tom Coates with his pochade box.

This provides him both with finished works, and is a huge source of ideas for larger studio paintings. The complexity of some of the subjects in Egypt and India for instance must have required considerable working up once he was back at his studio, which is a converted church in the Test Valley in Hampshire.

​He admires the Japanese artist Hokusai who “inspired my way of working with speed and brush technique.” Hokusai produced the classic woodblock print The Great Wave off Kanagawa often called simply The Great Wave, published between 1829 and 1833 as the first print of his series Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji. The print depicts a giant wave threatening to swamp boats off Kanagawa, modern-day Yokohama.

Tom’s fascination with sea travel is shown by his loving illustration of The Old Ferry, Frankston in Victoria, Australia, and he lingers at Blue Sea, East Coast, Tasmania, and at the popular mooring spot Tinderbox Cove, and Tinderbox Headland.

Dog walkers by the sea.

At Luxor, a ramshackle pottery attracts his attention, rather than the tourist-mobbed ancient Egyptian temple complex on the east bank of the Nile.

Tom Coates studied at Bourneville College of Art, Birmingham College of Art and the Royal Academy Schools. He is also known for his portraits, and he has led group painting holidays to Egypt, Zanzibar, India, Morocco and Venice.

Among many awards and achievements, in 1990 he was commissioned by the UK Ministry of Defence to paint the ceremonial procession for the Queen Mother’s 90th birthday. He is a member of the New English Art Club, Pastel Society, Royal Society of British Artists, Royal Society of Portrait Painters and Royal Watercolour Society.

The pottery, Luxor.

He will be taking part in The Alchemy of Paint, a mixed exhibition at Gallery 8, Duke Street, St James’s from May 21-26, 2018.

Tom Coates: travels with my pochade, is at Piers Feetham Gallery, 475 Fulham Road, London SW6 until April 7, 2018.

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