Seduced by the charm of Suffolk

Suffolk artist Michael Coulter is launching the celebrations for the John Russell Gallery's 30th anniversary.

Andrew Clarke

Suffolk artist Michael Coulter is launching the celebrations for the John Russell Gallery's 30th anniversary. He spoke to Arts Editor Andrew Clarke about his love affair with the East Anglian landscape.

Suffolk-based artist Michael Coulter is a very distinctive draughtsman. Many painters have an easily recognisable style but few have such a visual signature that anyone looking at one of his works know immediately that what they are looking at is a Michael Coulter picture.

Michael, who specialises in an unique form of 'time-lapse' landscape painting, is helping the John Russell Gallery mark its 30th anniversary with a new exhibition of his work - entitled, suitably enough, Recent Paintings.

“Usually I prefer to create exhibitions around a very distinct theme. I think it helps give the work a focus but with this one I have just pulled together a collection of my most recent work which I think provides a good cross section of my recent output.”

Michael Coulter paints highly recognisable, stylised, scenes which are packed with incident and detail. They are the sort of work that you can return to time and again and see some new detail which you had previously missed.

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Whereas most artists paint the scene that is before them, Michael takes into account all the various activities and visitors that may pass through the scene during the average day - hence the time-lapse analogy. For instance a scene on the river wall at Woodbridge, the banks of the Deben, which, in reality, is rather empty on the day that Michael sketches the scene is transformed into a bustling hive of activity in the finished painting with gulls, ducks and geese being fed by various walkers while a variety of garden birds flash past the heads of young families heading off for a Sunday stroll.

There is a huge amount of artistic invention, a huge amount of stylised interpretation but it is completely right for that scene and to anyone who knows the location then they feel that that scene as depicted is completely real.

Many of his exhibitions have a journey as the theme. “I have done trips around East Anglia. One of my favourites was the Two Rivers - the Stour and the Orwell and I did one that explored Norwich.”

He said that although he sets out to paint the world as he sees it, he still a little taken aback when people refer to the 'Michael Coulter style'. “I think my work has evolved but I met up with some old friends from art school recently and we were talking about my style and how it had developed and they told me straight: 'You've always painted like that'.

“I suppose it's how I see the world. There's always something going on that I notice. It goes back to childhood. My early influences

were the old railway posters from the 1920s and 30s. I always loved na�ve paintings - pictures with everything going on in them. In my own work I couldn't paint a landscape that was just one moment in time - that just wouldn't do. There has to be some activity going on in them - harvesting or birds flying about.

Birds remain one of the key features in any Michael Coulter painting - whatever the scene he manages to integrate people and wildlife into the composition. Birds are always a must.

“I love birds,” says Michael. “I always think that without birds the world is dead, so bird life has always played a major part in my

work. I have a tree outside my studio and I was idly jotting down ideas one morning and I just decided to keep a tally of how many different species landed on that tree in one hour - I think I counted 12 different species.”

He added that unlike many artists he always likes to include people in his landscapes.

“They give sense of animation and help give a degree of perspective. They bring a painting to life - after all, we live here too.”

Michael works from a combination of sketches and taking photographs. A sketch will provide the broad basic composition and then he will mine dozens of highly detailed photographs for the details of the various pieces of incidental activity which Michael crams into his work.

“I take loads of photographs of a scene - taken over a period of time and I scatter them over the table and pick bits and pieces to take from the photos and put into the finished picture. I suppose it's a little like a painted collage. Sometimes I draw a scene from memory and then adapt it. I get the general feel of how I want it. The feel of a scene is just as important as the look.”

He said that the advent of photography in his research has brought a new life to his work because later inspection of the photographs reveals small quirky details that he missed when he actually visited the scene.

He said that although there is an air of nostalgia that runs through his work, he doesn't paint scenes of bygone days - his work is very much rooted in the present; even though many of the subjects deal with eternal scenes like rivers, seashores, railways and the countryside.

“I am not particularly drawn to any one type of subject. I tend to do them all landscapes, cityscapes, seascapes - airports, train stations, ports - areas which form an important part of our lives.

Michael came to Suffolk 30 years ago as an art teacher at Woolverstone Hall School and it was after visiting an Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious exhibition at The Minories Gallery in Colchester that Michael was encouraged to pursue his own individual take on the world.

“Both Bawden and Ravilious had amazing breadth in their subject matter and they gave me the confidence to go out and just do my take on the world. They did everything landscape, cityscape, industrial, mechanical - it didn't matter.”

He said that for many years he thought it was impossible to be a professional artist. “It was always in the back of my mind that I wanted to paint but I somehow convinced myself it was an impossible dream.

“But, somehow I sought of just drifted into it. I knew it was going to be difficult and that was good in a way because it made you adopt realistic attitudes. I knew I had to earn a living and so I went into teaching.

“That was fine. Then Woolverstone closed down and I took early retirement but by that time I had sort of established myself. People were starting to recognise my name and my work, so I was able to establish myself as an artist without too much bother.”

He says that looking back at his early work when he was still teaching at Woolverstone, he's ashamed to say that he wasn't too struck with the Suffolk landscape at first. “I am ashamed to say, I thought Suffolk was very flat and very boring.

“I don't think that now of course, and wouldn't dream of living anywhere else but at the time I had just moved down from the Pennines where everything was very dramatic and I thought that Suffolk was a huge disappointment.”

He said that he quickly fell in love with Suffolk and East Anglia and realised that it had a special appeal of its own.

“Its charm is in the skies, in the gentle undulating nature of the landscape, in the fields and trees.

“It is a more subtle, less obvious beauty which you find seduces you over a period of time and now I am completely hooked. I wouldn't still be here if I wasn't.”

Despite his success Michael nearly didn't become an artist. He originally wanted to go into the services but his career was cut short when he suffered a serious shoulder injury playing rugby.

“It was my mother who steered me into art. I was sitting at home feeling sorry for myself, wondering what on earth I was going to do with my life when my mother suggested I go to art school.

“Unbeknown to me she had already taken in some of my work to the principal in Hereford and he had agreed to take me on.

“It was all signed, sealed and delivered, and really came out of the blue as far as I was concerned but my mother obviously knew me well because I took to it immediately.

“I loved art school because I got on with the tutors very well. I went to Hereford, Stafford and Leeds - state-assisted bohemia they called it but it suited me very well.”

Michael Coulter's lively, vibrant and zestful paintings are currently on show at the John Russell gallery on Ipswich Waterfront until March 7.