East Anglia’s always been a barn of a place says John Russell Gallery’s Anthony Coe
- Credit: Archant
Anthony Coe of The John Russell Gallery say not that much has changed since Constable and Gainsborough fell in love with our region.
They say it was the skies and the flatness that brought artists like Constable and Gainsborough to East Anglia, Anthony’s not so sure.
“I think it was a barn of a place in the middle of nowhere that was cheap, or cheaper than London; and that prevails today. I think it’s the laid-back, easy living atmosphere, it’s not frenetic. If you want something done; you can get it done reasonably quickly. I lived and worked in London and even to get a set of tyres on your car was a pain,” he laughs.
We’re sat in the Ipswich Waterfront art gallery the artist and musician founded 40 years ago, very near the Back Hamlet home in which he was born. A pupil at Ipswich Art College under Colin Moss, the area was a hotbed of art with other luminaries including Maggi Hambling and Roxy Music’s Brian Eno.
He moved The John Russell Gallery - named after John Ruskin, whom he studied; and his own middle name - from St Margaret’s Plain in the middle of town 25 years ago.
“It was a dock, not a waterfront; which is the new 21st Century trendy tag it has now. There was still a steam train going down the front. There was no marina, no restaurants, I was here almost on my own. It was perfect venue and the area grew around me,” recalls the father-of-three, who specialises in East Anglian artists.
Anthony always loved Suffolk’s naturalness, its ordinariness; particularly places like Blythburgh, Dedham Vale, Bury St Edmunds, Iken, Woodbridge, Constable Country.
Anthony’s not that keen on the “Chelsea by the sea” seaside towns like Aldeburgh and Southwold.
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“I find them too pretentious. I didn’t want to be among that,” he says. “I also had the opportunity to take on a gallery in west Suffolk but it was very touristic. There were coach loads stopping by with ice-creams in their hand, coming into the gallery; I didn’t want that.”
Another bugbear is the way people in the area sit on their haunches.
“There’s not enough get up and go. In real-terms, the influx of BT and the like has changed the old Suffolk malaise... I’m not really complaining because I quite like that laid-back thing but we do need a bullet up us sometimes. We don’t want to shout too much or too many people will come here,” he laughs.
Absence, of course, does make the heart grow fonder.
He was in a band at art college and after finishing his qualifications at London College of Printmaking and Norwich School of Art he joined pop band The Epics, whose drummer John Mayhew joined Genesis; making them famous by association he laughs.
As a professional musician, he toured the world including France, Germany, Greece, Beirut and Dubai when it had about three streets smiles Anthony.
While part of John O’Hara and his Playboys they supported a lot of big names, including Shirley Bassey. “We’d be pushing amps on behind her while she sang,” he laughs.
“I played pop, jazz, underarm deodorant ads for £9 you name it... when I left art college, in order to become an artist you had to put the time in, you’ve got to dedicate yourself totally to it and not get paid necessarily. I was offered money to (play music). Plus the fact my father had a 28-piece big band during the war.
“He was a guitar and bass player and I’m a bass player but he banned me from playing. He said you’ll starve and he was right, I did,” laughs Anthony.
“I’d play a pub one minute for £1.50 and I’d be headlining a club like Ronnie Scott’s another night, so it was feast and famine which is what the arts are all about.”
His late father, Raymond, very well known in the area, was inspirational. A woodcarver by trade - he worked on the lecterns, pews and more at St Augustine’s Church during the late 1920s - he painted and drew. He was also a businessman, owning a typewriting business in Ipswich for 40 years; bringing one of the first copying machines over from Germany.
“I had it until a few years ago. I had to kill it in the end because it went on and on. You had a thimble of carbon powder, you’d put in the tray and it would last a year, now you have to buy a hundred quids worth of toner,” laughs Anthony.
He says he’s always been “the son of”. Raymond was a trainer at Ipswich Town with Sir Alf Ramsey. He had an open ticket for Portman Road but never used it. Sir Alf and Bobby Robson both came to his funeral.
“His passion was his football. He was on about 15 football committees, president of the National Association of Boys Clubs, a referee, a physiotherapist... he was offered the job of manager of Grimsby Town and my mother said ‘no, no we’re not going to move to Grimsby’ so he knocked it on the head.
“He was interested ever so much in amateur football, he loved watching the up-and-coming players. I remember when he was poorly, I pushed his wheelchair onto the touchline because my son was in goal and he was shouting ‘get on your line’. Just as he said that somebody lobbed a ball over my son’s head into the goal and he said ‘I told you’,” he laughs.
“I miss him. He came here to the gallery opening and met (art critic, author and jazz singer) George Melly who I played alongside in the 1960s. He said ‘I’m proud of you son’. He never ever said that to me because he was a hard man. He kicked me out when I was 16 or 17. I was playing in a band and daren’t tell him. Two in the morning I’d turn up and he’d be ‘where the hell have you been’. I’d say ‘well, I’ve been out with friends’. ‘Well, if they’re friends of yours they can put you up, this is not a hotel’. I had to go into digs in Tuddenham Road. I never confessed.”
Anthony, like his father, has fit a lot into life. When not gigging he’s been a dancer with Lionel Blair, appeared in West End shows - “that’s why I’ve got bad knees and don’t walk” - was a croupier, a stand-up comedian, a DJ and turned down a presenting job with Channel 4.
“This guy said ‘I saw you compering an Elvis Presley convention at Camber Sands... come up, I want to offer you a job presenting an arts and entertainment programme. That was Greg Dyke; I said ‘look, I’ve got a gig to go to Greece’. I turned down a job at Radio One with Tony Blackburn and Terry Wogan... I’ve got no regrets.”
Anthony returned to Suffolk at the backend of the 1960s, early 1970s with just a pair of jeans and a couple of shirts in a holdall. His friend Ken Bean gave him a job as compere at Ipswich’s First Floor Club, where he brought on people like Ronnie Corbett, Bob Monkhouse, Roy Castle...
“I hadn’t got two pennies to rub together. I slept in the cabaret room because there was a bed there, so I got somewhere to live and I was earning money. Then I got a job as a DJ at the Intercon the same time I joined WS Cowell as a lithographer and artist. I was finishing at Cowells and rushing over to the club. On my lunchbreak I’d go round all the shops with flyers about the various nights and London bands we were putting on.
“I’d give away prizes... in those days the record companies gave you records. First person to the stand with a black set of teeth, people would come up and (he gurns) and you’d go ‘no, a comb’. Half a nicker, knickers come up; half a nicker was ten bob,” he laughs.” All those kind of stupid gags.”
Cowells is where he started gathering artists for the gallery. “I sent invitations to Tom, Dick and Harry, opened the door and hoped somebody would come through.”
Anthony’s days of staying out till two or three in the morning are behind him. He likes a good restaurant, including Maison Bleue in Bury St Edmunds.
“It’s often a busman’s holiday, I like to pop into galleries to see what they’re doing... I don’t play golf, I don’t have a boat, my biggest pleasure is to sit at home with a glass of red wine, listening to jazz, looking at my paintings and reading - I don’t have to get out of breath,” he laughs.
When he was younger he used to be a cyclist.
“On a Sunday, it was always my ritual; I would go to Norwich, London, you name it, there and back in one day... I was fit as a butcher’s dog in those days,” he roars.
Now 73, time has come to draw a close to the gallery.
“It’s really a bit of me time. I feel I’ve done what I wanted to do and there’s not many out there who can do what they want to do and, if you like, make some kind of mark within Ipswich.”
Maybe it’s time to get the bike back out...