Landscape artist keen on breaking new ground

When an artist has an 80th birthday exhibition, the work on view tends to form an overview of past triumphs. These exhibitions by their very nature are retrospectives, designed to celebrate a lifetime of achievement. By and large the achievement is in the past. People talk fondly of the ground-breaking work, of barriers being broken, of rule books being torn up but for the most part all this invention and successful experimentation happened a long time ago.

For many artists, at 80, they have settled into a comfortable and rewarding groove.

This is not the case for Suffolk legend Ken Cuthbert who is still eager to explore new territory. Ken is well known as a teacher as well as an artist in his own right. For many years he juggled his job as a weights and measure inspector with his calling as an artist and even now is keen to make up for lost time.

At his 80th birthday exhibition at the John Russell Gallery on Ipswich Waterfront, the work on display has all been recently completed. Although they are recognisably Ken Cuthbert, there is a freshness about them – it’s clear he is trying something new.

He explains that for many years the essence of his work was light, shape and colour. Now he is taking those ideas further, making his landscapes for abstract – more atmospheric than literal. A ten day holiday in Spain produced a painting which does not capture one iconic view – instead he has come up with a work which channels his feelings about the whole trip.

“When I first started I painted very naturalistically, but very quickly I began painting in a more abstract style – abstracts that were based on real life – typical English abstraction. Over the years I have become more and more interested in colour and so colour has become an important part of the abstraction, so you move away from entirely natural colours.”

Ken thinks a lot about what he wants to achieve before putting brush to canvas. He doesn’t do any preparatory drawings and paints directly onto canvas. “But, when I do paint, I paint very quickly. It’s a case of building up the tension and then going upstairs to paint and just getting on with it.”

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He says that he never minds revisiting a subject because the result is invariably different as his appreciation of texture, light and colour changes over the years. “It’s a question of maturity I suppose.”

The paintings that he returns to are usually fairly recent works – pieces finished in the last two or three years that he was never entirely happy with. “I usually go back and repaint fairly naturalistic pictures that I am not very happy with – but at the time I can’t really put my finger on why I’m not happy with them. I think it’s because at the time I painted them I wanted to do something a bit more but I couldn’t see my way forward.

“I said to Tony the other day (Gallery owner Tony Coe) when we hung the exhibition, I think now at long last, I have finally got the colour where I want it. Over the years I have got more and more interested in colour – particularly the subtleties of blues. One of the things about blue, in the abstract sense, is that blue has an ambiguity about it. One thing can also be another. In my paintings of Pin Mill or Felixstowe Ferry, when you are looking at the areas of blue are you looking at boats or looking past them at the water or the sky?

“When I am teaching, one of things I tell my students is that underneath every good naturalistic painting there’s an abstract trying to get out. It all goes back to my own training down here on the Waterfront with Cor Visser. He taught me to look at natural shapes and colour and he taught me a lot about texture of paint, he taught me that paint has got to work as texture, so that’s an added element of abstract work.”

Ken says that the way he works is fixed. “If I sat down and did a drawing and tried to transfer it onto canvas as an oil painting, it wouldn’t work, the inspiration wouldn’t be there. I love drawing for its own sake but I can’t do a drawing to prepare for a painting – it’s got to go straight onto the canvas.

“What do they say? I am a camera. It’s all in here,” he says tapping his temple, “You see with your mind’s eye.”

He says with a chuckle that at the opening someone asked him, how long it took to paint his abstract of Spain and when he said a lifetime they looked genuinely shocked. “It’s an accumulation of knowledge and experience which goes into every work.”

He adds that when the deadline for an exhibition is looming he can have more than a dozen pictures in his studio awaiting that final touch. “I know when I look at them whether they are finished or not or if they need that final spot of paint, that final touch of colour.”

He says that part of his restless nature is about keeping himself interested in his own work. “I don’t want to keep repeating myself. I don’t want to keep turning out the same paintings forever more. I want to do something different. Even though I may have some favourite subjects, each time I do a painting it is completely different from the last one.”

Although, Ken has a towering reputation as an artist, he didn’t turn fully professional until the early 1980s. For many years he managed to juggle a career in weights and measures with his love of painting. “I don’t come from a background of painting, my parents didn’t draw or paint but I remember from an early age in primary school, Friday afternoons when you could do what you wanted, I always used to bring in these postcards of boats, watercolours that were on display in Christchurch Mansion, and I would try and draw them. Then after secondary school a lot of my friends and contemporaries went off to college and did art, I didn’t, I sort of drifted into a job.”

He said that he retained his love of art and was introduced to Ipswich-based Dutch artist Cor Visser, who immediately took him under his wing and became his mentor. “I started off doing watercolours, I went to his classes, and did these little watercolours with a number six brush, a piece of rusty corrugated iron – I loved that – and some barge paintings. I did these tiny paintings and he came over to me and said ‘I think you should buy a bigger brush’. I took him at his word, bought the biggest brush I could afford, a number ten, and hand-made paper and the next week, the difference was unbelievable. He then set about teaching me about colour and observation.”

Having been taught the rudiments of good art, Ken then set about establishing his own style and discovering his own view of the world.

“I respected Cor but I didn’t always agree with his view of the world. He was much older than me, older than I realised at the time, and I felt that his view was rather old fashioned, after all I was a young man of 22. I thought his paintings were more of the sort you could imagine being produced during the early 1900s. You got the feeling that he hadn’t seen Matisse or Cezanne.”

While Ken was refining his art with Cor Visser, he was working in Ipswich touring the shops making sure all the town’s scales balanced. “I passed my exams in 1957, was made up to a full inspector, got a terrific increase in salary and immediately set about getting myself a studio.”

He created a studio in a tumbledown terrace in Waterworks Street as the landlord needed to do work on the property before he could rent it out. “I moved in and started work. I always took my art seriously. It never was a hobby.

“I remember my old chief inspector, the first one I worked for, coming in to work one morning. It was the day after one of my early exhibitions opened. I was the only one in that early. He came over to me and said: ‘You know this painting you do, it’s all very well as a hobby but you mustn’t let it interfere with your work.’

“That led me to think: ‘What is my work?’ It was very sad because he died while at work shortly afterwards. His replacement couldn’t have been more different. Some years later, again after an exhibition opening, he came into the office. I heard him coming up the stairs, he opened the door to my office, poked his head round the door and said: ‘What are you doing here?’ I was a bit confused. I said: ‘I thought I worked here.’ He replied: ‘If you can paint as good as that what on earth are you doing working here?’ I told him that I still had to pay the bills and painting didn’t necessarily earn me a lot of money but it did set me thinking about the future and the possibility of jacking in the day job.”

Ken said that he started teaching in the evening and finally gave up his job in weights and measures in 1972. “What prompted the change to professional artist was that I was turning into a split personality. I was touring the town as a local government officer and I would see the docks and find myself thinking: ‘Can I draw this?’ or ‘What would be the best angle or best time of day to do a painting of this?’ In the end you have to commit to one thing or the other.”

Ken Cuthbert at 80 exhibition runs at The John Russell Gallery until October 23.