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In memoriam: Maurice Cockrill RA

Published 3 March 2014

His huge abstract paintings brought a vibrance to the RA’s Summer Exhibitions, while a spirit of openness characterised his role as Keeper of the RA Schools, writes his colleague, senior lecturer Richard Kirwan

  • From the Spring 2014 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Time was when the overarching sense of an art school was heavily dictated by the subjectivity of its Head. In the case of the Royal Academy Schools, being one of the first art schools in Britain, the role of Head has always been known as the Keeper. Maurice Cockrill RA was elected in 2004, and he brought with him a new vitality and openness to this significant position.

    Long before Maurice came to work in the Schools, his paintings had consistently caught my eye in numerous solo exhibitions in nearby Cork Street, as well as in the visual combat of the annual Summer Exhibition, but I knew little of the persona that motivated these visually generous abstractions.

    During his first week as Keeper of the Royal Academy, Maurice invited me into the creative chaos of the Schools’ office, and within a few minutes, I instinctively understood that the Schools had been placed in safe hands, and that its progression from an art world ‘best kept secret’ to an internationally recognised art school was assured.

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    Archive video: Interviewed in his studio next to Burlington House, Maurice Cockrill RA discusses his work 'Wild, Wild in the Country' which was shown in the 2010 Summer Exhibition

  • As Keeper, Maurice was afforded a beautiful studio next to Burlington House, in one of the suite of rooms now known as the Keeper’s House. Shortly after he moved into this enviable space, a series of blank canvases had been transformed into glowing, lyrical works that somehow managed to juggle their vibrant colours and multifaceted layers with a structure and discipline that set his work apart. Maurice premiered these new works by opening up this very private space to the new intake of students, welcoming them all with a glass of champagne. This established a new tradition for the Schools, and became an annual fixture in its calendar.

    Maurice understood from the outset that heavy-handed influence had no place in a contemporary art school, and therefore quickly won the trust of subsequent generations of students that he would support the diversity of their work. Maurice took the lead from his predecessor, Brendan Neiland, and resisted the familiarity of an instantly recognisable ‘house style’. To achieve this was no mean feat, and demonstrated Maurice’s ability to listen to the opinions of the other artists who constituted his staff (a term that always made him feel a little uneasy).

    During the annual round of selecting and interviewing candidates for a coveted place at the Schools, Maurice always remained good-humoured and open to new possibilities for art. It soon became unnecessary to attempt to second-guess his opinion during the discussions that followed an interview, as he consistently supported the most stringent conceptualist alongside those who followed his passion for oil on canvas. In fact, he didn’t bother to differentiate; he just recognised visual intelligence and talent.

    The Royal Academy Schools is not at all dissimilar to an extended family; it is an amazing and intimate place to work. Inevitably, Maurice became not only a colleague, but also a friend. I visited him in his wonderful network of studios in West Dulwich, and we regularly went out for Sunday lunch, and on one or two occasions after work enjoyed an evening of almost lethal vodka martinis at Dukes Hotel.

    An art school must always be a place of transition. At the graduation show each year, Maurice would sit behind his desk, sometimes a little teary, as if only just truly realising that it was already time for this particular group to leave our studios to establish themselves in the contemporary art world. There are generations of artists in London and beyond who acknowledge that their time at the Schools during Maurice’s tenure literally changed their lives. But like the head of any family, these opportunities were given unconditionally, and with love.

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