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In the studio with Maurice Cockrill RA

Published 20 February 2009

When Maurice Cockrill RA is not nurturing his charges at the RA Schools, he can be found hidden away in his splendid attic studio at the Academy.

  • From the Spring 2009 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    “This is my first ever studio with central heating,” Maurice Cockrill RA confesses as we climb the private stairs up to the Keeper’s Studio, a place known to few and seen by only a privileged handful, hidden away in a high corner of Burlington House.

    His comment is made with feeling. Outside, an icy mist veils London. “My other studio, close to my home in south London, is a converted bakery in West Dulwich. I went there to work at the weekend but I couldn’t take my coat off. It was just too freezing.”

    Before that Cockrill’s various workplaces have included part of a near-derelict terrace in Regent’s Park, complete with glass-domed ballroom “so old and dirty and untouched that every inch of the floor was covered in three inches of pigeon guano…”

    In comparison, his new set-up, only a small part of which is seen in the picture above, is a lavish haven. He opens the door on a high-ceilinged, whitewashed room flooded with silvery light even on this gloomy day. A tall window with fourteen panes and a half-skylight – “Yes, north facing, towards New Bond Street” – dominates the space, which is almost square.

    A pair of fireplaces, with blue-and-white Delft tiles and ornamental columned pediments, add elegance. A big sash window looks out on a nearby rooftop, and from the adjoining small sitting-room you can see the less glamorous rear windows of Albany. The combination of a vista of sky with these restricted views compounds the impression of being in a secret eyrie.

    In his appearance Cockrill might pass for a benign country doctor – he is wearing a brown suit when we meet – rather than an international artist. “But the minute I get in here, I change into work clothes, so as to waste no time being distracted by Schools business or coffee-making.”

    All around we see signs of his industry: unframed canvases – large and small, vivid and full of motion and shape – are propped around the walls. Many of these will go shortly to the Adam Gallery for his new show. Cockrill uses a method of layering and cutting back, using latex and acrylic. Some paintings build from a black background, others – such as Aqua in the oval-shaped Elements series – begin in pale, luminous greys, with spirals of darker shades laid on top and a final splash of russety orange to give structure and drama.

    A familiar Cockrill gesture is to add, late on in the process, a thin, vertical rod or two of contrasting colour as “a stabiliser”. He pours these on using a spout of an old take-away food container.

    “I like to paint standing up, so that I am free to make big brush strokes of maybe four feet or more,” he says. His fascination with all things Japanese and Chinese, especially calligraphy, is evident in his choice of gesture and, in some works, his use of paper and ink. Three large Chinese brushes, made of jade, bamboo and wolf hair, are laid on his work table. “They’re not just decorative. I’ve used them but I haven’t quite learned how to clean them properly!”

    For a man who has changed his style several times since his first professional works in the 1960s, he now seems at ease with his approach. “Not that I won’t change again if it’s the right thing. I’m certainly not one of those artists who finds a look early on and sticks to it, perhaps nervous that collectors or fans might turn against them. Early on I did precise, photorealist things. And I used to stand there, photo in one hand, No 6 sable brush in the other, making tiny marks and thinking, ‘This just isn’t me’. I realised I needed a more direct, physical involvement with what I was doing.”

    Landscape, weather, the elements, all feature in his bold, increasingly abstract works of the past two decades. “But they’re definitely not abstract. Every picture is about something, even if I only find the title after I’ve finished.” He points at a large canvas rich with swathes of magenta and swirls of flesh tones. “It’s called Well, You Needn’t, after a song by Thelonious Monk. I see it as a couple. There’s a man” – he points at taut black lines that have a sense of the skeletal – “and there’s the woman.” The rest of the canvas is a mass of seething, voluptuous swirls, a psycho-drama in paint.

    A quietly-spoken figure, Cockrill was born in 1936 in Hartlepool, and was elected to this historic role as head of the Royal Academy Schools five years ago after the resignation of the previous Keeper, who left after the discovery of irregularities in the handling of Schools funds. Following a vote among members, which caused widespread distress in the Academy, Cockrill’s predecessor became only the second RA to be stripped of his membership.

    “It was a difficult time for everyone,” Cockrill says, frankly, but with understatement. “In the Schools, the students were bewildered and didn’t understand what had happened. Suddenly I was there instead and had to build up a relationship with them carefully to restore some sense of trust.” The Schools consist of some 60 students in all, spread across three year groups. “I regard it as one of the few proper art schools remaining.”

    Fortunately, Cockrill had experience of teaching, including fourteen years at Liverpool College of Art, and at Central St Martins, the Slade, the Royal College of Art and, as a visiting tutor, at the RA Schools themselves. “I decided I would go in early, by about 8am each morning, so I’d be there when the students arrived, and gradually we got to know each other.”

    His own career has been a triumph of will, as well as talent. His childhood was peripatetic, moving from one rented room to another in and around industrial Liverpool and the north-west. He has described a bleak early life, waking in the shadow of slag heaps, curtains made of old newspapers, running away from grammar school aged twelve, being hauled back, later sharing dismal rooms with Irish builders. Encounters with Adrian Henri and other Liverpool poets in the 1960s, after studies at Reading University, showed him new possibilities.

    Now, 40 years on, he has a studio in one of the grandest locations in the land. “It reminds me of that old Woody Allen film, Manhattan (1979), with him in a big white loft space, rain thundering down on the windows, and a beautiful girl to keep him company,” Cockrill grins. If the Keeper has any company of his own, they are well hidden.

    A separate, more modest staircase across the room, leads downstairs to a courtyard entrance and a pocket-handkerchief sized Japanese garden. “They say that’s where the models used to enter and leave, to avoid scandal.” He admits he did once ask a girl to sing from the wooden balcony that occupies the studio’s east wall. “She had a brilliant voice, so I said, ‘Come and sing while I’m working’, so she stood up there doing Gershwin’s Someone to Watch Over Me. I could get used to that while I work, but sadly it was a one-off.”

    Maurice Cockrill RA - New Paintings is at Adam Gallery, London, 2-26 June 2009.

    Fiona Maddocks is a journalist and broadcaster. She is Chief Music Critic of the Observer.

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