Jack Cox, 1914-2007

We first encountered Jack Cox’s work when in Norfolk - which was, of course, his county, as he was born in Wells-next-the-Sea (once one of England’s major ports, still one of the most beautiful sea-side towns in Norfolk) and lived there all his long life. In fact, we were looking for watercolours by Hugh Brandon-Cox, who had died shortly before our visit. But, my eye was caught by a little, very painterly, oil, depicting a sail, a boat, the sea, clouds and wind. The picture was tiny and the individual details barely distinguishable, one from another. Yet the texture, the subtle colour, the vigour of the brush and the succulence of the paint all struck me with great force. Together, such qualities conveyed both the artist’s delight in exploiting the expressiveness of his medium and the sense that he was revelling in the outdoors, the brisk wind that was surely blowing and the racing seas that roiled before him. The picture certainly appears to have been painted en plein air and has the fleet brilliance which comes with such practice.

Finding out more about this artist proved fascinating. Foolishly, we had failed to seek him out when he was alive and only began to discover more paintings by him after his death, in September, 2007. I encountered the constant refrain that Jack Cox was, ‘one of the most colourful characters in Wells’. The details of the colourfulness are unclear. But we do learn that his working life was as a fisherman and as a member of the town’s lifeboat service. He was a founding member of Wells Wildfowlers (affiliated to the British Association for Shooting and Conservation), and a regular at the town’s sailing club. His intimate familiarity with the seas, tides, skies, weather, light, clouds, boats, harbours and birds of the Norfolk coast must have informed every aspect of his life, and it imbues his paintings with a powerful authority. Whether working on a small scale, or on something much broader, his hand is sure and swift. Even when his finish is refined – as it is, sometimes, when he portrays the subtle colours of early morning or the stillness of dusk, with skeins of geese threading across the sky – Cox succeeds in conveying his attachment to the natural world, its seasons and cycles. These larger paintings can be, at once, both intense and serene, so powerful is his focus. But it is often in the works where his touch is vigorous, glancing, evocative, even staccato, that we find the most exciting part of his output.

As an artist, in East Anglia, Cox could not have failed to have known about – and, perhaps, even to have identified with – the Norwich Society of Artists, which had been founded in 1803, with John Crome and John Sell Cotman amongst the leading figures (the Norwich Castle Museum has had a marvellous, permanent display of these works since the 1880s). This group of artists did what very few others were doing at the time: they explored their native countryside, often working from sketches on the spot, painting the light, texture, seasons, the occupations and variety of the rural hinterland round Norwich. Working in oil and watercolour (Cotman’s mastery of the latter medium is still absolutely captivating) this group of artists conveyed what they saw around them every day.

At the time, landscape painting was barely recognised as an acceptable subject at all, especially if the subject were a modest, unassuming, English, landscape. The Norwich School artists, having received no academic training in London, might – at first – have been relatively unconscious of the desirability of painting historical, Biblical or Classical works. Apart from anything else, this group was not only provincial, its members were also working-class and largely self-taught. But their choice of subject matter began to be admired and their affectionate exploration of the rural landscape persisted. In fact, they had something in common with another radical artist of this period, who also loved to paint his familiar, pastoral surroundings, and was also an East Anglian (in this case, from Suffolk), John Constable. Though the latter had benefited from a somewhat broader education, and a more cosmopolitan outlook than the Norwich School artists – especially after he moved to live near London and the art world – he, too, chose to paint what he saw and loved, a way of life that was coming under threat, a modestly productive and beautiful countryside that had sustained a rural way of life for generations.

Jack Cox fits very well into this lineage. But his passion was for the coast, rather than the countryside: there is something about real East Anglians, even today – a taste for isolation, a self-containment, a vision which looks eastwards, across the sea – which is expressed in Cox’s paintings. This is neither self-conscious nor romantic; it has a long and real history, when travel by water was infinitely easier than travelling over-land to London.

Cox painted and exhibited a long way from metropolitan or academic circles and had even less contact with those who would demand that Modernism had expunged the need to record the appearance – the flavour – of the natural world. Cox continued to paint all his life. He is said to have been painting on the day he was taken into hospital, before his death. He was very prolific and he undoubtedly exerted an influence on other artists working in this part of the country. His skill in manipulating his medium – oil, watercolour, acrylic, or a bit of each – was consummate. His love of the matchless, subtle beauties of this particular place, where the sky, sea and land are knitted together in the pattern of daily life, is profound and rewarding.

© Dr Hilary Taylor, 2012