Born in London in 1926, Peter Coker painted this self-portrait not long before his fortieth birthday. There is one letter (dated 6th July 1966) which he sent to Ruth from his home in Manningtree, Essex.
‘Some time ago you wrote to me asking if I had a self portrait for sale, as you intend to publish a book on Contemporary British Self Portraits. I have over the years painted myself a number of times but have always for one reason or another destroyed them. Quite recently I have painted one, with which I am reasonably pleased and would be willing to let you have it for £15… Size 15” x 15”. I will sign and batten it and send it to you through the post when I hear from you.’
The standing figure here, three quarters accommodated by the small board’s vertical format, is rendered in stark relief against the painted white backdrop. A tough, sensitive black line delineates both man and garments, establishing his brooding presence against a pure, empty backdrop. Coker looks workmanlike and down-to-earth, though the still-youthful face has a somewhat edgy, perhaps wounded yet still hardy look. On close scrutiny, the painting of the face is complex and richly textured. The red lines and checks of the shirt are painted with plain abandon, and the apron’s intermingling green, brown and white brushstrokes appear (when abstracted from the rest of the picture) almost like a low-pitched expressionist landscape-cum-seascape – thus perhaps unconsciously bringing to mind the artist’s love of landscape, his main subject as a painter in later years.
From 1950-4, Coker studied at the Royal College of Art. His first one-man show was at Zwemmer’s Gallery in London in 1956, containing paintings based on drawings made in a butcher’s shop in London’s East End. His paintings of the period, such as Table and Chair and Man Carrying Pig (both 1955, Tate Gallery Collection), conjoining people and animal heads and carcases, are scrupulously rendered and carry harrowing modern resonances. A 1988 painting, Le Peintre au Travail – a universal kind of self-portrait perhaps – shows a featureless painter standing in front of his easel – a forceful yet curiously anonymous presence.