Artist Barrie Cooke has died in Leighlinbridge, Co Carlow, on Tuesday evening. Born in Cheshire, England, in 1924, he was based in Ireland from 1954 and was regarded as one of the leading contemporary artists in the country.
An artists’ artist, he won enormous respect from his peers over several generations for his utter commitment and the integrity of his vision.
He was a passionate fisherman and the natural world was always at the heart of his work. His figure paintings and portraits are also exceptional.
His paintings are cherished for their dynamic, immediate, visceral connection with their subject matter. Early training at Skowhegan in the US and at Oskar Kokoschka's School of Vision in Salzburg helped to shape the urgent vitality of his pictorial approach – a vitality reflected in the artist's personality. Renowned curator Rudi Fuchs, who organised an exhibition of his work in the Hague's Gemeentemuseum in 1992, saw his work as linked to that of Kokoschka and Jack B Yeats.
Having grown up in Bermuda and studied in the US, he went to England in 1954 to revisit his roots but found little to engage him. So he took a ferry to Ireland and, he said, felt at home even as he walked down the gangplank.
He settled in rural Co Clare where he and his first wife, Harriet Cooke, lived in some poverty. Later he moved to Thomastown, Co Kilkenny, with ceramic artist Sonja Landweer, who introduced him to Rudolf Steiner's ideas on natural processes. His next move was to a remote house overlooking Lough Arrow in Co Sligo.
He developed deep friendships with several poets including the late Seamus Heaney, John Montague and Ted Hughes. He was a keen traveller, and his regular trips to Borneo and New Zealand were pivotal to his work.
From the late 1980s he began to paint not idealised natural idylls but the encroaching reality of pollution, a challenge for even his most ardent collectors. He is represented in most public collections in Ireland and exhibited regularly at the Kerlin Gallery, Dublin.
Over the years there have been many survey and retrospective exhibitions, the most recent at Imma in 2008.