Feeling the truth that ‘everything flows’

Barrie Cooke: June 13th, 1931 - March 4th, 2014


The painter Barrie Cooke was held in exceptionally high regard among his peers and by a large number of collectors and art lovers. He was known for the vivid immediacy of his work.

For him the encounter with the subject, be it fish, human being or landscape, imposed something like a sacred duty on the artist: not just to be true to what you see, but to be true to how you feel it in your nervous system. “I think there has to be one thing in painting – energy, vitality, that’s 99 per cent of it,” he said in a 1998 interview with Niall MacMonagle.

He was fiercely devoted to his art and, as he liked to remark himself, to fishing. Never a materialistic person, he shunned any logical career path to do as he wished which, as he commented, could be hard on those close to him. He lived close to nature in rural locations, including Kilnaboy, Co Clare, Thomastown, Co Kilkenny, and Kilmactranny, Co Sligo. An energetic, enlivening social presence, he built up a complex network of relationships, with family, lovers and friends. The latter included jazz musicians, poets and artists.

Collaborative projects
He wrote to poet Ted Hughes in 1958 and they met the following year, remaining close from then on and fishing together on many occasions. Seamus Heaney and John Montague also became good friends. He worked on collaborative projects with all three, including a 1985 illustrated edition of Heaney’s Sweeney Astray . Robert Andrew Parker, Camille Souter and Nick Miller numbered among his close artist friends.

He was born in Knutsford, Cheshire, in 1931. His father, William Jasper Cooke, was English, his mother, Gladys (née Judge) American. The family emigrated to the US in 1947 but soon moved on to Bermuda, via a three-month stay in Jamaica, where the lush tropical climate and a brief romance made a deep impression.

He began to study biology at Harvard in 1949 but switched to art history, also attending evening classes in art. He spent two summers, in 1950 and 1952, at the artist-run Skowhagen School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine in 1950, an informal art school with some fine teachers and students.

Set on discovering his roots, he travelled to England, and hated it. A Harvard friend had given him contacts in Ireland. He crossed by ferry and immediately liked the country. He had been tying trout flies since his pre-teen years, and fishing drew him west, where he rented a tiny, two-roomed cottage in Co Clare, close to the River Fergus.

In 1957 he married Harriet Leviter who had, contentiously, been his brother’s fiancée. They had two daughters, Liadin and Julia. Patrick Collins noticed Cooke’s paintings of salmon in a group exhibition and pointed them out to David Hendriks, leading to Cooke’s first, well-received solo show at the Ritchie Hendriks Gallery in 1962. He quickly became a mainstay of the Irish art scene.

By 1964 he had become close to the ceramic artist Sonja Landweer. When the new Kilkenny Design Studios invited her to set up a ceramic studio, Cooke moved to Thomastown with her, eventually settling at Jerpoint. They were together for 20 years and had a daughter, Áine. He later married twice, first the poet Jean Valentine, who he had known for many years, and then the painter Pam Berry. Both marriages ended by mutual consent.

Public collections
Landweer introduced him to the theories of Rudolf Steiner and they had a biodynamic garden at Jerpoint. More to the point, engineer Theodor Schwenk’s book Sensitive Chaos confirmed his own instinctive feeling that flowing patterns, derived from the movement of water, underlay natural forms and processes to an incredible degree. He traced this flow in vivid studies of bone joints as much as in representations of water. At Jerpoint the Heraclitian motto “Everything flows” was inscribed on his studio wall. From the late 1960s into the 1970s he made a substantial body of sculptural works, the Bone Boxes .

In 1975, feeling that he was at a dead end, he raised money for a trip to the rainforest of Malaysian Borneo, where he spent several months. The trip had a dramatically liberating effect on his work: “the only time in my life where the paintings almost made themselves”.

From the late 1980s, New Zealand, which he visited many times, played a similar role. Its vast, pristine expanses counterpointed his growing preoccupation with environmental degradation in rural Ireland, where he painted scenes of pollution.

A founder member of Independent Artists and Aosdána, he served on the boards of the Douglas Hyde Gallery and the Butler Gallery. He exhibited regularly at the Hendriks Gallery, Dublin, and, from 1986, at the Kerlin Gallery.

There were surveys and retrospectives at IMMA, the Haags Gemeentemuseum, the Model, Sligo, The Butler Gallery, Kilkenny, and the Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin. His work is in most public collections.

He is survived by his daughters Liadin, Julia and Áine, his son-in-law Stefan and his grandchildren Harriett, Kitty, Liam and Mira.