21. Fairlight Cove, by Fred Cuming

by Dr Jennifer Johnson – 10 December 2020
Dr Jennifer Johnson discusses the transportive sensory experience provided by this atmospheric painting of the English coast
Fairlight Cove.jpg Fred Cuming, Fairlight Cove, oil on board, acquired 1988, H 60.3 x W 60.3 cm

Fred Cuming’s work revolves around the illumination of an intensified, poetic version of the world. Elected as a Royal Academician in 1974, his work is often said to follow in the British tradition of atmospheric landscape painting inaugurated by J.M.W. Turner in the nineteenth century, and he has said that he is inspired by colourists such as Pierre Bonnard, Henri Matisse, and Paul Nash.  Cuming’s canvases are built up of layers of painting, the underpainting often informing the luminosity of the surface as the warmer base layers irradiate the later applications. In this, he is certainly more akin to Turner’s atmospheric effects and emphasis on light rather than the often intense and yet more open brush-work of Bonnard or Matisse.

Cuming’s painting is also intimately tied to the British landscape, especially the south coast of England, and in certain periods his work could even be described as parochial – dwelling upon the sea side in a manner that blends activity with a timelessness verging on nostalgia. However, this painting, Fairlight Cove (acquired for the College in 1988 by Professor Peter Hacker), arguably belongs to the more interesting group of Cuming’s work that deals with landscape on the verge of abstraction. Instead of small, suggestive brushstrokes that indicate figures or details in an invocation of objects that recalls the Impressionism’s concern with the immediate moment, this painting is made up of blocks of paint, applied with a brush and palette knife in a way that renders the landscape monumental and immaterial at the same time.

‘I am not interested in pure representation’, Cuming has said. ‘My work is about responses to the moods and atmospheres generated by landscape, still life or interior. I am interested in the developments of 20th-century painting in abstraction...and in new ideas and art forms.’

In Fairlight Cove, the viewer is kept suspended from the landscape, neither placed within it nor comfortably excluded. We are almost blinded by the shining oblong that is light reflected on the sea, an effect sharpened by the geometric architectonics of the rocks. The basic forms of the landscapes are given to us, but not as a solid material form. Instead the landscape shimmers between solidity and luminosity. Cuming’s work intends to take us beyond the materiality of the world around us and into affect – we can hear this in his writings, where he speaks of the transformative powers of light:

‘From my studio shed I see everything transformed by the angle of the light in autumn evenings, a magical half-hour of brilliant gold light against shadows and darker areas. The jam-jar on my window-sill holding dead flowers, thistles and teasels is transmuted into gold, a treasure from the tomb of Tutankhamun.’

These transmutations recall the eighteenth-century interest in Britain in notions of beauty as a transportive sensory experience that can take the viewer beyond the mere everyday towards a higher even a transcendent form of sight. In particular, Cuming’s luminescent forms and their break with pure representation evoke Joseph Addison’s writings on the imagination from 1712, and his belief that sight furnishes the imagination with its ideas:

'[Sight] fills the mind with largest variety of ideas, converses with its objects at the greatest distance […] [Sight] may be considered as a more delicate and diffusive kind of touch, that spreads itself over an infinite multitude of bodies, comprehends the largest figures, and brings into our reach some of the most remote parts of the universe.'
(Joseph Addison, ‘Pleasures of the Imagination’, Spectator, No. 411, June 21, 1712.)

At the end of term, perhaps we could all do with a few minutes to lose ourselves in Cuming’s glittering landscape, and to let our imaginations roam amongst the distant sea and clouds.

View the painting on Art UK here.

Jennifer JohnsonDr Jennifer Johnson, Junior Research Fellow in History of Art