ARTIST INTERVIEW - Fred Cuming RA

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    MISCHEVIOUS laughter belonging to the painter Fred Cuming RA fills the room again. This time his infectious chuckle has been brought on by the fact that he used to get sacked quite frequently from various teaching posts.

     

    "My teaching at that stage was, I suppose, like my character - all over the place. I used to go in and teach the students and talk about their work and what they were needing and there was nothing wrong with that, but what they wanted were projects."

     

    He also did other things that were frowned upon such as taking his students to the pub at lunchtime and teaching them darts, "some of them became quite good", and talking to them about writers and films as well as painting.

     

    But as with many things about Cuming, who is now 70 (he is now 87, this interview was originally written a while ago as explained at the end) and is known for his atmospheric oil paintings with remarkable colour, this is not the whole story about why he kept getting sacked.

     

    Fred Cuming, Fred's Back Garden, 46cm x 61cm,  from Freya Mitton gallery at Chelsea Art Fair

     

    “I used to go work, then maybe go to the pub afterwards, and then come home and spend the evening with my wife Audrey and then often work into the night on my own paintings.

     

    "Most days I used to manage to do something even if it was just to go in and look for sometime at what I was doing. This is why I was unreliable as then I'd get up late and not teach very well.”

     

    This combination of cheek and determination seems to have followed the painter throughout his career. In his recent autobiographical book, A Figure in the Landscape, Cuming tells the story about his interview for the Royal College of Art.

     

    As he was about to leave Rodrigo Moynihan asked if he had any questions. "I thought for a moment and said: 'Am I in?' He looked me in the eye for a long minute. 'Buzz off!' he said."

     

    Part of this cheek may have been because Cuming was only seventeen-and-a-half when he was accepted for the RCA.

     

    However this early start hasn't caused any problems and Cuming's paintings are now much in demand selling out quickly from galleries around the country and the Royal Academy's summer exhibition.

     

    Undoubtedly this is because of the incredible sensitivity Cuming has for colour. His long time friend, the Coleridge biographer Richard Holmes, sums up his talent in the introduction to Cuming's book:

     

    He "re-invents the world through colour…His world feels as if it has been dreamt, or remembered from a dream, suffused with feelings that can never quite be named."

     

    But despite the success Cuming has now achieved his career in art started less by choice than by necessity.

     

    “I couldn't do anything else,” laughed the artist, explaining that he had been lined up to go to grammar school but the war had interfered with his teaching.

     

    Eventually he was sent to a crammer to try and catch up what he had missed. “It was a lost cause but what I had been doing was drawing. I was fascinated by it. Luckily the French teacher at the crammer had been to art school and she suggested that perhaps that might be a good idea for me."

     

    “In those days you just went for an interview, you didn’t need GCSEs thank goodness or I wouldn’t have made it. The headmaster looked at my tatty little folio of drawings on notepaper or anything I could find and said start in September.”

     

    Cuming got in to Sidcup School of Art at fourteen and a half, despite the objections of his father who said that the art world was not for his class and that it would be too tough for him to break in.

     

    From there Cuming went on to the Royal College Art (RCA) but not before national service where his cheeky nature came to the fore once again.

     

    “I blagged my way into the army education corp on absolutely false pretenses. I kidded them up that I could teach printing and so on which I could because of art school.”

     

    But Korea broke out and he was suddenly faced with teaching English and Maths. “I said I couldn’t do it and was sent on a Librarian course which was lovely as I loved books and read a lot and the library had a little mezzanine floor which I used as a studio.”

     

    Finally he went to the RCA which was more of a surprise then he had expected: “It was tremendous, terrific – it was a shock as well as all art schools were little places in those days and if you got into the RCA you became a bit of a star and then at the RCA there were all the stars from all the other schools and you went back to the bottom of the heap.”

     

    “There were people there who were already very mature like my friend Peter Blake and Roger Coleman who was very sophisticated. I was a wild card and less mature – it wasn’t a question of age – I did everything at that time totally by intuition and was unaware of modern painting.”

     

    But the teachers there, including John Minton, Ruskin Spear and Robert Buhler were encouraging to Cuming even if they were a little puzzled.

     

    “They were trying to be helpful and could see I was lacking any direction and going up different avenues - there were so many possibilities and I was bewildered by it all. I think they wanted to help and could see potential but I was all over the place in terms of concentration and in some sense they were puzzled that they could talk to me but I couldn’t always get it.”

     

    At the end Cuming won a small scholarship to Italy, which he found a culture shock, and when he returned to England he only had a little money left from the army and his scholarship and times were tough.

     

    Then, during a particularly cold winter, Cuming moved to a studio flat near Romney Marsh– for several weeks he was without water or fuel except for logs he sawed in the woods.

     

    But it was also at this point that the chance effect of a striplight between two west facing windows gave him one of his major painting subjects – artificial light against natural light.

     

    At this time he also found the love of his life, Audrey. When they met his studio was bare except for a full size snooker table, a collapsing sofa and the wooden carving of a mysterious Queen’s head. She persuaded him to get a cooker.

     

    He had met her through his art college students and it was through teaching and his own work that he suddenly understood some of the things people had been trying to tell him at the RCA.

     

    “I’d say my God, that‘s what he was talking about. My own work had brought me to the same areas and some of the things I'd been told had been too simple for me.”

     

    It was his own teaching that showed him how such simple things could be confusing.

     

    “You explain some stuff that’s absolutely basic and dead simple but students feel there’s a catch 22 in it and get panicky and read too much into it and all you’re saying is look at colour, look at colour as form, and those sort of things can throw people.”

     

    Cuming taught for about 29 years, mostly part-time, and said he wished he’d given up earlier but with a family, he has two children, he had to think twice.

     

    Finally in 1982 Cuming gave up teaching by which point he could live on the sale of his paintings alone – purchases no doubt spurred on by his stunning use of colour.

     

    "You learn more about colour as you go along," said Cuming. "I've painted some awful rubbish where I discovered certain colours and thought wow this is wonderful and painted pictures with the most hideous blues and the most hideous greens and it's only by doing it that you think this is not the avenue I want to be going up."

     

    "There's a lot of trial and error in all of this. I’ve known a lot of people who could handle colour, or who were colourists and I don’t know, hopefully it begins to rub off – like you learn more about properties of colour, certain combinations that will have certain effects, that will visually buzz, complimentary things. Recently I’ve been putting certain combinations against each other to give luminosity just on the edge of friction. It's very minimal but still operative.”

     

    The artist also see parallels between poetry and painting. "I read a lot of poetry, romantic poets, modern poets, all poets interest me as I think there are parallels between poetry and painting. What's painting about, its about poetry, about isolating an idea, capturing a moment, a mood or an atmosphere or your attitude and it's done in such a way that you're encapsulating an idea in a limited framework.

     

    But what does Cuming think of the more sensational artists of today who perhaps don't share these subtler views?

     

    "I don’t like all of it but I don’t think that matters. They’re doing what they’ve got to do and they’ll go their own way. I don’t like some of the things that are done and some of it is pretty crappy but a lot of traditional painting is pretty horrible as well – there’s an awful lot of rubbish around.”

     

    But Cuming will stick to his own methods. "My belief has always been see where it goes, with everything; with my own work I’m still seeing where it's going. I can’t tell anybody if it's going this way or that way but it's still going somewhere hopefully.”

     

    And does he have any ambitions? "I just want to go on for a bit, I just like enjoying it. I want to slow it down a little bit now as demand is getting beyond me and if I tried to meet it I’d be working all day long and all night long.

     

    "There’s certain things on the go that I don’t know the answers to. Intriguing things still there and I want to get into them and I want more time to be able to do that.

     

    And is there any particular message he has? "No, I just love what I do – I’m fascinated by painting."

     

    Review by Robert Dunt, Artist and Founder of ArtTop10.com - www.robertdunt.com

     

    I saw the brilliant Fred Cuming painting at the top at the Chelsea Art Fair recently with the Freya Mitton gallery. It was clearly an early one, with beautiful muted colours and a real kind of William Coldstream British classic feeling to it. I was chatting to Freya about the picture and about how I'd interviewed Fred Cuming ages ago after I became a freelance journalist having left the Surrey Advertiser where I was the politics and religion reporter. I never got the interview published, so here it is now on ArtTop10.com.