The painter and etcher Peter Coker was born in London in 1926. Although he wished to become a painter from the age of twelve, his first job, was as an assistant in his father’s confectionary firm. After working there for a year, he managed to obtain work in Odham’s Press and whilst employed there he was able to attend part-time classes at St Martin’s School of Art and the Central School of Arts and Crafts. Although he was ready to attend art school full time by the time he was seventeen, he did not do so for a number of years. Instead he initially volunteered for the Fleet Air Arm before entering St Martin’s as a full-time student in 1946, with a war-service grant. He travelled throughout Italy and France in 1949 and 1950 where he was inspired by the work of Courbet, in particular his masterpiece The Funeral at Ornans, and Courbet’s influence is evident in much Coker’s own work. In 1950, he began a postgraduate course at the Royal College of Art where he studied for the following four years. Although he was associated with the Kitchen Sink School, he never exhibited with them, instead showing at Zwemmer’s where he had five solo exhibitions throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the first of these in 1956. The subject matter of his paintings up to this period had incorporated elements such as butcher’s shops and animal carcasses. It was at this point that he began to focus his attention to landscape painting, inspired by his travels in Normandy, Brittany, Cornwall and Devon.
From 1962, Coker lived with his wife and son in Essex and, as well as teaching at St Martin’s School of Art, he travelled around England and France to paint. He was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1965, becoming a Royal Academician seven years later, and when Zwemmers closed in 1967, he started exhibiting at the Royal Academy summer exhibitions, as well as holding solo shows at the Thackeray Gallery and Gallery 10. His status was further consolidated by two retrospective exhibitions in the 1970s, one at the Minories in Colchester in 1972 and another, focusing on his butcher’s shop paintings in 1979. Following his son’s early death in 1985, he worked in Badenscallie in north-west Scotland, where a noticeable change took place in his work. More retrospectives followed at the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1989 and the Abbot Hall Art Gallery in 1992. By that year, however, he was forced to give up painting due to ill health. A renewed period of activity began ten years later, culminating in an exhibition at the Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield in 2004, the year of his death.
Coker was a leading realist painter of his generation. Even though Abstract Expressionism dominated in the post-war period, Coker always remained resolute in his desire to paint what he saw, with landscapes remaining his predominant subject matter throughout his life.