Cooke, Barrie (1931–2014), artist, was born William Barrie Cooke on 13 June 1931 in a nursing home at Sandiway Road, Ashton-upon-Mersey, England, the elder of two sons of William Barrie, company director, and his American wife, Gladys (née Judge). His father ran the family business, an edible fats company. Growing up in Knutsford, Cheshire, Barrie delighted in the local countryside when not enduring boarding school. His childhood hobby of collecting insects facilitated his lifelong passion for fly fishing. The Cookes fled Britain’s post-war austerities for the USA in 1947 but quickly moved on to Bermuda.
In 1949 Barrie entered Harvard University, Massachusetts, to study marine biology, switching within weeks to art history. He started painting and spent the summers of 1950 and 1952 at the Skowhagen School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine; despite its figurative bias, he was drawn towards America’s burgeoning abstract expressionist movement. In 1953 he staged a solo exhibition at the Behn-Moore Gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, displaying signature traits in the bold brushwork and powerful palette.
Graduating with a BA in fine arts in 1953, he worked for a year in Bermuda, saving enough money for his return to England. Arriving there in 1954, he felt so alienated that he took ship for Ireland where he found that the River Fergus in Co. Clare lived up to its billing as the best dry fly-fishing river in Europe. At Kilnaboy, Co. Clare, he rented a cottage overlooking the river valley with the Burren’s limestone moonscape at his back door. Living alone without running water or electricity, he painted, read, fished and shot game (for his pot), rooting his art in Ireland’s saturated countryside. His opulent palette always carried a tint of muck.
He spent the summer of 1955 in Salzburg, Austria, attending Oscar Kokoschka’s ‘School of seeing’ classes, which taught him to engage with how objective reality is subjectively experienced by the human senses. That September he held his first solo exhibition in Ireland in the Brown Thomas store, Grafton Street, Dublin. In February 1957 he married in London, Harriet Leviter, a New Yorker who had been his brother’s fiancée. They would have two daughters. With help from his parents, they moved in 1958 to a less spartan rural cottage in Quin, Co. Clare.
Cooke did not find his idiom until the late 1950s when he began painting moving water, typically rushing around stones and rocks. Rivers, mountain streams, waterfalls, pools, lakes and seascapes were his primary, and most fruitful, medium. Inscribing the words ‘Everything flows’ on his studio walls, he dwelt obsessively upon the flux of nature, expressing this through plasticity of form.
An associated preoccupation with sex emerges in his sprawling, obliquely rendered female nudes and in the gleefully vaginal delineation of his wet landscapes, often featuring fish as symbols of desire. He linked his women with impersonal elemental forces by painting them faceless in earthen tones, situated in the water or in starkly rugged Burren-like surrounds. Fascinated by the ‘Sheela-na-gig’ carvings found in medieval churches, which warned against lust by depicting a woman with an exaggerated vulva, he reconceived such figures as headless pagan fertility deities in artworks combining paintings with clay sculptures.
Making regular forays onto Dublin’s gallery circuit, he befriended artists such as Brian Boydell (qv), Patrick Pye (1929–2018) and Camille Souter (b. 1929), along with the poet John Montague (1929–2016). In 1960 he and his friends were among those unrecognised artists who founded the Independent Artists exhibition society as an alternative to the then dominant Irish Exhibition of Living Art (IELA) clique. The empathic naturalism of Cooke’s landscapes sat ill with the IELA’s coolly abstract aesthetic.
Prior to the first Independent Artists exhibition in 1960, the artists involved drew lots and Cooke was one of the winners, which meant that ten of his paintings were displayed. Arising from this exposure, he was taken on by David Hendriks, Dublin’s leading gallery owner and art agent. Cooke’s first exhibition at Hendriks’ gallery in 1962 made his name. An Irish modern art audience pushing back against sexual taboos lapped up his exuberant, erotically charged waterways, fish and nudes. If most viewers were repelled by the rawness of his studies of animal carcasses and by the grotesque carnality of his ‘Sheelas’, their visceral realism inoculated him from charges of being a facile crowd-pleaser.
After first internalising a scene by making numerous sketches – which he then never referred to – he started by thinking of a colour that expressed his gut reaction. He proceeded spontaneously, favouring loose, thinly glazed brushwork, akin to watercolours, the pervasive wetness instanced by dribbles of paint, by forms and colours bleeding into each other, and by sections of untouched canvas. His brinksmanship produced thrillingly uneven art. With a few spare strokes, he could define his landscapes while creating an extraordinary richness in texture and light. Striving for simplified, but dynamic adaptations of reality that hinted at deeper truths, his art emerged out of the tensions between describing accurately, abstracting emotionally, narrating thematically, and playing with texture, colour and pattern.
Chosen in 1963 to represent Ireland at the Paris Biennale and for the ‘Twelve Irish Painters’ group exhibition in New York, he appeared regularly thereafter in prestigious exhibitions of modern Irish art. His biannual one-man shows at the Hendriks Gallery became a significant fixture in the Irish art calendar, while two of Ireland’s leading art collectors, Basil Goulding (qv) and Gordon Lambert (qv), emerged as loyal patrons. He began exhibiting with the IELA, resigning from the Independent Artists in 1971 after this formerly eclectic and apolitical cohort evolved along stridently expressionist and left-wing nationalist lines.
Following the collapse of his first marriage in 1964, he lived in Amsterdam with his new partner, the acclaimed Dutch potter Sonja Landjweer, who encouraged his experiments with sculpture. They married and had a daughter. He returned to Ireland in 1965 when Landjweer was hired by the Kilkenny Design Workshops. Based first in Kilkenny, they moved in 1966 to Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny, where they lived in a flood-prone Georgian house on the banks of the River Nore, before migrating two miles upstream to Jerpoint in the early 1970s. The Nore’s verdant, tree-lined banks appeared in his paintings as a sea of green while also informing his use of a brighter palette. He and Sonja were responsible for initiating the Kilkenny Arts Week in 1974 and for maintaining it in its early years, their residence hosting visiting international writers and artists. In 1976 he helped found what became the Butler Gallery in Kilkenny; for years the gallery committee’s driving force, he lured many big names into Ireland.
He formed mutually creatively nourishing friendships with the poets Ted Hughes (from the late 1950s) and Seamus Heaney (qv) (from the late 1960s), painting both men (his portrait of Hughes hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London), and illustrating two of Heaney’s published collections, Bog poems (1975) and Sweeney Astray (1983), and Hughes’s poem, The great Irish pike (1982). Heaney was one of the few people with whom Cooke was prepared to discuss his work; he in turn sent Cooke draft verses for appraisal (as did Hughes to a lesser extent). Heaney credited Cooke and Hughes with persuading him in 1972 to quit his lectureship in Belfast, move to Co. Wicklow and commit full-time to poetry. His poems ‘The Cairn-maker’ (1972) and ‘Lightenings xi’ (1991) are celebrations of Cooke.
Fishing added another dimension to Cooke’s bond with Hughes, which was sealed in September 1962 when Hughes ended his marriage to Sylvia Plath by abandoning her in Connemara to walk the Burren with Cooke and then go fishing with him on the Mulkear River. Hughes warmed to Cooke – who retained his clipped English accent – for combining intellectualism with a stolid country manner. From the 1970s Cooke organised regular extended excursions of Ireland’s finest fishing grounds for Hughes and Hughes’s son Nicholas. Cooke also visited Hughes in Devon for fishing.
Mistrusting his painterly fluency and feeling thwarted by two-dimensional art, from 1968 Cooke muted his palette and adopted a hard-edged, more abstract approach. Fusions of paintings and sculptures that treated either bog landscapes or the human anatomy emerged as his main outlet in the early 1970s with the transparent boxes containing painted ceramics designed to look like human bones being particularly controversial. As this new departure was neither critically nor commercially successful, he survived by teaching art, growing vegetables, and keeping a dairy cow, hens and geese.
At a creative impasse, he secured funding from collectors and travelled to the rainforests of Borneo and Malaya for four months in 1975 making sketches while he collected butterflies (going as a naturalist helped secure his visa). In the writhing, rampantly fecund undergrowth, he saw nature in full flight, inspiring his glorious reversion to type in a series of drenched dark green and blue watercolours and oils. Thereafter, he shed his inhibitions about painting with a radiant liquidity, making full use of his strengths as a colourist.
Believing that his speedily executed watercolours and early oils were sketchy, he took to reworking his instinctive ‘first drafts’, building islands of complex pigment amid the sweeping washes. Over time he learned how to instil more coherence and substance into his oil paintings without losing the original deftness, spontaneity and flow. Although boxes containing sculptures remained integral to his oeuvre throughout the 1970s, by 1980 he was satisfied enough with his painting to end his engagement with three-dimensional art.
From the mid-1970s, he worked through various themes, bidding, as ever, to connect with nature’s primordial consciousness through some defining quasi-symbolic image. These included his use of the vortex and knot motifs as well as series on the Burren; on the unseen trout evoked in his night fishing scenes; on a spectral personification of nature called the ‘Mad Sweeny’; and on the long extinct, voluminously antlered great Irish elk, exemplified by the mythic grandeur of his best-known work ‘Megacerous Hibernicus’ (1983; IMMA). In the 1990s he broadened his habitual worms’ eye view to cast skywards; this culminated in the 2000s with his ‘godbeam’ series showing sunlit shafts piercing the clouds.
His marriage with Sonja effectively ended in the mid-1980s, though they continued living together for several years. In 1989 he began a relationship with the American poet Jean Valentine who he had known from Harvard. They married in 1991 and moved into a remote house at Highwood, Kilmactranny, Co. Sligo, above Lough Arrow, one of his favourite fishing haunts. He stayed there after he and Jean divorced in 1996 and after his subsequent marriage to the painter Pam Berry also ended in divorce. His marriages always came second to his art.
He was appointed a founding member of Aosdána in 1981 and an honorary member of the RHA in 2002, having become a staple of RHA group exhibitions during the previous decade; he was also an active and long serving member of the boards of the Douglas Hyde Gallery, TCD (from 1988), and of the Model Arts and Niland Gallery, Sligo (1992–2003). Exhibiting solo at regular intervals in the Kerlin gallery from the late 1980s, he kept to his idiosyncratic course, producing landscapes, female nudes and occasional portraits. The Arts Council funded his pursuit of good fishing and artistic inspiration in places such as Lapland, South Africa, Cape Cod, Australia, Russia, Mexico, Alaska, Madeira and Cuba, but he got the most (on both counts) out of New Zealand, returning there repeatedly from the late 1980s.
For the next two decades he produced parallel works contrasting Ireland’s pollution-choked waterways with the bright airiness of New Zealand’s unspoilt wilderness, often using hypnotically deep blues. An ardent environmentalist, he participated in successful campaigns against uranium mining in Co. Kilkenny in the late 1960s and against the building of an interpretive centre in the Burren in the early 1990s while maintaining that art, being fundamentally elitist, should eschew political activism. Thus, his depictions of the devastation wrecked by algae and sewage fungus were detached enough to catch their malign beauty.
Latterly, he enjoyed financial security, as the prices for his work rose impressively during the Irish art boom of the 1990s and 2000s. His portrait of Heaney (completed in 1980) sold for €28,000 in 2008. His final solo exhibition at the Kerlin in 2010 saw him depict the Kerry coast through the medium of monotype – a mix of printing and painting. Growing physically and mentally frail in his final years, he left Kilmactranny in 2013 for a nursing home at Leighlinbridge, Co. Carlow, where he died of a heart attack on 4 March 2014.
The subject of retrospectives held in the Douglas Hyde Gallery, TCD (1986); the Hague Municipal Museum (1992); the LAC, Perpignan, France (1995); the RHA (2003); and IMMA (2011); Cooke’s art is held by public institutions in Ireland and the Netherlands. Portraits of him by Nick Miller in 1997 and in 2013 are held respectively in The Model, Sligo, and in the NGI. Pembroke College, Cambridge, acquired his archive, which includes papers, poems and letters sent to him by writers and artists, the highlights being his correspondence with Heaney and Hughes; there are drafts of eighty-five poems by Heaney (some unpublished) and of a dozen poems by Hughes.