Gerald Anthony Coles was a man with many artistic skills; a printmaker, a painter of portraits, landscapes and interiors, and a stained glass designer of repute producing many watercolours and drawings for both secular and ecclesiastical stained glass windows. However, his most important artistic legacy consists of a remarkable output of monotypes and woodcuts. Mostly executed during the 1950s and 60s they are powerful and expressive works which address both the monumentality of the single human figure and the dynamic force of human emotions and physical interactions. These black and white prints, which number over forty different images, were executed during the most productive period of his career and are undoubtedly the finest examples of his art.
The son of an ordinary working couple in Luton, Coles demonstrated an early talent for drawing and obtained a small grant to study part time at Luton School of Art. He left the school in 1945 and was employed at the Harper and Hendra Studios in Harpenden where he helped in the design and manufacture of stained glass. The stained glass artist Hugh Easton was a client at the Studios and was impressed by the young man’s artistic abilities. Coles began to work with Easton on his designs and made a significant contribution to Easton’s most famous work, the window in the Battle of Britain Chapel in Westminster Abbey (1943-47). Easton encouraged him to apply to the Slade School of Art in London and in 1951 Cole entered the Slade to study painting and drawing under Professor Sir William Coldstream, and printmaking under John Buckland-Wright.
The 1950s were an exciting time to be at the Slade; new ideas on art education were being fostered and a variety of avant-garde artists were employed by the School, including Graham Sutherland and Henry Moore. Under the influence of these artists students were encouraged to avoid the previously well-established working methods (which emphasised the old masters as a paradigm) and develop their own solutions to visual problems. With other distinguished contemporary artists teaching printmaking, such as Ceri Richards and Stanley Jones, the printmaking workshops also provided a creative space for experimenting outside core conventions.
During this period Coles’s paintings acquired a new freedom of expression with bold brushwork and strong forms. His earliest prints were a few etchings and wood engravings, which showed
the influence of Buckland-Wright in their fine linear quality and fluid composition (see illustration), but he soon turned to the more expressive medium of woodcut. In the soft wood block he created his own unique approach, energetically carving his figures and imbuing the image with solidarity, strength and movement. This same energy and pre-occupation with the depiction of the human figure is seen in the monotypes, the most `painterly’ form of printmaking, and the medium in which Coles produced some of his finest work.
Coles was awarded the Steer Painting Prize in 1953 and left the college in 1954. For the next few years he travelled widely and stayed for a period in Paris
studying at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. A tour of France to study the stained glass in the great Cathedrals was facilitated by a travelling scholarship, awarded to him by the French Government. This period of study resulted in a highly successful one-man show at the Maison Internationale, Paris in 1959. That same year he returned to Luton to mount an exhibition of his woodcuts and monotypes at Luton Museum, which also met with much acclaim.
For the next two decades Coles painted in oil and watercolour and continued to produce prints in woodcut and monotype. Several travelling scholarships and prizes funded visits abroad, mostly in Europe, and his work was shown in prestigious London galleries including Browse and Delbanco, and the O’Hana Gallery. He appears to have ignored the main exhibiting societies and art institutions, not seeking membership or submitting work
to their annual exhibitions. Alongside Ins painting and printmaking Coles continued to design stained glass. His collaboration with Hugh Easton continued for some twenty years and he won prizes and received commissions for stained glass designs both in this country and abroad.
A shy and rather introverted man, Coles never married and, in spite of a love of travel and jazz, he appears to have led a rather solitary life with just a few close friends. Unlike many of his fellow students he declined any teaching posts after leaving the Slade, maintaining that art could not be taught. When not travelling he lived in Luton in a small townhouse he had bought, and used the first floor as his studio. Outgoings were small and Coles appears to have lived on his stained glass commissions, a small number of sales and prudent savings and investments. In later life he professed a desire to move out into the Bedfordshire countryside, but in fact he was content just to take occasional drives and to fill his days painting and sketching in the studio.
After his death in 2004, much of Coles’s work remained in his studio in Luton. The paintings, drawings, designs and prints represent a lifetime’s devotion to creative endeavour. But for a period of time Gerald Coles expressed this creativity in a manner and in a medium that coincided exactly with the contemporary thrust of British art. His woodcuts and monotypes represent an important aesthetic, shared by several progressive artists of the 1950s and 60s, and certainly deserve to be seen and appreciated by a wider audience.