Our Meetings

Swindon Society Meeting Review

Wednesday 14th February 2024

1. Philip Garrahan.jpg3. Electric Welder - Hubert Cook.png5. Shove-Halfpenny - Leslie Cole.png

We had another unusual topic of talk for us in February, which was a talk primarily about two local artists, Leslie Cole and Hubert Cook. It also featured several readings from the work of the “Hammerman Poet” Alfred Williams, with whom we are a little more familiar after a talk several years ago. Philip began his presentation by talking about how he came to the subject, and as was so often the case in recent years – it was the fruit of the pandemic, when he had to stay at home with little else to do. Philip also alerted us to the fantastic website artuk.org, where it is possible to view many of the works featured in the presentation, along with thousands of others from UK art collections. Philip quoted from John Ruskin’s A Crown of Wild Olives about how a working man cannot also be an artist because they put their working life and the earning of wages first. He disagrees - a working man can be an artist, but Philip argues that it takes effort to do so. I personally learnt a lot from this evening, but the most surprising fact was that the Swindon School of Art was the first purpose-built art school in the south west of England. It also had one of the first Arts Centres in the country. In the interwar period, Swindon was a thriving cultural centre and Philip posed the question - did art matter more then? The first artwork we saw was actually a piece by JMW Turner - The Interior of a Cannon Foundry. Philip showed it to illustrate that between the time of that painting in 1797-8 and the interwar period in the GWR Works, little had changed in heavy industry. There was some mechanisation but it was largely the same in that it was very manual and very dangerous. There was then the reading of an excerpt by Alfred Williams describing life inside the Works. We then had our first glimpse of the two artists in the form of self-portraits. The style was so similar that Philip thinks it may have been something taught at art school. They were like passport photos, looking directly towards the viewer and unsmiling. Cook and Cole both studied at the same time in the late 1920s and stayed friends for a long time afterwards. They were both very talented artists with Cole being a war artist and Cook winning many prizes. We were shown one of the prize-winning pieces, which was a portrait of Bill Silto’s mum. Alfred Williams was better known for poetry and his chronicling of country life than his book Life in a Railway Factory. Philip then showed us the Manifesto issued by the Executive Council of the GWR Social and Educational Union which altered the objects to include developing social and recreational organisations. This led to the annual arts and crafts exhibition which was held every year from 1927 to 1939. Hubert Cook was awarded 30 competition medals from these. Leslie Cole was awarded fewer, but he left Swindon during this period. We then learned from Philip that in 1932 there was a romanticised descriptive piece in a GWR magazine which described the “ancient art” of hammering white hot iron and how Swindon Works was the only place it was believed to still be happening. The job was that of a shingler and it went on to describe the men as having to wear iron boots! We were then read the Alfred Williams description which described the exploitation of and cruelty towards men in this role, who were almost abandoned after they became too old to work as a shingler, with their wages dropping as a result. Both Cole and Cook made studies of the shingler. It was one of the most dangerous jobs in the Works. Hubert Cook won a prize for a lithographic print which was then exhibited in the Paris Salon and the Royal Academy in London. It is one of several which are held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He also captured a riveter at work and Philip pointed out two significant features of the work; the way the light was captured and the fact that he was wearing an asbestos suit. He also painted the riveter in oils, which I thought was very effective. There was much more colour and it was impressionistic. By the time Cook painted this one, he was based in York with the RAF. Hubert Cook’s last work was called The Toilers, which was completed in 1965. He died the following year. We then moved on to Leslie Cole and learned that he actually left Swindon to study art in London. We saw several of his pieces including one called Shove-Halfpenny and another called Blind Woman, which were both in black and white. Philip did a marvellous job of drawing our attention to several aspects of these works which we may not have otherwise noticed. He then described how Cole wanted to become an official war artist and in order to gain the commission he went on a trawler in Hull and painted a below-decks scene. It succeeded in getting him the job. In this capacity he travelled to Malta, Greece, Germany and the Far East. He sometimes focused on some of the more mundane work that was happening, such as the women preparing the beds in a cathedral crypt in Valletta, Malta. His work as a war artist also captured some of the most distressing aspects of war, such as the body of a murdered priest in Greece in 1945 and the liberation of the women in Belsen Concentration Camp. Other works we were shown by Philip included soldiers unloading a convoy in Malta during an air-raid; and the more humorous Dentistry during the Hour of a Gas Practice which showed a role-reversal with all the dentists wearing gas masks during work on a patient. Philip finished by saying that neither Hubert Cook nor Leslie Cole would be described as great art in the larger art world. However, he argued that it definitely is great art because it tells the truth. He then said that it would be wonderful if there was some exhibition space in the Outlet Village where local art could be displayed. I think that sounds splendid – and might even tempt me to visit the Outlet Village once in a while! Many thanks to Philip for a different, but nonetheless fabulously engaging evening. Kelly Blake - February 2024

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