Artist Spotlight: The Monumental Gerald Coles

The works by Gerald Coles are impressive and affecting because of his dramatic and monumental style. On closer inspection of his work, I have been struck by the formal comparison that can be made between Coles figures and other early twentieth century British sculptors. I set out to delve a bit deeper and various comparisons emerged.

The monumental style that characterises Coles’s charcoals and oils gives his figures a sculptural quality – we can imagine them being hewn from stone or cast in bronze. The hefty, simplified forms recall the stone sculptures of artists such as Henri Gaudier-Brzeskza, Jacob Epstein and Eric Gill, pioneers of modern British sculpture working before the First World War. Epstein and Gill in particular carved monumental figures out of stone; sometimes they emerged from the stone in semi-relief, such as in Epstein’s sculpture for Oscar Wilde’s tomb or his commission for the British Medical Association building on the Strand in London.

The stylised forms of the monumental figure can also be connected with an increasing interest in the art of other cultures, or what was considered ‘primitive’. Gill in particular was influenced by an interest in Indian art. He admired Sri Lankan philosopher Ananda Coomaraswamy and his belief in the ‘close analogy between amorous and religious ecstasy’. In this vein, Gill carved reliefs of embracing figures, for a proposed open-air Temple dedicated to love in Sussex.

Unlike Epstein, Gill was associated with the Arts and Crafts movement and he demonstrated the desire to bridge the chasm between artist and workman, ever widening since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. He specialised in decorative lettering and was named Royal Designer for Industry by the Royal Society of Arts. This cross-over between art and craft was shared by Coles also. Coles made a living as a stained glass artist; he was employed straight from school by Harper and Hendra Studios in Harpenden. In 1943 he assisted Hugh Easton in the stained glass design for the window in the Battle of Britain Chapel in Westminster Abbey. For the next twenty years Coles was associated with Hugh Easton, and he continued to undertake stained glass commissions in Britain and abroad.

Coles’s figures most resemble those of the British artist who made the reclining figure his own, Henry Moore. Furthermore, like Moore, he depicts them huddled and draped, in images which strongly recall Moore’s Shelter Drawings. Moore, whose studio had been bombed in 1939, interrupting his sculpture practice, became an Official War Artist and took to drawing the residents of London who were sheltering in the underground stations. He captured the horror experienced by those who sought communal refuge underground, and said: ‘[the] poor looking women and children waiting to be let in to take shelter for the night – and the dirty old bits of blankets and clothes and pillows stretched out on the Tube platforms – it’s about the most pathetic, sordid and disheartening sight I hope to see.’

Coles’s compositions, with his figures hunched or crouched, shrouded or cloaked, or lying in bed with covers draped over the recumbent forms, formally echo Moore’s drawings. The draped bedclothes render the figures anonymous, and Moore’s Shelter Drawings take on a powerful visual. Drapery has been used for formal purposes throughout art history, with the schematic depiction of folds featuring as early as in the work of Greek vase painters and sculptures, through to cloths used decoratively in portraits in the grand manner. Flowing fabric can also bring a sense of movement to a piece, having a vitalising effect. It seems, therefore, that by depicting his figures in drapery and invoking this tradition, both formalising and expressive in its effect, Moore’s Shelter Drawings take on a grandeur and solemnity appropriate to their subject.

It is interesting to note that Coles’s medium and technique appears to be similar to that used for some of Moore’s Shelter Drawings. Moore used an expressive combination of graphite, ink and wax on paper. Coles’s draped figures are also executed in an unusual mixed media, on paper, which has produced a waxy surface. In both artists’ work the varied stokes of mixed media create a dynamic, jostling effect, which is compelling and unsettling. Furthermore, not only are their materials similar, but also their colours – shades of blue-grey, black and white – and the large size of the works. These dark and subtle tones and the large scale lend a further monumental gravity to the pieces. Shrouded and anonymous, they are unsettling and haunting: Coles’s works, although lacking Moore’s immediately harrowing source material, share something of these powerfully haunting qualities.