Ahead of his upcoming retrospective, David Cobley reflects on his thirty-year career and his unlikely path into portraiture.

Many will know David Cobley as a portrait painter. Throughout his thirty-year career, he has painted actors, performers, comedians, lawyers, judges, politicians, professors and princesses. It is unsurprising then, that the focus of Cobley’s upcoming exhibition is people. “I'm absolutely fascinated by people, the human race, what makes people tick," Cobley explains.

While it is portraiture for which the artist is most widely known, his oeuvre spans still lifes, landscapes, some abstract pieces and many surrealist twists – all of which explore humanity in unique ways. The full spectrum of Cobley’s work will be displayed together like never before in All By Himself, a retrospective of over 200 paintings and works on paper, opening at Mall Galleries, 10 to 15 September. The exhibition coincides with the launch of a new book by the same name, written by Cobley’s longtime friend, the artist and art critic, Peter Davies.

David Cobley Portrait of and Artist (Pool with Three Figures), Oil on linen, 122 x 172.5 cm – to be sold at auction

The works in the show date as far back as 1971. The earliest work is a self-portrait painted when the artist was just 17. More recent works include ‘Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Three Figures)’, a large painting that many will recognise as being based on David Hockney’s record-breaking ‘Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)’ which uses the motif of a swimming pool to explore the complexity of human relationships. The original was created by a heartbroken Hockney in the 1970s. The man in the pink jacket, Peter Schlesinger – the apparent love of Hockney’s life – looks on at someone in the pool (who isn’t Hockney). 

David Cobley Summer ’71, Oil on Board, 91.5 x 61 cm – NFS

Cobley’s painting was also inspired by the breakdown of a relationship, though in his version, it is he who stands on the edge of the pool observing the figure of his ex-wife submerged below. “In this painting, I am looking on in bewilderment at her new-found faith. Perhaps also with some nostalgia on the time spent bringing up our daughters before the chasm that opened up between us.” The swimming pool, as in Hockney’s original, creates a sense of concurrent closeness and distance, like observing someone from afar, or through a window, unbeknownst to them.

Since becoming a member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in 1997, Cobley has worked extensively on portrait commissions, painting everyone from Princess Anne to the actor Steven Berkoff and most famously, the comedian Ken Dodd – “I remember really being bowled over by him as a boy,” Cobley recalls, “His hair and his teeth. Cracking these jokes one after the other. He was an extraordinary person. Whether you liked him or not you had to admit he was extraordinary.”

David Cobley Sir Ken Dodd OBE, Oil on Linen, 76 x 91.5 cm – NFS (courtesy National Portrait Gallery)

His favourite commission to date is of a man he met at a party, a friend of his brother named Trevor. “I casually told him how much a commission would cost and he said he wanted me to paint him,” Cobley recalls. The result was ‘Blues, Beer and Rock 'n' Roll’ in which the sitter is captured from above, surrounded by his beloved record collection, a beer in hand. The piece is characteristic of the “composite” nature of Cobley’s work, as Peter Davies notes in All By Himself, “the iconographic combination of interior, unposed portrait and still life in one compellingly candid composition.”

Cobley admits that commissioned work comes with its own set of challenges. In some cases you may not click with, or particularly like, the person you’ve been asked to paint, admits Cobley. “But you have to find a way if you're being professional about it. Sometimes you might find you learn a lot by painting somebody that you don't initially warm to." Besides from the relational aspect, portraiture is technical and exacting. "Painting the human face is difficult,” Cobley explains, “only a slight variation and it doesn't look like them." Cobley himself is too humble to admit it, but one only has to look at his vast repertoire to see that capturing a person’s essence is a skill he has mastered.

David Cobley Blues, Beer and Rock 'n’ Roll, Oil on Linen, 122 x 122 cm - NFS

It might seem as though Cobley was born with a paintbrush in hand, but his route into art was a strange and meandering one. Shortly after moving to Liverpool to attend art school as a young man, Cobley was approached on the street by a stranger. The artist remembers this as a period of uncertainty in his life. "I was vulnerable because I was in a big city. I was only 19. I had no friends and I was open to new ideas. I had all kinds of questions about the meaning of life.” The man was a member of a religious sect known as the Moonies. "Cutting a long story short, they got me," Cobley reflects. 

After three years as a full-time member, he was sent to Japan with a group of a thousand others from all over Europe, where he was paired up with a Japanese work partner. “That was an amazing experience and I got to see a completely different culture,” the artist says, and ultimately an eye-opening one. He left the Moonies and studied at Sophia University in Tokyo, which he funded by teaching English. “I was learning all kinds of things, which had known before I met the Moonies, I wouldn't have joined them in the first place." After nearly ten years abroad, he moved home with his young family, working as an illustrator for some time before becoming a full-time painter. Cobley, now agnostic, sounds somewhat regretful when talking about his time with the Moonies, but ultimately accepting of it. "With hindsight, everything looks different. But you can't live your life backward, as my brother has pointed out."

David Cobley What Are You Doing Here?, Oil on Linen, 61 x 61 cm – £2,350

If anything, this colourful life has informed the dynamic way in which Cobley paints the world – with his eyes wide open. In the Foreword of the book, Pete Brown, President of the New English Art Club recalls sharing a studio with Cobley: “Being so adept meant that he was always looking for new angles.” An instinct that perhaps comes from a life lived, at various points, through a multitude of perspectives. If one looks closely, this familiarity with the road less travelled is evident in the layered nature of Cobley’s work which often appears to hint towards some deeper resonance beneath the surface meaning. “Rather than dazzle, he prefers his work to pose questions,” Pete Brown writes. “A true observer in a self-obsessed world dominated by people who shout the loudest.”

David Cobley All By Himself is on view at Mall Galleries from 10 to 15 September.

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