About the artwork
Even with the ripple of the banner and the descending figures, there is a mood of stillness in Maurice Cockrill’s 'The Walker Art Gallery' which is strange and perhaps “unsettling”. The blank windows and empty frontage impart a feeling of absence. This sense of eeriness is perhaps heightened by the guillotine-like banner. The banner also renders the rigid classical facade slightly exotic, as if a carnival has taken place.
The distinctly photographic quality of the painting is a direct result of Cockrill’s working methods. He used a camera “simply as an aid and the resultant image [is] a composite one, refined from extensive photographed information.” This “refining” process, as a method for designing the finished composition, required much creative work. In this respect the finished painting is many steps away from the instantaneous photograph. (With this in mind, it is interesting to speculate whether the two figures are actually the same person. Did Cockrill select two sequential images of her and “collage” them onto the canvas in different positions?)
There are other clues that show that the painting has been highly designed, in particular the meticulous linear perspective of the paving stones and the foreshortened panel of the revolving doors. This results in the viewer’s eyelevel being located centrally to the facade and in line with the top step, effectively distancing the viewer from the image and creating a disembodied “floating” sensation.
The painting’s subject is the exterior of the Walker Art Gallery. The imposing character of the gallery’s facade is, conceivably, the painting’s third “figure” or presence. The blank “stare” of the open doorway, lends the painting an expressive, psychological atmosphere, reminiscent of the way that Edward Hopper - a painter whom Cockrill admires - used buildings in his paintings.
Moreover, the revolutionary red of the banner, adds, perhaps, a trace of menace to the picture. Cockrill, as well as commemorating a famous Liverpool institution, is also perhaps simultaneously, undermining its imposing classicism and implied power. The rigid facade is “softened” by the slightly crumpled banner, ruffling its authority.
For Cockrill, the stillness in the painting is also an important message. Discussing this he has quoted the writer Albert Camus: “A painting style is essentially a way of conjugating the natural with the impossible, of presenting that which is perpetually in the process of becoming and of presenting it in an instant which is endless”. It is this “unnatural” fusion of motion and stillness that gives the painting an uncanny quality.
One of the Cockrill’s themes is the painting of architecture, as shown by the pairing of this painting with Sudley (1974) next to it. Both paintings were commissioned by the Friends of Liverpool Museums and Galleries to commemorate Liverpool’s art galleries and presented by them to the Walker Art Gallery in 1975.
At that time Cockrill was a well-known local artist and painting tutor at Liverpool Polytechnic (now John Moores University), living in Windermere House on the edge of Princes Park (then owned by the poet Roger McGough). He had just won a £100 prize for 'Scillonian Pumps' (1974) in the 9th John Moores Contemporary Painting Prize. He had begun painting in a photorealist style in 1970 after destroying all his previous work. Cockrill’s search for a satisfactory working method continued throughout the 1970s. In 1981 just before he left Liverpool to work in London, Cockrill had a “burst of improvisation” which lead to free-flowing, expressionist paintings in egg tempera. “The artists I’ve admired most are the protean ones. I’d rather be changing shape than just be doing the same thing time after time,” declared Cockrill.
Cockrill was born in Hartlepool in 1936 (a contemporary of David Hockney, Patrick Caulfield and Howard Hodgkin). After living in South Wales and the Midlands, Cockrill’s father moved the family to Brymbo near Wrexham, to take up a job in the town’s steelworks. This constant moving gave Cockrill a feeling of being rootless, from which, as his biographer Nicholas Alfrey, suggests “it might just be possible to interpret the rigour and control of the photorealist paintings as a balancing and compensation for a disordered early life...”
In 1961, after a year at Wrexham School of Art, Cockrill studied Fine Art at Reading University where his early influences were the works of van Gogh, David Bomberg and Jackson Pollock. In 1964 he moved to Canning Street in Liverpool to take up a teaching post at St. Helens School of Art, then after three years, became a painting tutor at Liverpool Polytechnic. During his time in Liverpool, Cockrill undertook several further commissions, all in a photorealist style: 'Two Windows Two People' (1973) which includes a self portrait and is on display here, 'Entrance' (1975), for Liverpool University and seven billboard-size portraits, 'Seven in Two Series' (1978) representing the “seven ages of man” for Lime Street Station. Soon after, Cockrill began to feel a “gradual disillusionment with one way of working” and he began to seek an “antidote” to photorealism. Cockrill’s later expressionist style is represented by 'Winter' (1990) in the Walker’s Collection.
In the 1970s, works like 'The Walker Art Gallery' were seen as representing a local style that were, according to the critic Edward Lucie-Smith “figurative, and fascinated by the immediate environment of Liverpool itself”. Cockrill’s subjects and models were all known to him personally, even “the apparently impersonal early canvases include female figures who were in private life both partner and muse.”
While seen as part of the genre known as Photorealism that evolved from Pop Art in the late 1960s, Cockrill preferred to call his style “Synthetic Realism” to distance it from artists in the US.
The subject matter and style of paintings like 'The Walker Art Gallery' were short-lived, but the spirit of the era in which they were made lives on in them, as does an impression of Liverpool which is faintly haunting. As the writer Sam Gathercole says of the work of Cockrill and his fellow artist John Baum, “more than being present... [their] Liverpool looks like a memory or a dream”.