Fred Cuming obituary

On 2 June 1953, the artist Fred Cuming, who has died aged 92, stood on the roof of the Old Admiralty Building in London sketching the coronation procession as it passed down Whitehall. “I got a very nice write-up for that painting,” he mused in an interview nearly 70 years later. He ascribed the success to two things: first, he had turned down the offer from newsmen also standing on the roof of photographs to work from – “They always promised they’d give you snaps, but they never did” – relying instead on his sketchbook. Second was the weather. As Cuming recalled of that long ago June day, it had been “pissing down with rain”.

This taste for the wet was to be bolstered by foreign travel. After four years at Sidcup School of Art and then national service, Cuming went to the Royal College of Art in 1951. While there, he won a scholarship to the British School at Rome. For a boy raised in the drab Kentish outskirts of London, the warm south came as a revelation. But Rome also presented Cuming with a problem. “If you painted the sky one day, it was still there the next,” he complained.

Fred Cuming’s Cloud Formation, View towards Pett Level, painted in 2006. Photograph: Alexander Brattell

Where earlier British landscapists, such as the Welsh painter Thomas Jones, had been drawn to the unvarying blue of a Roman summer sky, Cuming found it off-putting. “When I got back to England, I realised that the English landscape school had invented a kind of shorthand,” he said. “You had to rely on your memory, use your sketchbook. [John] Constable never went abroad, nor [John Robert] Cozens, nor [John Sell] Cotman.” Although he was wrong about Cozens and Cotman, Cuming nonetheless attached himself to a specifically English landscape tradition, tinged with the drama and melancholy of change and never so happy as in the rain.

Central to his practice was to be the sketchbook, the making of what he called “notes” en plein air. Cumin would, as he said, “sketch and sketch … [keeping] sketchbooks everywhere, in my studio, in my bag, in the car”. At his peak, he would get through a hundred a year.

His taste for wet weather proved equally durable. His coronation picture, Crowd in the Mall (1953), was praised in the press as “the only painting that really captured the blustering foulness of that day”. For the rest of his long life, until paintings such as the late Approaching Storm, Camber (2021), Cuming’s work would be dominated by dark skies, scudding clouds and the threat of rain. While by no means cutting-edge, his style, part JMW Turner and part Impressionist, was unquestionably masterly. Even a modernist such as the new generation sculptor Phillip King praised Cuming as “probably Britain’s greatest living landscape painter”.

If Bexleyheath had seemed an unpromising place for a budding landscapist to start from, Cuming’s broader family had artistic leanings. While his father, Harry, managed a shoe shop in nearby Lewisham, and his mother, Grace (nee Rees), worked in a store in the West End of London, his maternal grandfather was a commercial lithographer. An uncle, Charlie Wilson, “liked to draw pictures”, Cuming said, “and encouraged me to draw from an early age”. Another uncle took his 10-year-old nephew to the National Gallery to see Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire.

Fred Cuming’s 2006 portrait of the physicist Stephen Hawking, which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. Photograph: Alexander Brattell

For his 12th birthday, Cuming was given “a set of a dozen small tubes of oil paint which I used on bits of cardboard until my supply ran out”. His favoured subject was ships on the Thames, often sketched from the deck of the free Woolwich ferry. Shortly afterwards, he was evacuated to Cornwall, then to Yorkshire and last to the Chilterns. He returned to south London at 14 with his education disrupted but a variety of landscapes under his belt.

When he failed all his exams, a well-disposed French teacher suggested he apply to an art school in nearby Sidcup, its adult students being mostly away at the war. “The director looked at my tatty little folio of drawings on notepaper or anything I could find and said: start in September,” Cuming said. His father warned him that painting was not for people of their class, eventually relenting on condition that the boy study commercial art. It was the portraitist Ruskin Spear who convinced the elder Cuming that his son had a future as a painter.

His four years at the Royal College of Art would prove Spear right. In the early 1950s, Cuming’s determination to paint landscapes was treated at the RCA as a puzzling foible. The college was a hotbed of experiment, contemporaries including the future inventor of pop art, Sir Peter Blake, and the optical artist Bridget Riley. By contrast, Cuming recalled, “I did everything totally by intuition and was unaware of modern painting.” Nonetheless, tutors such as the painter John Minton encouraged him to persist.

In this they would be matched by Cuming’s wife, Audrey Lee. The pair met at a party at the Medway College of Art in 1963, and their son was born a year later, followed by a daughter. The family initially lived in a remote cottage in Egerton in Kent, without an indoor lavatory or stove but, as Cuming recalled, “a lovely westward aspect”. Life was seldom easy.

Although works such as Studio with Setting Sun (1962) and Port at Twilight, Rochester (1965) won Cuming a following at the Royal Academy – he was elected an associate in 1969 and a full academician in 1974 – it would not be until 1978, when he was nearing 50, that he had his first solo show, at the Thackeray gallery, London.

Fred Cuming pictured in his studio in April. Photograph: John Cole

As a result, he had to teach for 30 years to get by, at art schools in Medway, Hornsey and Walthamstow. That the names of his students – Ian Dury, Zandra Rhodes, Peter Greenaway – are better known than his own suggests something of the changing tastes of post-60s Britain.

Success, for Cuming, lay in those places open to tradition. In 2001, he was the featured artist at the Royal Academy’s annual Summer Exhibition, with a room given over to his work. In 2017, he was Academician in Focus. By contrast, his work was ignored by galleries such as the Hayward and Tate. This did not bother him greatly.

If he laughed at much of the the conceptualising of Britart, he praised Tracey Emin as a drawer. In his studios on the south coast, first in Hythe and then Rye, Cuming made the images he loved: enigmatic, half-remembered cloudscapes piled above Camber Sands and Rye Harbour. These were not immune to modernity. “I watch a plane take off from Gatwick airport, 50 miles away,” he said. “The vapour trail turns mauve as the curvature of the earth cuts out the sun. Once more I am aware of this sphere we live on spinning away from the light.”

He and Audrey married in 1976. She and their son, Daniel (the artist Danny Pockets), both died in 2018. He is survived by his daughter, Rachel.

Frederick George Rees Cuming, artist, born 16 February 1930; died 11 June 2022