MANY people have had a love affair with France for years, although some struggle to put their finger on exactly what it was that sparked the fire.
Artist Richard Cole can trace his passion for the country back to the 1960s, as it was then in his student days that he joined a friend to spend the summer in a small village in the Rhône-Alpes.
His connection with the people of the region has seen his work on the walls of local bars and cafés, a world away from his professional career as an illustrator for international news organisations covering court cases such as those of the Yorkshire Ripper, Klaus Barbie and the abuses of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Here Richard talks about how he has become the resident artist for his village, and how his work has taken him around the world, you can also win a print of one of his most popular pictures in an easy to enter competition.
I read your biography on the website and it said that you went to France as a student, was that how you got involved with the culture and life of the country?
It happened by accident because a great friend of mine did an exchange between his school and one in France and it turned out that he fell in love with the Rhône-Alpes area and the family he stayed with had a pied-à-terre in a village called Saint Geoire en Valdaine.
I was at art school at the time and I went out to join him for a summer holiday and also fell in love with the place. He in fact made the decision that he wanted to live out there for a while and he ended up being a sports journalist for Agence France Presse as he settled down and married.
But I used to go out and stay with him doing my paintings every year and that was my first introduction to the village.
So did you slowly get involved with village life and the people?
I started by drawing in the café and I would draw the local characters who would give me drinks, and the drawings would become more outrageous as the drinks flowed.
It was a wonderful introduction to the locals who sorted of adopted me, they were very helpful and they loved what I did. I find that the French appreciate their artists more than English people do.
In 1981 after drawing the surrounding area, I drew the oldest house in the village, which was a forge, and dated from the 16th century, with two stone pillars it supported two small apartments above.
Ten years later when it came up for sale I had no alternative but to buy it and ended up spending three times as much as I’d paid for it to restore it, and the old forge I converted into my studio and with the living accommodation above it has become a great source of pleasure and inspiration ever since.
So do you work with other artists in the area?
Well I have an exhibition every year in the studio and also in the tourist office, as well as publish prints and postcards, which fortunately sell well in the area.
But I’ve also worked with other villages who want me to do something for them and work with the local commerçants.
Although the thing about the postcards, despite them going out of fashion due to mobile phones, is they capture the view over the years of some of the buildings, for example, when I painted an old café it unfortunately burnt down but the painting is still a record of how it was.
Many of the people I drew when I first arrived are now dead but they live on in the paintings and woodcuts I’ve done of them.
What adventures have you had when trying to set up your easel and get on with your work?
I remember when the local television company wanted to do a piece about my work and wanted to film in the local café I’d arranged four card players to assemble in the village and the word had got around the television crew was coming.
But only three of my friends had turned up so we had to commandeer someone to fill in and half way through the filming the missing card player turned up and we asked where he’d been.
He said that he had to go and get his hair cut because of the filming. And then the journalist interviewed the stand in card player asking him what he thought about my work, he replied "I’ve never met him before in my life".
It was during the Journées du patrimone, when all the historic châteaux and buildings are open for public access, and the programme was tied up with a piece at the nearby Château de Longpra because I had put on an exhibition of my drawings for the Klaus Barbie trial in Lyon.
So with all that publicity the château enjoyed one of its busiest days with around 2,000 visitors.
Can you tell us more about your career providing illustrations and court images for national and international news organisations?
It can be very distressing when you are hearing the detail of a trial, the Klaus Barbie one was very harrowing.
I’d done court drawings in England for the first time as at the time artists weren’t allowed into court, but that was because I was working for CBS News. And so I was able to cover the Yorkshire Ripper trial, and you still can’t draw in court so you have to come outside and rely on your memory and any notes you’ve made, ironic really when courts have to be places of accuracy.
But working in Europe for CBS News I covered terrorist trials, and in France you are allowed to draw in court, which is what I did for the Klaus Barbie trial. It is like being in a studio with the models in front of you, drawing to your heart’s content.
When I was in Baghdad covering the court’s martial of the American soldiers at Abu Ghraib the pressure was enormous as I was the only artist and drawing for the world.
I was working with crayon and watercolour and splashing the page with colour and the drawings would be grabbed as soon as I’d finished, still wet through, but by the time they’d placed them in front of the camera they’d just about dried.
Was was life in Baghdad like especially considering it was one of the most difficult and dangerous times in Iraq?
The day I’d arrived one of the government ministers had been blown up and we went past his burnt out vehicle. It brought you very much back down to earth.
When we flew in with one of the few airlines able to we flew into Baghdad Airport you could see all the military aircraft on the ground as black shapes on the runway.
We started doing circles going round and round, it was a bit like waiting for your slot over Heathrow, but I thought we are on the only airline flying to Baghdad so there wasn’t much traffic.
All of a sudden the plane dropped like a stone, I’d never been in a plane that went down at such a steep angle and landed. When we came to rest I asked what was all that about, and was told that was the technique used to avoid ground to air missiles.
Back in France are you able to split your time quite evenly between there and London?
I tend to cross La Manche six or eight time a year as I occasionally work for newspapers and show my work at exhibitions.
But the fact that I go into France each time means I see it fresh and I get excited, work incredibly hard and come back with all the information.
I feel if I was living out there all the time, a week would become a month, and I wouldn’t work so energetically, I like that variety and contrast.
THE COMPETITION HAS NOW CLOSED
Richard has offered as a competition prize a print of his painting La Partie de Boules (click thumbnail image), all you need to do is leave a message below, something like 'please enter me into the competition' is all that is needed, but make sure your email address is correct.
I'll then pick a message at random as the winner. Closing date for the competition is
March 14 March 15, 2008 at 11am Paris time.
And there is a story behind the painting which features a game of boules outside the 12th century church of Saint Geoire en Valdaine in Isère.
It shows a group of local enthusiasts Richard has know for years.
These include the parish priest smoking his pipe, who once had a drink problem and as a penance wore a sleeveless shirt throughout the year and also slept with his bedroom window wide open.
The player holding the measuring stick is married to the lady sitting watching on the bench and the local sister is greeting a mother and child.
Sadly the boules alley is no longer since Richard painted the picture in 1983. The players have been forced to move away for extra parking to be provided in the church square, and the furthest plane tree has died.
Such is the eternal dominance of the motor car.
Richard Cole has produced profiles and political cartoons for national newspapers and illustrations for BBC TV's Tonight, and Panorama programmes and Channel 4 News. He has established a studio in the village of Saint Geoire en Valdaine and published a Hidden France Collection of artwork, view more of his work on his website.
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Please enter me into the competition for the very interesting painting -- reminds me very much of a game I watched on a warm, late September day in Cucuron, Provence, a few years ago. I did not, however, have the pleasure of knowing the people who were playing and watching.
Posted by: Laurel Brown | 07 March 2008 at 03:54
Please enter me into the competition. How sad that the boules alley has given away to car parking, but thanks to Richard's painting it will live on.
Posted by: Susie Kelly | 07 March 2008 at 07:47
I’d love to win a print of this splendid picture. What marvellous paintings Richard Cole produces. They really capture the essence of country life in France which is sadly disappearing from some of the villages. When we first moved to our village we could see only the roofs of two other properties - now it's becoming like a housing estate, just the kind of thing that we moved here to avoid.
Posted by: Glenis Bartle | 07 March 2008 at 10:58
Please enter me in the competition. Like many of Richard's paintings this seems to capture exactly what we all love about France without defining exactly what we love.
Posted by: Matt Docherty | 10 March 2008 at 13:45
Please enter me in the competition. It is sad to read that this site has changed so much over the years. The wonderful reproduction of the scene though will live on in peoples memories and portrays the essence of France which we all love.
Posted by: Jenny Stannard | 12 March 2008 at 10:16
Please enter me in the competition. Love this interview, especially the story behind La Partie des Boules. Alas, the demise of the boules alley for parking is all too typical of our definition of "progress."
Posted by: Debbi Damico | 12 March 2008 at 10:32
And me! Yes, I've seen boules players often displaced by the storage of building materials or car parking. But thanks for the memories - and the inspiration to conserve and improve.
Posted by: Kevin Donovan | 12 March 2008 at 10:54
please enter me into the competition. this would be an ideal gift for my wife, in May I will be taking her for her first visit to France.
Posted by: Brian Sandison | 12 March 2008 at 11:42
Please enter me in the competition for Richard's wonderful painting. He captures life as it is lived in France. His views of country life are essential memories in an ever-changing world.
Posted by: Denise Singleton | 12 March 2008 at 13:04
Please enter me in the competition. I love France and hope to live there one day.
Posted by: Joeann Millard | 12 March 2008 at 13:34
I would love to win 'La Partie de Boules'. Having now spent six months working on our new home here in Normandy, we have just got to the decorating stage and it would fit in parfaitement. Besides, it's our 44th wedding anniversary this month and I haven't had time to get my wife a present yet, so it could save my life - what better reason?
Posted by: Ken Appleby | 12 March 2008 at 13:49
Please enter me into the competition. Lovely picture, damn shame about the car parking:-(
Posted by: Janet Davies | 12 March 2008 at 14:12
These pictures really do capture of France and its people.
Posted by: tony | 12 March 2008 at 17:30
I am 62yr old artist living in New zealand dreaming of your life and the day i can pack my brushes and live a time in France.AUVOIR Wayne
Posted by: wayne webster | 13 March 2008 at 00:04
Please enter me into the competition. This painting reminds me of a game I used to play with my grandfather when I was a child. He even wore a hat like the men in the picture! It would be lovely to display in my home. But no matter who wins this painting, it will brighten up someone's home! Thank you for your generousity
Posted by: Lauren | 13 March 2008 at 01:50
Remembering John F Kennedy's comment:
'Everyone has two countries, their own and France'
Posted by: Patrick O'Connell | 13 March 2008 at 08:19
Please enter me in the competition because I really like the print.
Posted by: Bruce | 13 March 2008 at 11:08
Please enter me into the competition. I would love to win a copy of this painting, it reminds me of many happy holidays spent in France. My dream is to own my own house there someday, and to be able to watch people playing boules again for real. The painting would remind me of my aim when I am finding it hard to get up the enthusiasm for the traffic jams in England on a monday morning.
Posted by: Lorraine Randell | 13 March 2008 at 15:27
the same as all the previous comments ,unfortunately we can only visit twice/three times a year and such a lovely print would constantly remind us of great times1
Posted by: robert harvison | 13 March 2008 at 19:10
Entry to comp.
Posted by: John Kelly | 13 March 2008 at 19:26
Entry to comp.
Posted by: Elaine Kelly | 13 March 2008 at 19:27
Please enter me into the competition. We have lived in France for some years and still love it.The picture is so typical of the village life which is disappearing fast sadly.
Posted by: Dawn Courtney-Coles | 14 March 2008 at 06:41
Please enter me into the competition
Posted by: Paul Pledger | 14 March 2008 at 09:00
Please enter me in the competition, a wonderful picture.
Posted by: Derek Arkwright | 14 March 2008 at 09:33
Please enter me in the competition, thank you!
Posted by: Simon Collinge | 14 March 2008 at 21:20
Please enter me in the competition
Posted by: kathrine krogulec | 14 March 2008 at 21:24
Please enter me for this print please. We bought a set of boules last year and have had great fun with them. A lovely game to play on a summer evening in the garden with(with wine of course)
Posted by: Ursula Bingham | 14 March 2008 at 22:23
Please enter me into your competition to win this beautiful painting that would certainly bring a piece of France to my living room.
Posted by: Alan Johnson | 15 March 2008 at 00:01
The competition has now CLOSED and thanks to my random number generator comment number 18 from Lorraine, posted on Mar 13 was the winner.
Many thanks to everyone who left a message and it's clear Robert's paintings have captured the hearts of many.
All the best
Posted by: Craig McGinty | 15 March 2008 at 10:33