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.