The departure of Beryl Cook from Plymouth has got everyone worried. Ms Cook is taking her easel to Bristol to be nearer her grandchildren. So it's farewell to the Dolphin pub, the Elvira Cafe and the rest of the port's low life. Fans worry that the artist will be lost without the fat ladies, dockers and boozers of the city's rougher pubs - for they have been her singular inspiration in a career that must have sold a million birthday cards.
As many other artists have appreciated, place is everything. Indeed, it is surprising how often their work refers again and again to the same locality. LS Lowry would have been nobody without the tall chimneys and industrialised population of Salford. The mature work of Toulouse-Lautrec depended for its vitality on the sleazy cafes and dance clubs of late 19th-century Paris. Constable's work grew out of the Suffolk landscape. Likewise, Vermeer, when not pondering the beauty of young ladies posing beside windows, was preoccupied with his native Delft. The work of the 18th-century artists Francesco Guardi and Canaletto was rooted in the light and scenes of Venetian life.
"An artist can see infinite variety in the same scene," argues Alan Windsor, the art historian. "The light changes, as do the people, the time of day, the weather. All these aspects are transformed, even as a place remains the same in essence. So an artist may never be bored, always finding something else in a scene."
Dr Windsor, editor of the forthcoming Handbook of Modern British Painting and Printmaking (Scolar Press), says that many British painters feel this same sense of commitment to place. Frank Auerbach, for example, is a member of what RB Kitaj once called "the school of London", a group of artists whose careers are devoted to evoking the shabbier, seamier side of the city. For the past 20 years, he has wandered Camden Town most days, drawing and returning to his studio to paint.
"Frank is more interested in the differences made by changes in light than in drawing new scenes," says Nicola Togneri of Marlborough Fine Art, which sells his work. Lucian Freud's views from bedsits around Islington belong to the same London movement, as do Ruskin Spear's wonderful pub scenes set in Hammersmith. Likewise Carel Weight, who died last year, spent much of his time creating marvellous pictures evoking the atmosphere of Putney Hill and its large Edwardian brick houses with people scuttling around. Tom Phillips has, over a couple of decades, photographed a view from the same place in Peckham on the same day of the year. Thus he has produced a fascinating narrative of change.
Attachment to place does not, however, always relate simply to the environment. The St Ives group of artists, who gathered there in the Twenties and Thirties, did so because of a fascination with the Cornish landscape. The influence of the countryside can be seen in the work of Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, who spoke of how the shape of the landscape, the short distance between sea and cliffed land, was important to her. However, many of these artists came to St Ives to be with their contemporaries as much as to experience the wildness of Penzance.
The repetitive nature of artists does not only refer to particular places. The same people can find themselves repeatedly the subjects of an artist's work, as some Plymouth folk have discovered, thanks to Beryl Cook's attentions. Lucian Freud has famously painted 15 large portraits of Leigh Bowery, as well as making many drawings and etchings of his model.
"Freud always paints people he knows," says Camilla Jackson, curator of exhibitions at the Tate Gallery, Liverpool. "He likes to establish a relationship. He spent weeks drawing Leigh Bowery, getting deeper and deeper."
In a similar manner Alberto Giacometti used his wife and his brother Diego hundreds of times in painted and sculpted portraits. Francis Bacon stuck to a small group of friends such as Irene Rawsthorne, while the Royal Academicians Jean Cooke and John Bratby, who lived in Camberwell, obsessively painted self-portraits and each other. Rembrandt would have understood such obsession, given his own preference for painting himself, his wife, Henricke, and son, Titus.
Jasper Johns provides an interesting amalgamation of obsession with place and person. His work refers again and again to Marcel Duchamp, the French- American painter and sculptor. Duchamp pioneered the idea of taking found everyday objects and placing them inside a piece of work, so turning it into art. Much of his material is exhibited in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where Johns spends a great deal of time. In a piece called The Seasons, Johns makes one of his many references to Duchamp by including a profile of the man who has so inspired him.
So is it possible for an artist to change successfully, having been committed to one subject - be it place or set of individuals? The answer, in general, seems to be "yes". Walter Sickert, the English townscape artist, did much of his work in the late 19th and early 20th centuries around London, but he also went to Dieppe, where he painted some of the city's most famous views, notably the Cafe de Tribunaux. Van Gogh may be identified with Arles, but he drew inspiration from many other parts of France. And Gauguin, having been identified with Van Gogh, went through a startling transformation when he visited Polynesia and set aside the earthy tone of previous works in favour of bright colours, ethnic scenes and the Fauvist style he claimed to have invented.
But for some artists, particularly those forced to leave their native environment, change can destroy their creativity. Dr Windsor notes the fate of George Grosz, a German painter who was violently satirical during the period of the Weimar Republic and intensely opposed to Hitler. "He had to get out, and ended up in America," says Dr Windsor. "After that there was nothing much to his work, which seemed to lose its vitality."
The same, he says, is true of Kurt Schwitters, the German Dadaist. "He was also forced to leave Germany and came to England for the rest of his life. He settled in Ambleside in the Lake District. But he never again produced the same volume and quality of work. In the Twenties and Thirties, he had made collages using refuse such as bus tickets and stamps on canvas to create quirky compositions, which were rated highly. He lived happily in Britain, but somehow the experience of being displaced damaged his work."
Beryl Cook is, however, leaving by choice - to be closer to her family. We have yet to see whether the move provides her with fresh inspiration, perhaps leading to a dramatic change in style, a la Gauguin. Who knows, she might even start painting thin people.
If, however, she wishes to stick to her established style, there will, at least, be no shortage of inspiration in Bristol. "I hear there are pubs for rockers and leather pubs," she says. "What more can one ask for?"Reuse content