Places: Goudhurst 1963-70, Near Benenden 1970-74, Iden Green 1974-78
‘It was Kent that engaged my feelings more fiercely than any other place I can remember’, said the American artist Alfred Cohen. He had been born in Chicago, and served as a navigator in the US Army Air Force during the war. He returned to study at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he won a travelling fellowship which took him to Paris for a year. He stayed for a decade. After a couple of successful exhibitions in London, he moved there in 1960, producing a breakthrough series of large shimmering paintings of the Thames, followed by another sell-out exhibition of pictures on the theme of the Commedia dell’Arte.

In 1963, Cohen and his second wife Diana were looking for a studio. They drove to Kent to visit architect friends who had just bought an old mill near Goudhurst. On the way back they drove past a striking coach house of a grand Queen Anne-style red-brick mansion called Ballards, on the road to Horsmonden. The Coach House was for sale, and its stables offered plenty of studio space under the coachman’s quarters.

‘We drove to the estate agent’s office and bought it immediately, Diana Cohen recalled: ‘We then drove back to explore the nearby village of Goudhurst – which we hadn’t yet seen – and there we found one of the prettiest villages in Kent. We were enchanted’.

Alfred started painting the landscape immediately, but it was a new challenge, and he realized he would need to transform his technique:

‘What hit me was an incredible feeling of privacy. Driving along a country road I felt the hedges crowding in on me. The leaves were so thick that they were like a wall. We passed a hedge-cutter and he glared at us as if we’d interrupted some ritual. Then he stepped down into the ditch and disappeared as though he’d been absorbed by the landscape. Everything was so impenetrably, all-over green that I could think of no way of getting into it as a painter. The way I’d been working simply wouldn’t do.’

From the mid-1960s Cohen’s paintings became more heavily worked, with increased impasto; many of the effects achieved by working the paint with a palette knife. As journalist Philip Oakes explained: ‘He evolved a new style, using paint like a sculptor, laying down slabs of colour, carving it with his brush so that the fields and hedges and houses seemed to be hewn from the canvas’.

Cohen’s British landscapes were well-received, with critics continuing to praise his compositional intelligence. ‘He uses the inter-relationship of houses, trees, fields and roads as excitingly as any abstract painter’, said the Jewish Chronicle, adding that ‘the pictures are intensely alive both as paint and as nature’.

To the Connoisseur, his ‘landscapes had the look of ancient stained glass’. Pictures on Exhibit said: ‘There are very few artists of today’s generation with the ability to synthesise the quality of 20th Century Ecole de l’Europe in the sense that the late impressionists and the post-impressionists did it for their epoch. Alfred Cohen is one of them, and maybe this explains his success with a wide category of collectors. Their enthusiasm is unstinting … These are recognizably contemporary paintings. Cézanne’s tough palette is neatly handled and we are charmed without experiencing for a split-second any doubt that these are really good paintings … There are few enough painters like him nowadays; hardly one capable of capturing the British scene in such an attractive and authoritative way.

In 1970 they sold the Coach House and moved eight miles away to a house off the road between Sissinghurst and Biddenden, just opposite Sissinghurst Castle, where Virginia Woolf’s lover Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson had lived, and made the gardens famous. Copden House was at this time a small gamekeeper’s cottage. It was built of attractive red brick alternating with black header bricks to make a chequered pattern. It was set in the middle of its own woodland of some nine-acres, with a long drive down from the road. At the other end the birch trees led down to a stream, with trout and even otters. They had felt Goudhurst was becoming increasingly suburbanised; Copden wood was remote and inaccessible; nobody was going to build near it. There was an old outbuilding that had originally been a game larder.

Copden House had been part of the Cornwallis estate. The second Baron Cornwallis had been the Lord Lieutenant of Kent and had used it as a shooting or hunting lodge. Alfred decided the game larder would make a good studio. So the first thing they did was convert that so that he could work while they were doing up the rest of the house, which needed plenty of work. He enjoyed visualising how to bring out a house’s full potential, and making sketches for the architects and builders to realise.

Cohen continued to show in London’s West End galleries, but the country now provided his main subjects. While in France he had painted the Channel ports. In Kent, he returned to the Channel coastline, now seen from both sides.

Creative conversions were to become a sideline. In the mid-70s the Cohens moved again. This time they had bought an unusual oast house – with a solitary, square oast – and eighteenth-century barn near Iden Green and Benenden. These were unconverted farm buildings, so they moved into another house in Iden Green, which they had converted but been unable to sell because of the property market crash. Scullsgate Oast, their new home, was nestled in a secluded corner, well off a very quiet lane. The house had many charming features, especially the beautiful views of the nearby sheep fields. But it proved a greater challenge than they’d imagined. Though the beams of the barn were still sound, they had no foundations, so builders had to dig underneath the frame and fill trenches with concrete. The roof and cladding all needed replacing, and there were no facilities. It was like building a very large new house, only with the inconvenience of having to do it round the old oak structure. But it made a marvellous, dramatic open space, perfect for a large studio. They put in a balcony and a bathroom above, adjoining the master-bedroom in the top of the oast.

Unfortunately they were not able to finish the conversion before they ran out of money, and were forced to sell it in 1978, and say goodbye to Kent. This time they found an old school house in Wighton, Norfolk, just inland from Wells-next-the-Sea, and determined to do it up much more slowly. They discovered later that it was where Henry Moore had lived when he was an art student. In 1983, Diana opened the prestigious School House Gallery there, showing not only Moore himself, but many other modern masters including Hockney, Eric Gill, David Jones, and a number of up-and-coming Norfolk artists.

You can hear Professor Max Saunders talking about Alfred Cohen on the Kent Maps Online YouTube channel: Coastal Landscapes in Ford Madox Ford and Alfred Cohen


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