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Things I would have asked Fred Cuming


Fred Cuming NEAC RA (1930-2022) photograph: John Cole


I wish I had met Fred Cuming. For decades I'd admired his work at the annual RA Summer Show. Light and breezy is how it seemed to me, often with a low horizon and towering cloudscape above. Fred Cuming knew from Constable that clouds were 'the chief organ of sentiment' in a landscape painting, and he was a master of East Sussex/Kentish coast and estuarine landscape.


Some years later, a painting student I was tutoring said that he was a fan of Fred Cuming's work. The student, whose name I now forget, was a quiet, almost monosyllabic individual, and his admiration was admitted almost bashfully as he avoided my gaze behind long, dark eyelashes. I think we were both as surprised as each other - he, at discovering that I shared his enthusiasm for Cuming's work, and me, amazement that he had even heard of a painter who was 60 or 70 years his senior.


Gradually, in the way that things have a habit of linking up over time, I discovered that Fred Cuming and I had both grown up in the same area of South East London. There must have been some memories we could have talked about if only I had met him. One of my earliest was being taken on the Woolwich Ferry when my mother allowed me below deck to watch the well-oiled brass engine pistons sliding back and forth. The muddy, sewage-smelling Thames waters I remember so well were the same ones sketched by the young Cuming from the deck of that ferry. And Sidcup Art school, well, that was just down the road from where I grew up in Eltham.


I continued to ponder these things in imagined conversations with Fred, wondering whether he still spoke with a South London accent. When I retired, I bought a tiny studio flat in Folkestone to use occasionally when I needed to be near to London. I knew that Fred must be living somewhere not too far away. He had painted Sheerness and Camber Sands, after all. But by the time I had discovered his address and given thought to contacting him to possibly arrange a studio visit, it was, alas, too late. There's a lesson there, somewhere.


Fred Cuming NEAC RA. Bonfire, Angel of the South 2 (c) Fred Cuming Estate photo: NEAC



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