In 1977, with 2 travel companions, I walked into a small art gallery in Cornwall and saw my first Fred Yates painting.
‘Is the artist local, could we meet him?’
‘Please come, visit me tomorrow, Fowey is not far away.’
Fred happily showed us his paintings and his beloved Cornwall, hiking or bumping along in our Kombivan for the next few days. We realized we had met someone special. After an extra two days, we reluctantly departed. Fred insisted I accept an oil painting as a parting gift – of a house in Devon, now hanging near our front door.
It was a memorable start to a close and enduring friendship. Over the 30 years to follow, my partner Burt and I visited Fred in various parts of England and France.
Arriving in Rancon, France, after a horrendous travel day, Fred shows us our upstairs bed-room – the bed made up in the most exquisite antique bed-linen – a remarkable gesture from a man who shunned material possessions-
often his houses contained no more than 1 plate, 1 cup, 1 knife, etc…
After we’d gone to bed, we hear the shutters and windows being closed – and Fred, in the room below us, starts playing an old, slightly out of tune upright piano and singing sentimental Edwardian ballads and love songs. And did so several other nights – ‘it relaxes me’. ‘
Why close the house up before playing, Fred?’
‘Well, I don’t want to disturb the neighbours,’ – was the reply.
The following morning, Burt was still in bed at 7.30 a.m.
‘Where’s Burt?’. ‘Still in bed, Fred.’. ‘Well, that’s a little inconvenient’, came his reply. Fred had his paint bag packed. It was time to scour the country-side for wildflowers, ruins, vistas, etc. Burt was dressed in less than 2 minutes. Thus began another long walk, often all day. Even in his late 70’s, Fred had the constitution of the proverbial ox. That paint bag was heavy!
A ‘little walk’ turned into an all-day marathon. Fred would disappear in the bushes and fossick for plastic water bottles he’d hidden around the whole Cap Ferrat coast –‘I might like to do a water – colour here.’
He did, many of them, and they will remain beautiful.
He subsequently sent me, for my 50th., a joyously serene oil painting of the Cap ‘ where we swam and you bought me an ice-cream’ inscribed on the back.
When visiting him in England – again, the one plate, one cup, etc.- after happy reunion hugs, we walked across to his neighbour’s, were introduced and the kettle went on for a cuppa. The neighbours seemed quite unfazed and were obviously fond of Fred. A stunning little Fred Yates hung above the fire-place. We surmised that Fred might have done this before!
He was a most generous man, in so many ways.
As we write this, we’re looking at a small mountain of letters from Fred, going back to even before Fred became ‘collectable’.
Fred was never comfortable talking about his work – best not to analyse too much, might destroy whatever it was that got him there – in front of his easel, doing what he did so well. He was aware he was doing well and he was modest in the knowing of it.
Surprisingly, his letters were more forthcoming, both about his work and his life. He had devoted his life to his art, yet was acutely aware of the consequences of this devotion. But it’s safe to say that he was at peace with the choices he felt he had to make.
One last memory of our time in Rancon
On a gloriously sunny Sunday, Fred decides to ‘paint’ his garden. Enormous tubes of primary colours are emptied next to each other, the empty tubes flicked over his shoulder into the garden shed. Seven hours of quiet focus later, a true beauty emerged. He took it inside, leant it facing the wall, some of the paint as thick as one’s finger.
‘Are you happy with your day’s work, Fred?’
‘ I never look at it when it’s finished. I don’t know what I’ve created until I look at it the next day.’
He allowed us to take a series of photos that day, from empty canvass to one of his best.
‘ Those photos are for your eyes only.’
‘ Of course, Fred.’
In our last ‘phone conversation in June, he was talking about staying with us in Melbourne later in the year. What he would have made of our great southern light…
To look at his paintings now is to see Fred the man, our friend, as beautiful as his paintings and the times we spent together. He’ll do alright, wherever he is now.
Fred’s wonderful work will speak for him. We miss him.
Lee Visser Burt Cooper