Neil Stokoe was born in Durham on 10 December 1935. He studied painting, first at Sunderland School of Art, then after a two-year gap for National Service, he took up a place at the Royal College of Art, alongside a roster of illustrious contemporaries - including David Hockney - during what has come to be known as the RCA’s "Golden Years".

After graduating, he exhibited infrequently, before being "rediscovered" to critical acclaim in the final decade of his life. For over 30 years, Neil also lectured painting part-time at Wimbledon School of Art, touching the minds of innumerable younger artists. He passed away on 30 June 2019 after battling liver cancer.

We spoke with Jack Stokoe, son of artist and RCA alumni Neil Stokoe, to learn a little more about his father and his work and to discover what was happening during the Golden Years of the RCA.

Can you tell us about your father’s early life to establish a context for his decision to become a painter?

Like Hockney, Neil was a northerner, who instinctively migrated south in pursuit of culture and opportunity. He grew up in Bowburn, a small mining village in county Durham, which was badly scarred from the vast losses of loved ones during the First World War. Neil was proud of his northern roots, but also proud to have transcended them. Nevertheless, he maintained northern personality traits such as pessimism, stoicism, asceticism and a mischievous, sardonic sense of humour.

Neil’s father didn’t work in the mines, but he oversaw the storage of explosives used in them – a dangerous job in which the threat of death was ever-present. His mother was socially ambitious, and somehow managed to find the money to send him as a "day boy" to Durham School, in the hope that he would pursue a career in medicine, or some other similarly respectable profession.

Although Neil was academically gifted and had an aptitude for the sciences – he went on to receive the highest mark in his cohort for the National Service exam – his passion resided within the arts, and he already knew that he wanted to become a painter.

He was advised by his tutor at Durham School to apply to study painting at Camberwell College of Art, which at the time was considered one of the best and most innovative art schools in the country. Neil was offered a place on the course, but was unable to take it up. Funding restrictions around locality meant that he had to attend his local art school in Sunderland instead.

Neil always described it as “one of the best decisions that was ever made for me.” He felt that he benefited greatly from the ethos of openness to individual inquiry upheld by the college, and always remained critical of institutions that sought to stamp their own "house style" on students’ work.

In 1959, Neil took up a place at the Royal College of Art (RCA), in what has come to be known as the "golden year" due to the quality of the artists that emerged from the college at that time. Can you tell us about some of his experiences there?

Prior to taking up his place at the RCA, Neil completed two years of National Service, which was something he remained both affected by and proud of in the later years of life. He chose to be stationed closer to London, so that he could take leave in the city and experience the culture and nightlife, which also meant he was well prepared for the transition to resume his study painting there.

Neil’s contemporaries at the RCA included David Hockney, Patrick Caulfield, Ron Kiaji, Allen Jones and Frank Bowling. Among other things, the RCA was an important hub in the reaction of a new wave of British artists to the developments in Pop Art and post-Abstract Expressionism, which had recently taken place in New York.

Neil’s work occupied a liminal position in these developments. He pioneered several tropes closely associated with the period, while simultaneously exploring darker influences from outside the milieu, such as the work of Francis Bacon, with whom he became friends during his time at the RCA. They used to get steak breakfast together and Neil felt privileged to get to know the quieter, sober and reflective side of Bacon’s character. Neil lived in a geographical location distinct to his peers, eschewing the fashionable bohemian enclave of Notting Hill, for the then-grittier realities of Clapham Junction.

Although Kiaji was the first to receive serious critical acclaim, Hockney always stood out from his peers, and Neil was struck by the younger man’s aura of self-possession, flamboyance and grasp of the role of theatrics in garnering attention for his work. Both were singled out for excellence at the RCA – Hockney was awarded the Golden Medal for his studio work, while Neil received the other Golden Medal for his thesis on Kandinsky’s use of colour. Decades later, Neil could still recall Hockney, with his hair bleached blonde, wearing an Elvis-style Gold Lame suit to collect his medal at the awards ceremony to rapturous applause. 

Neil’s archive as a totality remains underexposed. How did your father’s work evolve over the decades? Were there distinct periods and styles? 

Neil’s paintings from the 1960s and 70s frequently depicted psychologically-charged interior spaces, with the figures who inhabited them exhibiting a curious sense of alienation and detachment from one another. They were pictorially complex, rendered in a highly saturated and idiosyncratic, unearthly colour pallet. These pictures were clearly relatable to the period and milieu in which they were painted, but in their darker psychological undercurrents, also constituted a notable departure from it.

His work from the 1980s and 90s became freer, increasingly experimental and expressive, with thicker and more gestural paintwork. Similar subjects and motifs were rendered impasto, expunged of the chromatic excess which had characterised his earlier work. Natural forms and landscapes, unexplored since his student years, began to resurface and reassert themselves as a pictorial interest, often refigured into natural-architectural spaces, such as mazes and gardens.

From the 2000s onwards, Neil’s work grew steadily darker and more sombre, in stark contrast to his contemporaries from the RCA. His paintings were frequently monotone or constructed around a restricted pallet, and increasingly featured violent or morbid imagery. He became preoccupied with creating depictions of suffering, which evoked “man’s inhumanity to man”, the impermanence of life, and presaged a final reckoning with death.

More abstractly, spiral staircases, which had been a recurring motif and formal device recurrent in his work, went from intricate complex forms, to monolithic modernist structures. The paintwork was increasingly thin and stripped back, with the dividing line between overpainting and underpainting preserved, but rendered uncertain.

Having said all of that, there are numerous pictorial future-echoes and recursions which permeate Neil’s work, when viewed with the optics of a sufficient timespan. Exploring these has been one of the most fascinating and rewarding aspects of archiving his work following his death last year.

This all sounds very intriguing… 

Neil created a unique, individual body of figurative painting, which came out of the familiar RCA milieu but was cultivated in comparative darkness, obscurity and relative isolation from subsequent trends and fashions. He felt that this enabled him to exact a high level of quality control concerning what he preserved for the world to see, and that it afforded him a certain protection from anything contingent or superficial going on in the art world. As a consequence, it is only now posthumously, that his work is beginning to receive the acknowledgment and acclaim it deserves.

Neil Stokoe’s work channels the same figurative aesthetic that Hockney became known for. The mid-century art movement was incredibly stylised, something both Neil and Hockney have in abundance: style. Although quieter, less ‘flashy’ than Hockney, Neil’s work shows the same modern, fresh style that stands the test of time, with a dark undercurrent. Not known really out with art circles, Neil’s work, stories and days at the RCA help understand why the RCA was known as the ‘Golden Years’.

Our Main Gallery exhibition David Hockney: Ways of Working was sadly cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But you can still get your mid-century art fix by exploring the exhibition online.