Gary Cook at The Art Stable

LANDSCAPE artist Gary Cook, whose work is infused with a deep sense of the fragility of the environment, has a solo show, Wend: the Stour from Source to Sea, at The Art Stable at Gold Hill Farm, Child Okeford, from 11th June to 9th July.

Based in Dorset, Gary’s career began in newspapers. After training at the Arts University Bournemouth, he became the senior artist and associate editor at The Sunday Times for more than 25 years, working on every major news story with journalists including Jon Swain and the late Marie Colvin. He is now a full-time painter, and a member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours and The Arborealists.

The 30 watercolours in the new exhibition celebrate the 61-mile journey of the Stour from its source – at Stourhead in Wiltshire – to the English Channel, via Christchurch Harbour.

Gary says: “Only through researching the project did I realise why the wonderful Stourhead estate is so called, it marks the spot where the river starts. As it wends through Dorset, many villages are named in its honour: West Stour, Stourpaine, Stourton, Stour Provost, Sturminster Newton, illustrating how our ancestors instinctively appreciated its vital role in our lives.

“I’ve painted its twisting course as it falls 750ft from where it bubbles up as a stream that you can walk over in Wiltshire to the 200ft-wide flowing force that joins the sea at Christchurch Harbour, showcasing its beauty and its environmental importance. There are 48 tributaries that make up the 781 miles of rivers and streams feeding the river which have given me many beautiful views to set my easel up at.”

But the journey also revealed the changes and challenges this important river is facing, says the artist: “Through lots of research it’s sad to register how the river has changed. For example, salmon were once so plentiful that up to the 1960s fishermen hand hauled nets in Christchurch Harbour and that even 30 miles up the river a 40lb salmon was caught. Fisherman’s tale? Maybe, but it’s unimaginable that a fish of that size could be caught there today.”

Gary’s paintings include silhouettes and names of the many species he sees that are dependent on the river and which are sadly threatened by pollution. “The story that’s causing a stink at the moment is that water companies in England discharged raw sewage into rivers 372,533 times for a total of more than 2.7m hours in 2021. Our local company, Wessex Water, legally discharged sewage 23,532 times. A recent parliamentary report concluded that, ‘There are no rivers in England that can be given a clean bill of health.’

“And yet……I said to my friend visiting from London ‘We might see an otter,’ as we walked along the river in the centre of Blandford Forum in the middle of the afternoon. ‘But probably not. You have to get here at dawn really.’……Cue otter. A sign that we can turn this situation around.”