Artist James Cockburn first visited the Loire Valley 30 years ago and for the past decade he and his wife Flora have found inspiration in their home department of Indre-et-Loire, as Deborah Curtis discovers.
The Loire Valley’s landscape, architecture and people have been a rich and varied inspiration to artist James Cockburn for nearly three decades. He and his wife Flora first came to the region with friends in 1983.
“My friend is an artist and had bought a little place in what is now our next village,” says James. “They invited us to stay and we came here and immediately fell in love with the place.”
That initial visit was the start of a 30-year connection with Touraine, the ancient province which now encompasses the modern departments of Indre-et-Loire, Loir-et-Cher and Indre. A painter and potter by vocation and a teacher by profession, James began bringing school groups on regular painting trips as well as coming with Flora for frequent holidays.
“We just kept on coming down here,” says James, who trained at St Martin’s School of Art. “We used to bring groups of kids down and I thought it would be great to have a place here with a bit more space. The whole place just seemed perfect for painting and we had a brilliant time.” By 1990, James had had international exhibitions in London, Madrid, Majorca and also Tours, and was considering leaving the teaching profession to become an artist full-time. Instead, he took a job as head of art at Canford School, near Wimborne, in Dorset. The job came with a house and suddenly the couple had the funds to buy a place in France. There was no question about where they should buy.
“We had thrown in our lot with this area and when we saw this place, we thought: ‘This is just perfect.’ And it is perfect; it’s always been perfect,” says James. “It’s right on the edge of a village so it’s very quiet. It’s got stacks of room and it had buildings that we could do up.”
The house, a traditional long�re on the outskirts of the pretty village of Loch�-sur-Indrois, also came with a separate cottage – La Maison Rose – which James and Flora let out. “We did up the cottage and let it out as a g�te,” says James. “Initially, that was quite difficult from afar but we managed it and then we’d come here every holiday – six times a year – sometimes on our own and sometimes with groups.
“Gradually the place has developed and we were able to buy a bit of land next door and I built a swimming pool and now it’s really beautiful. We have everything that anybody could ever want.”
Over the years, the couple have filled their home with original art created both by James and other members of the family.
“My three grown-up stepchildren are all artists,” says James. “And although my wife’s real passion is cooking, she is also an artist. She was really good at it so our place has also got work by her around, like the rugs and the curtains; and my stepdaughter makes cushions so we’ve got her cushions around too. I made all the tiles behind the cooker and we eat off my plates, so it is really our house. It’s not your average run-of-the-mill place at all.”
In 2002, their cottage was spotted by a representative from Alistair Sawday’s Special Places to Stay and they became one of the six original entries for the Loire in the first of the now famous guides. “Now of course there are masses of us,” says James. “But we’re still in it and people still come and rent the cottage for holidays. We recently had some Aussies who came for eight weeks.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of their visitors are artists and James is more than happy to show fellow painters the best local places to set up their easels or to join them in one of the journ�es des peintres painting competitions, which take place in nearby Montr�sor. “We often have really good artists staying in the cottage and I don’t think twice about going painting with them if they want to go out,” says James.
The couple now have five grandchildren aged between five and 12 and they all love to come to stay – not least because they are enthusiastic potters and are often to be found with James in the studio.
“They love it here,” says James. “They all come into the studio with me and spend their time making stuff and I can help them. It’s perfect.”
And James often invites guests to try their hand as well. “One of the wonderful things about teaching pottery is that everybody loves doing it,” he says. “They get such pleasure out of seeing something develop. That’s what’s really good fun; not organised holidays where people are supposed to paint and draw. I’m not really into that. I’d much rather do it if it suits people, so we don’t offer it as such but it’s always there if people are interested. The people who stay in the cottage love it when I take the children off to make pots!”
In 2009, James retired from his final teaching post as head of art at Harrow School and he and Flora moved permanently to France with their poodle Lulu. “I absolutely loved it at Harrow and was very tempted to stay there,” he says. “I was very torn but my heart was here in Touraine. I thought: ‘No, life’s too short. Get out to France and live the life.’”
James now has all the time in the world for painting and pottery and his work continues to attract international interest and acclaim. His current project is a series of exhibitions entitled Off the Cuff and his work has already been well-received in Brisbane, Port Adelaide, Singapore and London. Painting in oils and experimenting with slips, glazes and different types of firing, James draws inspiration from the countryside, the seasons, the lifestyle and the people around him, and he hopes to be able to continue for many years to come. LF