From the Roaring Forties of a Fiennes-led expedition to an isolated and barren London.
On a humid September afternoon I had the pleasure of meeting Nigel Cox, the renowned photorealist painter, at his house in South London. Stepping through a bold turquoise front door, I found myself in a rather fine townhouse that was immaculately presented, bar one or two cases in the corridor containing works for his upcoming exhibition. After the tea was brewed and the shortcake fingers were plated, we sat in the painter’s studio space to talk about his past against a backdrop of his current work.
I had wanted to meet the artist since reading about his then upcoming solo exhibition in London and learnt a little about his earlier life, which had a hand in shaping the vision for his artwork today. We started by discussing the Transglobe Expedition. This three-year circumpolar voyage was a staggering 100,000 miles and was the brain child of Sir Ranulph Fiennes – arguably one of the greatest modern explorers. Not only is Nigel Cox the only artist to have done a commissioned painting of this legendary man; some thirty years ago at the age of 21 he himself joined the crew of what the New York Times described as “the world’s last great adventure.”
‘I was in college up in Liverpool and one of my best friends, Nick Wade, was a year ahead of me and all fired up about going on this expedition he found out about. I remember telling him that I thought he was crazy – on the go for three years and earning no money. He went to join the first leg and after about 6 months I got a phone call from him and he said he absolutely hated it but that I would love it – “it’s right up your street.” He said I had the personality for it and that I had to apply. I did and I got it. Six weeks later I was flying out to Fiji and then onto Western Samoa to join the ship.’
This journey to the ends of the earth was also described as “mad but marvellous” by HRH Prince Charles. Nigel laughs as I ask him how fitting this description was: ‘Well who am I to critique Prince Charles, eh? In a way it was very mad because you pushed yourself to your limits and, well, you could’ve died. That wasn’t an unlikely outcome. I was very young when I joined the expedition, a kid from a small town in Ireland who’d never really travelled. It taught me a great deal; primarily that nothing is impossible.’ Nigel says this with such calm confidence that it only adds to his commanding presence. When standing he towers over me, styled with a striking beard, slicked back hair and wearing an all-black ensemble. But when we are sat down and he is comfortably swinging in his studio chair, his voice charged with nostalgia, I find that I feel quite at ease in his presence.
“It really was the most horrendous and nerve-wracking experience. I remember thinking, as soon as we get through this and we get to the other side, I’m flying out of here.”
As part of the ship’s crew aboard the Benjamin Bowring, Nigel took the role of radio officer and according to the expedition’s website biography, he was “responsible for maintaining all the electronic navigation aids as well as his highly sophisticated radio communications equipment.” It also goes on to state that: “his hobbies are music, volleyball, badminton and hockey.” Immediately I ask him about life on such a ship – an experience that many, including myself, could never comprehend.
The darker side of me is keen to know about the toughest moments and he tells me about the very worst. ‘Easily the lowest point was when we were on the ship heading from New Zealand to the Antarctic and I was told that the “Roaring Forties” (strong westerly winds) are horrendous. The waves and the swells are huge. We were on a ship that had a round hull – it wasn’t an ice-breaker. It wasn’t very stable. We got through the Forties and it wasn’t too bad but then we hit the Fifties and… well it was your worst nightmare. It was hell. Our ship literally cork-screwed and rolled about 45 degrees to each side for about ten days. I don’t get seasick so for me that wasn’t an issue. But you don’t get any sleep and there are other things that you wouldn’t even have considered as issues, like the sheer pain that you’re in.’ Gesturing at his torso, he explains: ‘You are using all of these abdominal muscles, constantly, as the ship sways from side to side. Even when walking up or down stairs, sometimes they’ll be flat for you and seconds later they’ll almost be a vertical wall. You go to bed and you have to wedge yourself in for safety. There wasn’t even any point in trying to sleep because it was impossible so I would just put my music on and attempt rest till I was shocked awake by another drift.’
He speaks with such zeal about this experience, almost as if he’s overly aware that he’s in the safe and stable confines of his home in the capital now. Here he can paint in peace or fall asleep without worry of being flung to the other side of the room. ‘After a couple of days, the effects of sleep deprivation were huge for everybody. And I was always the mildest character of the group – the “fun one” if you like. But after X amount of days I was spoiling for a fight!’ He says this with a heavy laugh. ‘I remember being pushed by one of the other guys, not physically but mentally and I turned round and said “go on, one more time.” After someone else declared “Nigel that’s enough” I knew it was and I just got up and locked myself in my cabin for a while. It really was the most horrendous and nerve-wracking experience. I remember thinking, as soon as we get through this and we get to the other side, I’m flying out of here. But you forget all about it and when there are moments of calm, you can socialise and you’re all having fun again. Very up and down.’
‘We were all lined up and I was the first to dive. Of course it wasn’t until my feet left the deck that my mind suddenly thought: sharks!’
This expedition certainly wasn’t for the faint hearted and it’s clear that one had to be both physically and mentally strong, demonstrating the utmost resilience through the thick and the thin. We go on to talk about his crew, whom he remembers quite fondly.
‘It was a family. Whether you got on particularly well with some and not so much with others, we were family, just like the dynamic of any large one. You knew you were there for the duration, often in close quarters and you were pretty much just thrown together. Whether or not you liked someone, you just accepted everyone. You had to. When we were in the big cities we used to have these exhibitions that showed what the expedition was all about and everyone would get really stuck in with that, helping each other out. Everyone worked solidly on that and as a team. We were a good team.’
I recently considered the thought of a brief stint at sea, travelling on a freight carrier between countries to experience something new, if a little reclusive, so I was keen to hear what a typical day was like aboard the Benjamin Bowring. ‘Well the sea at times was dreadfully boring. But you kept yourself busy. I often would go up to the radio shack to receive messages and check weather forecasts after I’d had my breakfast. You’d come back down and go back up later to do some more. Personally I’d listen to a lot of music in my cabin. There were also times when there were projects that would need to be done and we’d all be working on that together. A lot of it was the mundane, but between that it was often an on-going party. There was a point when the guys were “wintered in” in the Antarctic and we wouldn’t be picking them up for almost a year so we went to the South Pacific and became a ship that was supplying some of the smaller islands around New Zealand. We’d meet all the locals, share food and laze about on deck a lot. For me, at the time and being 21, it was the perfect life. A lot of the places we saw were very remote and that was incredible.
‘Out on the ocean it was fantastic. You’d have utter still calm. It was hot though. I mean everything was hot. We had no air conditioning, the cold water was hot, we were sleeping in hot tin cans – it was extreme. We got the captain to stop in the middle of the ocean so that we could all go for a swim. We were all lined up and I was the first to dive. Of course it wasn’t until my feet left the deck that my mind suddenly thought: sharks!’ As we laugh at Nigel’s fonder memories from the expedition, I wonder how the experiences weighed up for him, but also how someone that young could have gone through such an ordeal. ‘I was the baby of the group – straight out of college. Most of the guys were late 20s or early 30s but yeah I was the youngest; and with the best record collection! Music was and is so important to me. If someone threw my collection overboard I probably would’ve followed it. It was my lifeline.’ He lists some of his favourites from the time including the Talking Heads, which made me smile as I’d recently been re-discovering their Little Creatures album. If there’s one thing that carries me through the day, or night, it’s music. So I can identify with Nigel’s younger self in that sense, but the vision of the Roaring Forties is enough to establish a gulf between our explorative attitudes.
“Everything I didn’t thrive for or aim for at the time all came about at once. Life doesn’t always end up where you aim. But then again your aims change and the change can be sudden.”
Now that it’s thirty years on since this epic adventure, I was keen to find out how it may have had an effect on his travelling life to date. Being someone who grew up on the coast and has always had affection for it, I was happy to learn that we had at least one more thing in common. ‘Well when I go away I do still like to be by or even in the sea. I’ve recently discovered scuba diving in the Red Sea, just down from Luxor and Aswan. I went for a week and I came back a totally rejuvenated man. I’d found a new sense of enthusiasm after that trip. It was thoroughly relaxing and it had gotten to a point with my work that I was just beginning to wane slightly and thought that if I didn’t give myself a small break then I was never going to get it all done. So holidays for me these days I do like to relax. I wouldn’t thank you for a trek across South America. Of course I would like to “see it”,’ he says with finger quotations, ‘but I don’t want to do that amount of walking and toil these days.’
His answer came as no surprise when I asked him if he would ever do something like the Transglobe Expedition ever again. It was with confidence and no hesitation that his response was “no.”
‘I’m not 21 anymore and I have a lifestyle that I love now. I don’t need the hardships, the pressure or the alcohol anymore. I’ve done it all – I’m settled and happy. The expedition was, in my eyes, any adventurous kid’s dream. There were fantastic times but I’m now at the point where I like my comforts. I enjoy going out for good meals and not having to eat tinned ravioli for the fifth time in five days! As I said, it was an incredible experience and one that has shaped my life, but no – never again.’
So from radio officer on-board the Benjamin Bowring we skip forward 30 years to today and Nigel Cox is now known for his impressive figurative oil-on-linen paintings. What I take from his work immediately is a sense of isolation or separation.
‘I find that I’m drawn to emptiness and large calm spaces – much like the plains of the Antarctic. I like to go around the mad and packed streets of London, photographing people from a distance. Perhaps about 350 pictures in a session or a day and I look through the selection when I get back home. I pick out the people whose posture, movement or mood I like and isolate them into one painting. The backgrounds are grey and calming; I think my paintings look minimal and peaceful.’
Oddly enough, these photorealistic paintings actually look more realistic in real life than when viewed on a computer screen. I cannot help but stand in awe at them as Nigel talks me through some of the paintings on his walls. ‘They are very work-intensive to create. In a normal year I would probably do about 14 of these paintings. Since I’ve met Coates & Scarry (art gallery) however, I’ve done a hell of a lot more. They’ve been incredible for me, both for motivating and giving demands on myself. Come the end of this show I am definitely having a few months to find myself again. At the bottom of a bottle!’ he laughs. ‘I kid. I even gave up drink before the work for this show started. I noticed that if I had just one drink in the evening or at dinner it just knocked me that little bit off kilter the next day and it might even affect me for days after in terms of how efficiently I worked.
Steering the conversation back to his work, I wanted to find out more about the photographic side of his process as, after all, travel and photography often go hand in hand.
‘Because of the way I photograph, it really is that I’m winging it for the whole day. I go out, someone will walk by me and I decide there and then that I want a snapshot so I turn around, get down on one knee and snap away. It’s incredible because no one is aware of you and that is what’s so fantastic. When I first started doing this I was so self-conscious and embarrassed that initially I was asking people to photograph them and immediately you’ve lost the person; you’ve just got the pose. Everything that was good about that person and the way they were holding themselves when you first saw them is then gone.
If people think they are invisible, which they do when they’re going from A to B in London, they are completely themselves. And when you capture them just right, it’s so intimate and personal because absolutely no one else is aware of them at that particular moment. London is a wonderful city and often when walking through the streets, people just completely miss the beauty around them.’ This is emphasised in his art work where it appears that instead of the subject missing the beauty around them, he has simply taken it away. His studio has paintings hanging all around the walls and sitting on easels, yet the starkness of his work keeps its aesthetic very minimal. There’s something very comfortable and peaceful about this place.
‘I never wanted to be married and I never wanted to have a house. I never wanted to have pets. I wanted to keep travelling and never put any roots down. I was like that for a few years. I lived in Holland for two years then came to London for a while. Then I went to Germany for a week and ended up staying for about five or six years, then came back to London for a weekend and stayed for twenty five years! Everything I didn’t thrive for or aim for at the time all came about at once. Life doesn’t always end up where you aim. But then again your aims change and the change can be sudden.
I met my partner. All of a sudden there was a reason for not wanting to move on.’
I end on this note because it seems a fitting affirmation of what his life is now; what he has created. I still remain in utter reverence of his past life and in particular that one experience, which has undoubtedly shaped who he is as a person today. Nigel stands as a prime example of how life’s greatest moments and most challenging encounters forge your path through life. It is people like Nigel Cox who remind us that what we do today, will shape who we are tomorrow.
Read more from Mark Cullum here.
Discover more about Nigel Cox here.
Discover more about Michael Drummond here.