Shaftesbury Area Artist Wins Top Award In Prestigious National Contest

A West Melbury based environmental artist has won the top prize at a London art competition, entered by some of Britain’s best artists.

Gary Cook says he’s delighted to have been able to bring Melbury Beacon, one of the Shaftesbury area’s most loved landscapes, to a wider audience as the subject of his winning work. “It’s a bit of Dorset woodland in London,” laughed Gary.

The artist’s monochrome ink and watercolour painting was judged the Best in Show at the Society of Graphic Fine Arts annual exhibition at the Menier Gallery at Borough in London. “It was really exciting – a real shock. There are 140 members nationally and they enter along with members of the public, who take part through the open competition,” said Gary. “I’ve been in the exhibition for three years now and each year the standard seems to get higher. There were so many lovely pieces of work on show,” he added.

Gary Cook

Gary’s landscape works sometimes feature pencil-drawn longitude and latitude references, which allow his fans to visit the same location. He says the scenery in his winning work will be familiar to many locals. “It’s on the north side of Melbury Beacon. It’s a lovely spot, a gorgeous ash wood. The ash trees there are one of the themes of my work,” Gary said.

He enjoys painting what he sees from the same location during different seasons. “I just go back to the same spot. The light changes and it alters the view completely,” said Gary. His winning entry was painted during the winter. “It was a really low sun. There were no leaves on the trees, so it was quite black and white,” he said.

Gary says that he gets excited when he wakes up to one of the foggy starts, so common in Shaftesbury during the winter. “Fog gives you a really good depth of field,” Gary said, although he added that painting in fog brings some practical challenges. “I paint in watercolour and that can make it really tricky. When there’s so much humidity in the air, the paint doesn’t dry when you put it on the paper. Sometimes I just have to do sketches. I do as much of the painting in situ as I can but when it’s foggy I will do 50% outside and then go home and finish it off there.”

Gary said that he loves setting up his easel when there’s a chill in the air. “I like getting wrapped up with lots of layers on and painting when it’s nice and cold. It makes your flask of tea seems so much better,” he laughed.

Following the ‘en plein air’ outdoor painting approach does require more work and preparation but Gary believes it is worth it. “I think you can see when it has been done on the spot. You get different light, different bits of sun, different shadows. That can be quite annoying as you are doing it over an hour or two. The shadows move around and end up in a different place to where you started. That’s all part of the challenge though. It’s trying to capture that moment.”

Gary is ‘The Ecologist’ magazine’s artist in residence. Much of his work alerts gallery browsers to the threat posed by ash dieback, a disease that could prove more devastating to North Dorset’s woodscapes than Dutch elm disease in the 1960s.

This newer, imported fungal disease could wipe out 90% of the UKs 70 million ash trees. If you can’t imagine the wide-ranging environmental impact of that, Gary can help demonstrate. Many of his paintings feature the wildlife that could potentially perish. “There are 1,058 different species of insects and birds that are dependent on ash trees. It makes you think what will happen,” he said.

Recently Gary has been busy painting the area’s most impressive oak trees. He admires them not only for their age and distinctive shape – ‘they are emblematic,’ he said – but also because these trees are an important part of the ecoystem. “There are 2,200 species dependant on oak trees. They are even more important to a landscape. The Ancient Tree Forum pinpoints each ancient tree. I went to Wardour last week and just in the middle of a field is a 700-year-old oak. It’s just incredible that the tree has been there for that long.”

It’s good that Gary has found another source of inspiration, because he will need to produce more paintings soon. He’s sold all of the work that he entered into the London exhibition and it’s likely that he’ll generate much more interest from the pieces he has on display at two more important shows – the British Wildlife Open at ACEarts in Somerton and also the highly acclaimed Royal Western Academy exhibition in Bristol. That show runs until 25th November. “There were 3,500 entries and 600 piece have been put on show. I was pleased to get a couple of pieces in there,” he said.

Closer to home, thousands of visitors and locals have viewed Gary’s tree sketches, perhaps without even realising. Gary designed the Shaftesbury Tree Group map, which has been produced to accompany their tree walk. He’s been asked to create a second leaflet over this winter. The new guide will suggest a longer route around the town, showcasing Shaftesbury’s impressive and interesting trees. “We will be going into St James,” said Gary, “And I am really looking forward to doing it.”

As yet, Gary hasn’t identified any of the trees that he will reproduce for the guide. “I’ll be going for a walk with the real experts and they will pinpoint the ones they want on the map. That will keep me indoors on wet days this winter!” he smiled.

You can view Gary’s work at