Published  17/07/2023

Jean Cooke: Ungardening

Jean Cooke: Ungardening

Focusing on paintings of her two beloved but untamed gardens, alongside self-portraits documenting the beatings she received from her husband, John Bratby, this small but important exhibition lays out clearly why Jean Cooke is a name that should be known

Jean Cooke. Hortus Siccus, 1967 (detail). Oil on canvas. © Estate of Jean Cooke. Courtesy of Piano Nobile, London.

Garden Museum, London
21 June – 10 September 2023


Hands up if you have heard of John Bratby (1928-92). Now keep them up if you have heard of Jean Cooke (1927-2008). Ashamedly, a few months ago, mine would have been going back down. It is the same old story: male artist and female artist get married; male artist continues with his career, while making his wife stay indoors, keep house and bear and raise children. Only, in this case, there is also the horrific covering up of domestic abuse – or, rather, not so much the covering up, since Cooke spoke openly about it throughout, exhibited self-portraits (yes, plural) with a black eye, and ran away multiple times, but her friends and the wider public, in a way that seems impossible (or, at least, I sincerely hope so) today, ignored her (quite literal) cries for help.

I certainly don’t want to spend this review writing about Bratby, and I don’t even want to dwell on too much of Cooke’s biography, but it is necessary to set this context out at the beginning. Bratby “allowed” Cooke to paint for just three hours a day; he frequently locked her in the house for fear of another escape attempt, while she frequently lied to avoid being beaten up; he would freely paint over her canvases, sometimes slashing those he didn’t approve of; and while at first he made her adopt his surname, since she now “belonged” to him, he later made her revert to Cooke, as he didn’t like the competition of another, more successful, Bratby, which led to a number of her works being signed twice. (Hand and Nasturtium Flower, 1958, is one clear example on show here.) While first and foremost shocking, these conditions significantly affected Cooke’s art, making her style urgent and quick, focused and raw. In fact, although the marriage did ultimately break down in the 1970s, with a divorce in 1977, Cooke wrote to Bratby after he had left, saying: “If you cut off my arms, I would not miss them as much as you.”1 Of his positive influence on her work, she also told the writer – and curator of this exhibition – Andrew Lambirth: “Sometimes I need resistance – John used to say: ‘Go and make some curtains.’ He’d provide the resistance, and then I could go straight off and paint.”2 While by no means attempting to excuse or minimise Bratby’s behaviour, recognising the small things Cooke did gain from their union is nevertheless important to understanding how, in practical and emotional terms, she produced the work she did.

Jean Cooke. Self-portrait, 1959. Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest. © Estate of Jean Cooke. Photo: Tate.

While, given its location, this exhibition focuses primarily on Cooke’s paintings of gardens, it also includes two – or possibly four, depending on your definition – self-portraits. The self-portrait was a recurring theme throughout her career. She wrote: “Sometimes I paint self-portraits to show off, sometimes to hide away in solitude, sometimes to say: ‘Here I am’, sometimes to say: ‘I want to be alone.’ But always there is a searching for the unknown, the previously unperceived.” The first one here, Self-Portrait (1958), which is in the Tate collection, was painted at her father’s home in Greenwich, south-east London, where she and Bratby were living at the time. In the background there is a cot, showing how limited they must have been in terms of personal space. Cooke said that after she had begun this portrait, her three-year-old (eldest) son, David, did some painting on it, some of which is still to be seen on the finished canvas.3 The later Et jamais je ne pleure et jamais je ne ris (c1972) takes its title, which translates as “I never cry and I never laugh”, from Charles Baudelaire’s sonnet, Beauty, in Les Fleurs du Mal, and is a clear statement on her marriage. Sitting against the window, looking out across the road, with leaves falling from the nearly bare trees, her face is drawn and her expression set, with a black eye, red nose (from the enforced lack of heating in the house) and rosacea in her cheeks. She gave this piece to the Royal Academy as her diploma work when she was elected as a full member in 1972 (she had been an associate member since 1965), and yet, astoundingly, no comment was made.4

Jean Cooke. Through the Looking Glass, 1960. © Estate of Jean Cooke. © Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photo: John Hammond.

Hanging next to the first self-portrait is the remarkable Through the Looking Glass (1960), which, on first glance, is a painting of pansies and sweet williams in terracotta pots, with a colourful bouquet in a vase behind them. Look more closely, however, and one realises that the frame within the frame of the painting is that of a mirror (the looking glass), and that there is a tiny head next to the reflection of the vase – a reflection of the artist, or a miniature self-portrait. In front of this, next to one of the fallen blooms, is a tortoise. He is there by design, as a metaphor for Cooke, who wrote in 1979: “I am very dependent on nature and the things around me. Each winter I hibernate and then with the first sun, like an old tortoise, I amble out with bleary eyes and start to see again.”5

As can be gleaned from the literary references in so many of Cooke’s titles, she was clearly well read and well educated. Artistically, too, she spent eight years as an art student in London. After studying illustration and textile design at the Central School (1943-45), she took pottery at Camberwell, and sculpture, with a teacher-training course, at Goldsmiths (1945-50). She won a major sculpture prize and, had she not dislocated her thumb in a cycling accident, might have continued as a sculptor, but, instead, she set up a pottery workshop in Sussex (1950-53). It was during this period that she got to know Bratby, who was at the Royal College, and, after a whirlwind romance and marriage, she embarked on a postgraduate degree in painting there, and later took the position of lecturer in painting (1964-74). One of her tutors, while at the Royal College, was Carel Weight, who became the primary friend responsible for sending her back to Bratby each time she ran away.6 Weight wrote about Cooke for an article in Motif 11 in the winter of 1963-64, likening her to “a sort of fourth Brontë sister”, saying: “There is something of Emily’s intensity in Jean’s work, especially in her series of self-portraits.” He also described her as “ruthless in her search for the truth”. Cooke herself, in an interview in 2007, said that she began painting her self-portraits as a riposte to Bratby’s pictures of her: “I started painting myself the way I wanted to be seen.”7

Cooke made portraits of other people, as well, and this is the reason why, without having realised it, I was very well acquainted with her. In 1975, she was commissioned by St Hilda’s College, Oxford, to paint a portrait of Mary Bennett, the college’s principal between 1965 and 1980, and, as a student at the college, I came of age with this face watching over me. In this exhibition, there is one tall and thin portrait of Bratby (1962), slouched in a chair in his pyjamas and dressing gown. The steep perspective of the dark floor, stretching back to the vanishing point (behind the chair), and the peculiar foreshortening as Bratby reclines so low into his seat that his legs stretch far into the foreground, mean that, at first, it looks as if the composition is built around a diagonal; in fact, as Lambirth notes, it uses a long S-shape through the body, “recalling the serpentine line that Hogarth identified as the root of all beauty”, such that “the eye is drawn first to [the feet], then to the folded hands and finally to the head. Then the eye reverses the process back to the feet. Details of clothing and setting are taken in on the way.”8 Apparently, Francis Bacon was a big fan of these painted feet. Cooke’s reminiscence of the work, however, was that, while she was making it, her primary thought was how Bratby “looked like Bluebeard”.9

Jean Cooke. Hortus Siccus, 1967. Oil on canvas. © Estate of Jean Cooke. Courtesy of Piano Nobile, London.

Another portrait (of sorts) is The Window (c1989), which features two young women. The face of the woman on the left – which could also possibly be a self-portrait – might have been painted by Alexej Jawlensky or Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, aglow as it is in yellow, orange, green, blue and burgundy; while the girl on the right – possibly Cooke’s daughter, Wendy – her face coloured more conventionally, has a mop of the most brilliant orange hair. Cooke’s children, especially her second son, Jason, appear in a number of her works, including the Anselm-Kiefer-esque Hortus Siccus (1967), which she painted over a single weekend and submitted to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition with “Very Wet” written on the back.10 The painting depicts two figures – both Jason – amid a collection of dried plants and flowers. I confess I wouldn’t have known they were dried flowers and plants, had the title not told me so; I would, instead, have seen a field in late summer, scorched by the heat – which I suppose it could still be, dried but not necessarily cut and laid out. Jason originally featured more than twice, but these depictions of him were painted out. “The idea was to use various images to make up a whole,” Cooke said, and this method can be seen in many of her larger works here, which the viewer might easily break down into numerous smaller compositions, jigsawed together, but which would stand alone equally well as paintings in their own right. In a letter to the purchaser of this work, Cooke further said: “I don’t really look at a painting while I am at it, but rather feel it and can only look at it objectively after I have finished and almost disowned it.”11

Jean Cooke. Toujours en Fête, 1969. Oil on canvas. © Estate of Jean Cooke. Courtesy of Piano Nobile, London.

Another such multi-compositional work is Toujours en Fête (1969), in which, again, Jason appears twice – once reading a book and once very small (nearly imperceptibly so) in the distance, disappearing down a cliff path to the left of the canvas. This is the fourth “self-portrait”, too, as Cooke depicts herself, with a pink umbrella, but also her hand raised as if holding a paintbrush, and the same intent gaze – stare almost – as in her actual self-portraits. The composition is imagined, bringing together elements from different places Cooke knew and loved (so the idea of it as a jigsaw is not simply metaphorical), but, as Lambirth observes: “The whole surface is unified and controlled like an Italian garden by Gustav Klimt.”12 Cooke, rather, referred to the influence of Renoir in this work.

Jean Cooke. Garden in Springtime, 1990. © Estate of Jean Cooke. Courtesy of Piano Nobile, London.

Besides her family, the other key recurrent features in Cooke’s work are the places: her two gardens and the views of, and from, these. Her first, at 7 Hardy Road in Blackheath, south-east London, was a garden she likened to Sleeping Beauty, “with everything growing in over the house”.13 It is from this that the title of the exhibition derives, since, when asked for Who’s Who, Cooke gave one of her hobbies as “ungardening”. A discernible feature of this garden is its derelict swimming pool. Whereas in Out the Back and the Pussy Cat (1964), it is shown as a white oblong with what could be a sculpture at its far end and stairs leading up to its rim, by Garden in Springtime (1990s) it has basically been reduced to a few strokes of turquoise in the same formation as the “sculpture” of the earlier work. The fact that Cooke repeatedly paints from the same viewpoints permits such observations on the progress of her style. Simultaneously, throughout the cycles of seasonal change, it finds a familiar constant to which to return. For example, two small undated works in the exhibition, Green Tree and Brown Tree, offer the same view of the same tree in different seasons, which is as comforting for the viewer as for the artist.

Jean Cooke. The Garden, 1992. © Estate of Jean Cooke. Photo: Garden Museum.

The Garden (c1992), also depicting Hardy Road, is a wonderful example of Cooke’s mark-making: her dabs, strokes, sweeps and lines are so full of vim and vigour. What appear, at first, to be bare patches of canvas, are mostly passages painted in various tones of brown, while the lime-green buds of spring seem lusciously luminous in their youth. It was around this time that Cooke said: “It becomes more and more beautiful the more simplified it is … Painting, if you’re really painting, should have this spiritual quality.”14 This closeup abstraction is exemplified in other works, such as Orchard with Buttercups and Blue Flowers (1990), as well. Yet no matter how sparse Cooke’s strokes, the images remain recognisable to the human eye. Remarkably, my iPhone, on which I took hasty reference photographs of these and other works, helpfully suggests looking up “plant” as I open each one, with Siri then offering various possible identifications. Admittedly, Siri doesn’t get it quite right, misidentifying The Wild Plum Tree (1995) as depicting a (pretty similar looking, according to the photo provided) flowering dogwood and Buttercups (c1976) as a (not at all similar) exemplar of the prickly pear, but at least she is in the right ball park, and I get the feeling that Cooke might have been tickled by this guessing game, having once said: “It is the surprise that is constantly stimulating. I do not know how a painting will finish when I start a new one. There is always a new idea to be found as one lives in the painting. I like to ‘die’ every night and start the day with nothing in my mind so that even if I am in the middle of a painting, I am open to a fresh view each day that I work on it.”15

Cooke’s Blackheath home was razed to the ground by fire in 2003. Thankfully, she escaped unhurt, and, although she lost most of her possessions and some artworks, she managed to rescue her tins of paint and favourite brushes, and later stoically proclaimed that the fire had liberated her to enjoy a fresh start as a painter.16

It could be said that Cooke didn’t have much luck with houses, as her other home, and other garden, at Birling Gap, by the Seven Sisters, in West Sussex, met with an equally tragic end. With the clifftops crumbling due to coastal erosion, her first cottage, which she rented from the National Trust, had to be demolished in 1995. This affected Cooke far more deeply than the Blackheath fire, and she described the event as “worse than rape”.17 It certainly testifies to Cooke’s resilience that she outlived two houses. Following the loss of her coastal cottage, she determinedly decided to rent the next cottage along, which was said to have 10 more years before it, too, would need demolishing. This, she said, should see her out – and it did, for when she died, she was found sitting at the kitchen table, looking out to sea.

Cooke’s paintings of Birling Gap are quite lovely – even more simplified than those of Blackheath and made from a completely different palette, which makes all the more sense having been down to the coast to pay homage myself: the colours at Birling Gap are unique. The duck-egg-grey sky, teal sea and dull ochre clifftops are captured perfectly in The Misty Day (c1970). With Cooke’s second cottage now also gone, there remain but four standing. A steep metal staircase leads down to the beach, and the National Trust cafe, also having retreated slightly further inland, looks out to sea from across the car park. The National Trust shop, as usual, sells local guidebooks and prints by amateur artists, but there is no mention of Cooke: no plaque, no information board, no postcard nor print, and the staff have never heard of her. Quite frankly, it is a travesty, and a living example of something mentioned in a different context on one of the exhibition panels, which is relevantly transferable: “As her garden in London became more of a sanctuary, she delved further into its wildness, elucidating the patterns of benign neglect repeatedly in her work.”18 If Cooke’s neglect of her garden(s) – her method of “ungardening” – was “benign”, then surely the neglect of Cooke by Bratby, as well as by the nation (ignoring her cries for help at the time and as good as forgetting her since) might be considered “malign”?

Asked why she painted, Cooke once said: “It is some sort of love, some sort of devotion. More nun-like than a devouring of life, but still an untiring use of eyes and mind to concoct images . . . A continuous delight in the thing seen.”19 Her only regrets were “that I have not painted things and people that I thought would be there forever”.20 And yet – while perhaps not capturing everyone and everything, which would, anyhow, surely be impossible – is this not precisely what Cooke has done? Her paintings are snapshots of moments – sometimes timelapse snapshots superimposed or jigsawed together to produce a single image – which most people would simply let pass by. She captures the fleeting evanescence of time through the changing of the seasons; the buds, blossoms and rusting leaves; the growth of her children; and the immortalising of two since-perished homes and gardens. Most notably, she renders immutable the stark evidence of domestic abuse, inciting people to acknowledge that to which they would sooner turn a blind eye. It is up to us to right these wrongs: to recognise and to remember, to turn our collective neglect – benign and malign – into a thing of the past. Jean Cooke is a name people ought to know.

1. Introducing Jean Cooke by Andrew Lambirth, in Jean Cooke: Ungardening, exhibition catalogue, Garden Museum, London, 2023, page 22.
2. Ibid, page 30.
3. Tate website entry.
4. Note, however, that even rape within marriage was not considered a criminal offence until 1991 and was not laid out explicitly until the Sexual Offences Act of 2003. See When did marital rape become a crime?, The Week, 6 December 2018.
5. Statement for the publication Contemporary British Artists with Photographs by Walia, by Charlotte Parry-Crooke with Norbert Lynton, published by Bergstrom+Boyle Books, 1979, cited in Jean Cooke: Seascapes & Chalk Caves, exhibition catalogue, Piano Nobile, London, 2023, page 59.
6. When Cooke and Bratby finally separated, Weight became distanced from Cooke. She, however, said this was a relief, as their friendship had become “rather claustrophobic”. (Jean Cooke: Seascapes and Chalk Caves, exhibition catalogue, Piano Nobile, London, 2023, page 57.)
7. Interview with Robert Travers, 2007, cited in Jean Cooke: Seascapes and Chalk Caves, exhibition catalogue, Piano Nobile, London, 2023, page 10.
8. Introducing Jean Cooke by Andrew Lambirth, in Jean Cooke: Ungardening, exhibition catalogue, Garden Museum, London, 2023, pages 20-21.
9. Ibid, page 21.
10. Regarding her speed of painting, Cooke said: “When I’m really alive I can do one painting a day; and when I paint, I let everything else go.” (Jean Cooke by Nell Dunn, RA Magazine no 11, summer 1986, abridged as Jean Cooke Profile by Nell Dunn, in Jean Cooke: Ungardening, exhibition catalogue, Garden Museum, London, 2023, page 65.)
11. Introducing Jean Cooke by Andrew Lambirth, in Jean Cooke: Ungardening, exhibition catalogue, Garden Museum, London, 2023, page 24.
12. Ibid, page 25.
13. Ibid, page 26.
14. Ibid, page 29.
15. Statement for the publication Contemporary British Artists with Photographs by Walia, by Charlotte Parry-Crooke with Norbert Lynton, published by Bergstrom+Boyle Books, 1979, cited in Jean Cooke: Seascapes and Chalk Caves, exhibition catalogue, Piano Nobile, London, 2023, page 59.
16. Obituary: Jean Cooke by Philip Vann, the Guardian, 29 August 2008.
17. Speaking to the Birmingham Post, 2 January 1995, cited in Jean Cooke: Seascapes and Chalk Caves, exhibition catalogue, Piano Nobile, London, 2023, page 60.
18. Exhibition wall text to accompany Pansies (undated).
19. Obituary: Jean Cooke by Philip Vann, The Guardian, 29 August 2008, accessed 5 July 2023.
20. Jean Cooke by Nell Dunn, RA Magazine no 11, summer 1986, abridged as Jean Cooke Profile by Nell Dunn, in Jean Cooke: Ungardening, exhibition catalogue, Garden Museum, London, 2023, page 65.

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