Review of ‘Jean Cooke: Delight in the Thing Seen’ at the Jerwood Gallery

Many readers of this article may not be familiar with the work of Jean Cooke (well, at least this reviewer wasn’t). Cognoscenti of the art world know that she was the first wife of John Bratby, a local resident of Hastings for many years, who was the subject of a major show at the Jerwood Gallery last year. That exhibition unpicked the influences that were part of Bratby’s life; and, inevitably, Cooke – being a fellow artist and his partner for 24 years of his life – was a major part of that. While the Jerwood were researching Bratby, they became interested in the work of Cooke. Perhaps due to an ‘osmosis’ effect, their work is adjudged similar, although Cooke seemed to have more focus on the domestic side of their lives. This is hardly surprising, given the cruel and despotic behaviour of her husband: early in the marriage Bratby was not achieving the same recognition as his wife, which made their relationship increasingly difficult. He often painted over or slashed the canvas of her works and restricted her painting time to three morning hours. Consequently, many of the early paintings are of domestic scenes – portraits of their children or still lives from around the house. Later, after the pair had divorced, she concentrated on landscapes, many in the area of Birling Gap, East Sussex, where she rented several cottages.

The Jerwood exhibition, which is sited in the smaller upstairs rooms 6 and 7, focuses on these genres. In this reviewer’s opinion, it is the portrait paintings which emerge much the stronger of the artist’s work, at least from those pieces on display. All the dates for the works are very vague and, in this respect, are typical of the shambolic way that the couple – and later Cooke alone – lived. Of the portraits (which mainly occupy Room 7) perhaps the most striking is the self-portrait Burned my broomstick, Slashed my GG, c’mon darling fly me down town (1996). Speaking of her self-portraits, Cooke said: “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 expression on Cooke’s face in the painting is enigmatic and hard to read. We are left wondering. But it’s an exception: the title of the show is accurate. Jean Cooke: Delight in the Thing Seen delivers what it promises, but not more.

‘Jean Cooke: Delight in the Thing Seen’ is at the Jerwood Gallery until 10th September 2017