Jean Cooke: Painter of wit and subtlety

Jean Cooke was a painter of wit and subtlety, a lovely and unusual colourist who painted landscape and still-life with great but understated feeling. She was also a figure painter, and a dab hand at portraits, but her finest achievement was in the depiction of the natural world: cliffs and the sea, a mountain meadow, the effects of mist or moonlight, a collection of fruit or flowers. In recent years, Cooke's still-lifes could appear somewhat minimal and haphazard, but they were always perfectly phrased and pitched. Solitary blooms against bare canvas with a scribble of background colour, they have the compression and self-sufficiency of a poem.

Jean Esme Cooke was born in south London in 1927 and spent the first years of her life in her father's grocer's and hardware shop in Blackheath. Her mother didn't believe in schools and stopped her going to one until she was six and a half. Before that, she hid under her father's shop-counter and listened to the exchanges with his customers, imagining what they might look like. From an early age she modelled heads and figures in plasticine as well as drawing and painting. Heads were very important to her, and it is no surprise that she was first drawn to sculpture when she began to pursue art seriously.

She spent eight years as an art student in London, attending first the Central School (1943-45). There, she studied illustration and textile design and was taught life drawing by Bernard Meninsky. She then went on to Camberwell to study pottery and Goldsmiths' to study sculpture and take a teacher-training course (1945-50). Money was always short, so when she discovered that at college clay was free (as opposed to the expense of oil paints) she took to modelling with a will. She won a major sculpture prize and might well have pursued sculpture as a career if she hadn't dislocated her thumb in a bicycling accident. Instead, she set up her own pottery workshop in Sussex (1950-53), during which time she met the up-and-coming painting star of the Royal College, John Bratby. After a whirlwind romance, during which Bratby locked her in his room in case she escaped him, they married in April 1953. It was to be a difficult and unconventional union, blessed with four children, three sons and a daughter.

Married to Bratby, Cooke was accepted as a postgraduate painting student at the Royal College in 1953 and no doubt inspired by his industrious example, she began to paint with increasing assurance and authority. She had her first solo show at the Leicester Galleries in 1964, and exhibited her work regularly from then on, with early patrons including such discerning collectors as Brinsley Ford and Bethel Solomons. She taught at the Royal College as a lecturer in painting from 1964 to 1974, and was elected an associate member of the Royal Academy in 1965. (She became a full member in 1972 and showed in the RA summer show every year.) Her reputation steadily grew among other artists and with an appreciative public, and there were many who rated her work above her husband's.

This annoyed Bratby, who felt threatened by competition so close to home. He tried to discourage his wife from painting, and would regularly paint over her pictures if he had run out of canvas. A difficult and tortured man, his behaviour was often appalling, and he beat and mistreated Jean cruelly. She freely admitted that she was often terrified of him, and ran away from home. Carel Weight, friend and mentor to both, always persuaded her to return. Meanwhile, Bratby insisted Jean relinquish his name: henceforth she should revert to Cooke when she signed her pictures. Despite the very real love she felt for him, their marriage foundered through the 1970s and was eventually dissolved in 1977.

A tiny woman, she had an indomitable spirit, and was affectionately celebrated for always having her say at Royal Academy meetings, however idiosyncratic the tenor of her remarks. As E.M. Forster wrote of the poet Cavafy, she existed at a slight angle to the universe, and thus saw everything in an original, oblique light. She was a storyteller of some endurance, and if her tales wandered sometimes into digressions, they were the richer for it. Her piping voice over the telephone tended to presage a lengthy conversation, but it was always full of unusual insights and the kind of perceptions and encounters that could make an ordinary bus journey from her last home, in Charlton, to the West End an adventure. In earlier years, she drove an open-topped Morgan sports car and would arrive at winter private views of exhibitions half-perished with cold. But she was a hardy soul, and for many years divided her time between an unheated rambling Edwardian mansion at Blackheath, which had been the Bratby marital home, and a Spartan cottage by the sea at Birling Gap in Sussex.

She listed "ungardening" as one of her hobbies in Who's Who, and indeed the large Blackheath garden, which Bratby divided with a fence when he separated from Jean and went to live in the adjoining coach house, turned into a wilderness over the years of benign neglect. Cooke continued to live in the house until it was destroyed by fire in 2003, when she lost many of her pictures. The garden, with its swimming pool and hard tennis court, was allowed to decay gently and blossom unrestrained. It became the subject of many paintings: cherry trees in full bloom, long grass filled with buttercups and blue-flowering lungwort, or the dark evergreens lit by the house windows at night. Doves were favourite models and appeared frequently.

When asked if she liked to be categorised as a woman artist along with such luminaries as Winifred Nicholson, Anne Redpath and Mary Newcombe, she commented characteristically (and perhaps thinking also of her husband's affairs): "I wasn't very keen on women. I felt they were rather treacherous." She painted many self-portraits, often unflattering but with an admixture of humour to offset the candour. Fearlessly analytical, they portray a woman intent on two things: making a good picture and "searching for the unknown, the previously unperceived", as she put it. A modest woman, Cooke said "I don't feel I've got a personal way of painting", but her admirers might not agree. Her work has an instantly recognisable quality, a sensitivity underscored by a thorough structural understanding. (Mondrian remained one of her favourite painters.) She also said: "If your mind is attuned to beauty, you find beauty in everything." Jean Cooke brought much beauty into the world, which will be the darker for her leaving it.

Andrew Lambirth

Jean Esme Oregon Cooke, painter: born London 18 February 1927; Lecturer in Painting, Royal College of Art 1964-74; ARA 1965, RA 1972; member of council, Royal Academy 1983-85, 1992-94, 2001-02, Senior Hanger 1993, 1994; married 1953 John Bratby (died 1992; three sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1977); died Birling Gap, East Sussex 6 August 2008.

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