Jo Brocklehurst

Portraitist of the London punk


Jo Brocklehurst, artist: born London 6 August 1941; died London c29 January 2006.

The artist Jo Brocklehurst was best known for her powerful drawings of punks and the club culture of 1980s London. Alone as an artist, she succeeded in capturing that very special moment in the social history of the city; she said it was by chance that it happened, as many of the characters she drew lived in squats nearby her home and paraded down her street. Captivated by their beauty and form, she invited them in and started to draw.

The results were shown at several exhibitions in London at the Francis Kyle Gallery, including "The London Drawings" in 1981 and "London Take Two" the following year. It is the period that she is noted for and she made it her own.

In Elizabeth Suter's drawing class at St Martin's School of Art in the early 1970s, Jo Brocklehurst was difficult to miss, a tall figure with long jet-black hair under a broad-brimmed hat pulled down low (even while drawing). The look was totally individual, other garments covering her completely in a kind of romantic fashion. When she raised her head to see the model, one caught a glimpse of her incredible beauty. At break-time, students would gather around to admire the drawings, although she wouldn't say much, seeming modest and shy. When she left the room, people would say, in a kind of whispered and admiring tone, "That is Jo Brocklehurst!"

She said she was born in London in 1941 (although it may have been a few years earlier) and was educated at Woolwich Polytechnic and St Martin's, which she entered on a scholarship at the exceptionally early age of 14. Her tutors were Freddie Gore, John Minton, Elizabeth Suter and Muriel Pemberton. Jo was also a gifted athlete, too, and was a member of the Highgate Harriers, but chose art over athletics.

After leaving college, she started with commercial art, particularly fashion illustration, before going on to explore her own projects. Beginning with an exhibition in Amsterdam in 1979, Jo Brocklehurst established a reputation in an unusually short span of time. She attracted significant attention with her contribution to the explosive and politically controversial "Women's Images of Men" at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 1980. She had a strong affiliation with women artists and was admired by them unreservedly.

Brocklehurst was always drawing. She never minded being stuck on a bus for hours in traffic, as she always carried paper and pens. She drew places, situations, people and their faces, capturing movement and character with a very rapid line. She went out each day with the purpose of drawing, with a subject in mind. Recently she had enjoyed landscape, and every day, in all weathers, she would go out on Hampstead Heath. She was a city girl and thought of the heath as her countryside. She was still doing this very recently until the cold drove her inside. Her landscapes are incredibly atmospheric and surprisingly small in format compared with her famous London punks, which fill the large page with colour and line, making sensuous silhouettes of the body.

Her output of work was vast, with shows in Germany, New York, Amsterdam and London. Experimenting with colour and the body in movement, social environment, real and theatrical situations, the drawings are always powerful. Her drawing style was original, strong and in your face. Take it or leave it, there it is. I think what it is is gutsy but, as with all good drawing, with a feeling of a different reality. That is what draws one in. I admired her commitment and discipline to draw every day, to keep the flow and quality of line - difficult to maintain but, nevertheless, she did it.

It was because of this kind of attitude and passion that, a decade ago, I asked her to teach our students at Central Saint Martins and she became a Visiting Lecturer in the School of Fashion. She was completely generous and encouraging as a teacher, passing on a unique experience that will live on through her students, I hope. Jo Brocklehurst was a tough taskmaster and I would often have to warn the models of her expectations. We lost a few, but all said afterwards they were glad to have had the experience and the results that had come out of it.

She had boys in dresses and feathered masks or not very much at all. The girls worked just as hard playing out fantasies for all to draw. She taught the students the traditions of life drawing, imparting her knowledge from what she had been taught herself, but allowed them to be inventive and original, not imposing her own style.

I often thought she lived in a kind of wonderment of the world, in another dimension - it was natural for her and we all looked on slightly stunned and just going along for the ride. I sometimes realised how lucky I was to be caught up in her spell. Her recent work on Through the Looking Glass came out of her wanting to return to her English roots after a period in New York.

What better way to pass an afternoon than in her studio installation of the Drawing Room, sipping tea from bone china and surrounded by walls dripping with her take on Alice, the White Rabbit and the Red Queen? Great fun.

Howard Tangye

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