The painter Jean Cooke (1927-2008) was well ahead of the current trend for wild gardening when she listed ‘ungardening’ among her hobbies in Who’s Who.
A new exhibition at The Garden Museum reveals how the artist – overshadowed for many years by her coercive husband and fellow painter John Bratby – found both inspiration and solace in her unkempt gardens in Blackheath, London and in coastal East Sussex.
Curated by Andrew Lambirth, the exhibition is the latest in a series at the Garden Museum to explore the relationship between artists and their gardens.
Combining loans from public and some (very) private collections, the exhibition spans Cooke’s career, from early works such as Hand and Nasturtium Flower (1958) to paintings from the 1990s.
Introduced to the viewer via a self-portrait of 1959, Cooke, complete with black eye (her marriage was sometimes violent), strikes a note of defiance that echoes through the show. Although she trained as a potter, at Bratby’s insistence Cooke took up painting, the catalyst for a successful career that included becoming a teacher at the Royal College of Art and a long-standing Royal Academician.
Raising several children and permitted by Bratby to paint for only a few hours a day, at the start of her career Cooke had little time to indulge in the niceties of manicured mid-century gardening.
Like so many women artists with competing demands on her time, she found inspiration in what was close to hand: interiors, still lives and her garden.
An early painting in the show, Through the Looking Glass (1960) combines all three elements, a thickly painted composition of cut flowers and terracotta pots of pansies. The garden, albeit tamed in vases and plant pots, is here and even the family tortoise makes an appearance.
Many gardeners dread their plots getting out of control, but a garden on the edge of wildness can be a beautiful thing as Cooke shows. As Cooke said in 1979, ‘I have a very tactile approach to painting and need the feeling of space. I am very dependent on nature and the things around me.’
Whether glimpsed from the house through airy lace curtain (as in Springtime Through the Window, 1980), or painted close up amid their luxuriant growth (The Garden 1992), Cooke’s gardens are gloriously immersive.
Pulsing with raw, lived experience, her paintings are not merely pretty flower pictures. And if their visual record is anything to go by, Cooke’s intense relationship with her gardens only deepened over the years – something that gardeners lucky enough to garden in one place for any length of time, will relate to.
Each painting expresses a very particular moment in time. Sometimes the gardens are empty, sometimes Cooke’s children make an appearance. Hortus Siccus, painted in 1967, is a somewhat desolate autumnal – wintry even – scene, all sepia tones and desiccated flower heads, outlined with fluid calligraphy.
Its summery seaside counterpart, Toujours en Fete, (1969) offers a more bucolic scene – with blue skies and children ensconced beneath a tree and a Moses basket set among a verdant meadow, flower studded like a medieval tapestry.
Cooke’s springtime paintings lift the spirits, perfectly capturing the excitement of early white blossom set against blue skies. The naked branches of hawthorn and prunus carve classically serpentine Hogarthian ‘lines of beauty’ across the canvas. There’s also something of a Japanese influence – both in the blossom and the spare, pared down compositions – in Cooke’s garden subjects.
Apart from the subject matter, one of the most enjoyable and rewarding aspects of this show is discovering Cooke, an artist I had not knowingly encountered before. Her compositional clarity and expressive, almost musical brushwork were a revelation and so too her grit and resilience. Highly recommended. The exhibition continues until 10 September.
Jean Cooke: Ungardening
The Garden Museum, 5 Lambeth Palace Road, London SE1 7LB
21 June to 10 September 2023