Jean and Dayan, 1968
John Bratby RA (1928 - 1992)
RA Collection: Art
This is a triple portrait of John Bratby’s wife, the artist Jean Cooke RA, and their newborn son, Dayan. Dayan was just two weeks old when Bratby completed the picture, the speed of execution reflected in the loose brushwork and sketchy appearance.
Cooke is depicted three times, each version demonstrating a different aspect of her experience as a mother in the weeks following the birth of her son. On the left, Cooke cradles the infant Dayan and appears to be breastfeeding. On closer inspection, she is in fact feeding Dayan with a small bottle. This jarring conflict between the Cooke's bare chest and her decision to bottle-feed implies a distance between mother and child, reflecting the severe postnatal depression that Cooke suffered.
In the centre, Cooke wears a thick woollen jumper and fixes the viewer with a hollow stare, her face white with exhaustion. This painting was made in late March; her jumper seems unseasonably wintery for the time of year. In this central portrait Bratby highlights the vulnerability of his wife, her isolation from her husband and young son, the jumper symbolising her attempt to protect herself from the outside world. The Aladdin heater in the background, used for warming the child’s milk, highlights the absence of her baby son, leaving the viewer to wonder about the relationship between mother and child.
In the third portrait on the right, Cooke lies prostrate with a calm yet guarded expression. She meets the viewer’s gaze but shows no particular emotion. This may reflect Bratby’s difficulty in fully understanding his wife during her postnatal depression; the artist can only paint what he sees on the surface, unable to access his wife’s inner feelings.
Bratby and Cooke had a tempestuous relationship and experienced periods of unhappiness and tension during their marriage. This painting records just one moment in their family life, Bratby describing it as ‘a visual document’ and commenting that Cooke was in tears throughout the painting process. The couple divorced in 1977, around 10 years after this painting was made.
Each representation of Cooke stands starkly against the murky background, only a few objects recognisable around her. This draws attention to the sitter, a study of the artist’s wife rather than a snapshot of their domestic environment. This is somewhat unusual for Bratby, who usually painted the surroundings in his portraits in greater detail. He was a proponent of ‘Kitchen Sink realism’, a style of the mid-20th century characterised by paintings of mundane and everyday subject matter. Working in this way, Bratby produced paintings depicting spaces around their daily existence such as Still Life with Chip Frier (1954) and The Toilet (1955).
Despite his increasingly controlling and violent behaviour towards Cooke, the couple were a source of mutual inspiration throughout their relationship and made many portraits of each other. This is a particularly harrowing example exploring the early challenges of motherhood and the impact these have on adult relationships.
1525 mm x 1140 mm
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