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Artist of the Month: January 2015

Jean Cooke RA (1927 - 2008)

Published 5 January 2015

Jean Cooke RA has explored her own image through self-portraiture over many years, including painting herself wearing a heavy brass fireman’s helmet.

  • Jean Cooke has painted many portraits of her family and explored her own image through a series of self-portraits, of which the Royal Academy have three in their collection.

    Blast Bodicea (pictured) was painted at a time when she was married to fellow Academician, John Bratby RA. She recorded in an interview that she wasn’t planning to do any more self-portraits, but that John gave her one of those “lovely, lovely brass fireman’s helmets”. It was very heavy but she put it on and started to paint. She explained, however, that she “had only one mirror and I had to keep looking from under the helmet and I got a very stiff neck.” It proved too difficult to paint with the hat on but she persevered, even when John gave away the helmet, much to her annoyance. Cooke was about to abandon this picture but on seeing it through a window from the road, reconsidered, because she realised that “whatever it is, it is a very strong image.” The faint trace of the fireman’s helmet can still be seen above her head.

  • Jean Cooke studied at Central School of Arts and Crafts, Camberwell, and at the Royal College of Art where she later became a lecturer. Her first solo exhibition was held at the Establishment Club in 1963. Subsequent solo shows included the Bear Lane Gallery, Oxford (1965), the Norwich Gallery (1980) as well as many group exhibitions including British Painting 1952 to 1977 at the Royal Academy in 1977.

    Jean Cooke recollected that she painted Through the Looking Glass (pictured) in her studio in her house at 7 Hardy Road in the summer of 1960. She explains that “I just started painting flowers as they appeared. I had a passion for pansies and painted each like a portrait.” She goes on to say that she could not “resist putting myself in again” and “my neighbour’s tortoise who had walked into our garden.”

    Carel Weight RA purchased this painting from Jean Cooke’s exhibition at the Establishment Club in Soho and subsequently bequeathed it to the Royal Academy.

    From 1963 to 1973 Cooke was married to John Bratby RA with whom she had four children.

  • 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.

    Jean Cooke RA