At Piano Nobile

Eleanor Birne

Jean Cooke liked painting her sofa. ‘I kept painting that sofa,’ she said. ‘It dominated my life. People came and sat down on it and I painted them.’ In Sofas Galore (c.1980), two figures recline at opposite ends of a pale peach Chesterfield, its creases and buttons lovingly re-created in paint. The two figures are the same person: Jason, Cooke’s son. One Jason, dressed in black, reads a book; the other lies curled up at the opposite end, staring blankly ahead. Pots of flowers in purple, blue and white float in front of them, not quite touching the dark wooden floor or the pile of books and magazines. The room has an air of intimate disorder – drawers are half-open, books casually abandoned, canvases stacked up in the corner – and two paintings hang on the wall: animated, semi-abstract landscapes that resemble some of Cooke’s own work. Under the straight frame of one of the paintings, the top of the sofa sags in a comfortable arc. Boredom, abundance, domesticity: it could be a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Sofas Galore (c.1980)
Sofas Galore (c.1980)

But moods change. Downstairs at the Piano Nobile gallery at Kings Place (where the show runs until 27 April) is Purple Sofa. Two children are perched on hard-to-make-out stools or chairs in front of a peachy purple sofa. They are rigid-looking, as though posed for a formal family portrait. A white rabbit sits on the floor nearby. The weirdness of the rabbit roaming the living room, the roughness of the paint marks and the lurid colours (the lime green of the girl’s jumper, the wild purple and pink of the background) undercut any sense of conventional portraiture. The sofa seems to be suspended in mid-air, dissolving into the wall. The pleats on the girl’s skirt and the stripes on the boy’s jacket are frantically busy; the figures may be fixed, doll-like, but things whirl chaotically, noisily around them.

There’s prettiness, domesticity and decoration in Cooke’s work, but at the same time an interest in abstraction. She could be masterful in her use of space and colour to create and control chaos – in Sofas Galore a bright green connects the edge of a stacked canvas, the foliage of the flowers and the cushions underneath the boys’ heads – while her brushstrokes seem in constant movement, going in whichever direction they want and sometimes taking off from their objects altogether. She didn’t try to make her paintings perfect, but the overpainting and reworking that remains visible has a life of its own. In these areas, figures and objects shrink and expand; eerie uncertainty gives way to firmness. The faces of her subjects, including children, whom she often painted, are neither flattering nor ordinary. They look as though they are thinking their own thoughts.

Cooke isn’t nearly as well known as she should be. She was born in 1927, in Lewisham, where her parents ran a hardware and grocery shop. ‘My mother wouldn’t let me go to school till I was six and a half,’ she once said. ‘She didn’t believe in schools.’ As a child Cooke spent much of her time in the shop, hiding among the clutter under the counter, where she liked to listen to the customers chatting and try to imagine what they looked like. She made things in plasticine – heads, flowers – and drew and painted from a young age. When she was 16 she enrolled at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, where she studied illustration and textile design and took life drawing classes with Bernard Meninsky, who was known for his heavy black charcoal lines (Cooke preferred a 3H pencil). She went on to study sculpture at Goldsmiths – getting the highest mark in the country in her first exam – and pottery at Camberwell. (Pottery was appealing because she was broke and oil paints were expensive while clay was provided for free.) It looked as if she might do anything.

But then, in 1953, she met John Bratby. The year after they got together and got married – it took a week – Bratby finished his studies at the Royal College of Art and, thanks to a famous essay by David Sylvester in Encounter, found himself at the head of a movement. ‘Everything but the kitchen sink? The kitchen sink too,’ Sylvester wrote to describe the work of Bratby and others – Derrick Greaves, Edward Middleditch, Jack Smith – who were busy painting chip fryers, dustbins, toilets. The Kitchen Sink realists were soon famous in a time of Angry Young Men; a decade later Bratby painted Paul McCartney. But Cooke wanted to paint too, and Bratby didn’t like it: couldn’t she just pose? He was jealous of her work and often violent. Cooke was ‘terrified of him, we all were’. He allowed her to paint for three hours a day, from nine in the morning until midday, in a little room in their house in Blackheath. If he needed a canvas in a hurry, he would paint over one of hers. The kitchen sink made its way into Cooke’s still lifes in the form of Saxa salt drums and Swan Vesta matches, but she resisted too – refusing, for instance, to put black lines around everything, as Bratby wanted her to. Her pictures sold. She had solo shows at the Leicester Galleries and at the Royal Academy. ‘I was pretty alarmed when Jean put her prices up so her pictures were more expensive than mine,’ Bratby said in an interview. ‘But I just went out and put mine up higher than hers and felt better.’

In 1972 Bratby fell in love with the 25-year-old Diane Hills, whom Cooke had brought back to pose for him, and moved out of the family home. Cooke tried for a while to get him back, writing desperate letters: ‘If you cut off my arms I would not miss them as much as you. If you cut off my legs I would not miss them as much as you. If you took away my sight I would not notice it had gone for I miss you so much.’ Bratby started divorce proceedings at the end of 1973, alleging irretrievable marital breakdown and Cooke’s adultery (she had made plans to sail off around the world with two young Argentinians, Daniel and Carlos). In her own statement, Cooke alleged ‘habitual violence since the date of the said marriage’.

In the context of this upheaval, it’s extraordinary that so many of Cooke’s paintings capture moments of domestic ease; even the landscapes have an unexpected lightness. Inevitably, critics have compared the work of the two painters. Max Wykes-Joyce decided that Cooke was ‘painting the calm intervals between her husband’s more stormy canvases’. Bratby himself said that Cooke’s work is ‘the complete antithesis of mine – hers is reticent while mine is imurttingly [sic] assertive, hers is quiet while mine is stentorian.’ Bratby couldn’t leave an inch of canvas unfilled; Cooke believed in space, that a painting is ‘more beautiful the more simplified it is’. But quiet, reticent? Not in Portrait of John Bratby Seated (c.1970), which she painted towards the end of their marriage. Bratby sits, diminished, in a roughly painted floral chair, hands clasped together, legs crossed. He gazes down to the side, not at the painter, with a dark shadow over half his face. Nell Dunn noted the ‘quite spare and lyrical’ tone of some of Cooke’s portraits but that doesn’t apply here. She has pinned Bratby down – there’s such firmness in the brushstrokes constructing the stripes of his trousers, his bare ankles, his mustard-yellow slippers.

Cooke had many modes. A melancholic self-portrait from 1954 (not included in this show) recalls the work of the German painter Paula Modersohn-Becker with its intense dark-eyed stare; the woman in The Black Hat from 1970 is Modigliani-ish in the glowing yellow of her skin, the inclination of her head. There’s a hint of Winifred Nicholson’s delicate prettiness about the flowers and colours and light in some of her still lifes. But she escapes that decorative sort of influence, as she eventually escaped Bratby’s. Consider Up the Road and Pigeon Die (1964), a painting of lilies in cellophane in a box window, with two dead pigeons on the cloth-covered table beside them. Cooke used to keep white pigeons; they would sit on her easel while she worked. In the painting, glum terraced houses line up along the road outside; the cellophane has a pearly glow; everything is dark, suburban, weird, funereal. Nothing could be further from Nicholson’s Cyclamen and Primula or Wildflower Windowsill. Comparisons didn’t suit Cooke anyhow. When asked if she liked to be thought of alongside Nicholson, Anne Redpath (with her pictures of household objects) and Mary Newcomb (with her ethereal East Anglian landscapes), Cooke replied: ‘I wasn’t very keen on women. I felt they were rather treacherous.’

She didn’t like memory to interfere with what she saw; or, as the critic Andrew Lambirth once put it, ‘she has encouraged herself to have a bad memory’ so that she could wake up each day and look at the world differently. One of her favourite places was the shoreline near her cliff-top cottage at Birling Gap in Sussex, where she spent half her time. There are a number of paintings done from inside a cave – two from 1965, Cave and Cave Painting, showing the sea at different moments in different moods (still and turbulent) with different greys and blues – and one, undated, called Cave Painting I, which tells another story altogether, the cave mouth now Moorish in shape, meeting at a pointed apex, with tendrils of seaweed reaching along the walls. In 1995 Cooke’s cottage above that cave had to be demolished because of coastal erosion; she rented the next coastguard’s cottage along. This one was said to have ten years before it too would fall off the cliff, but it didn’t, and she died there in 2008.