Jean Cooke’s Entangled Art

London. Nestled in a church opposite The Houses of Parliament, this exhibition at the Garden Museum in Lambeth, devoted to a forgotten female painter, presents wild gardens as a feminine space of horticultural therapy. Although literature plays a discreet role in Cooke’s work, it secretly operates as a site of resistance.

Jean Cooke, Et jamais je ne pleure et jamais je ne ris, ca. 1972, Oil on canvas, 457 mm x 457 mm, Diploma Work Given by Jean Cooke  © Royal Academy, London © Ungardening, Garden Museum, 2023 @ Photo: MuséaLitté

Jean Cooke (1927-2008) is unknown in France and little-known across the Channel. She studied at Goldsmiths College and at the Royal College of Art in London, where she held a position as a lecturer from 1964 to 1974. Her paintings tell the painful story of a female artist who was a victim of a coercive husband, John Bratby (1928-1992), one of the founders of the Kitchen Sink movement. During their marriage, she was forced to abandon ceramics for painting, gave up her name, and remained confined to their house; Bratby only allowed her to paint a few hours a day, which led her to develop a fast brushing technique. As a housewife with no money, no studio, no room of her own, gardens became her creative outlets.

Jean Cooke, View of the exhibition Ungarderning, Garden Museum, London 2023 © Estate of Jean Cooke © Piano Nobile © Photo: MuséaLitté

Her work is directly inspired by two gardens, an overgrown plot close to her house in Blackheath, in London, and a blustery meadow, on the east coast of Sussex. Cooke tended miniature wild gardens indoors and painted the immediate space of her everyday life – potted plants on window sills, windows, rooms with a view, and her four children.

Jean Cooke, Hand and Nasturtium Flower, oil on canvas, 1958, ©Piano Nobile, London, © Garden Museum, 2023, © Photo: MuséaLitté

She paints from the inside – as a recluse – immersive openings overlooking onto metaphorical neglected gardens, often so dense, so close, that the view is blocked. The derelict outdoor scenery transforms into multiple cavities and hiding places – a safe space for new narratives. In her self-portraits, she appears tired and unkempt, with her hair down. The painting divulges what nobody seems to detect; her black eye hints at the domestic violence she suffered.

In Toujours en fête (1969), which is a strange mix of Renoir’s painting La fête de Pan (1919) and Le déjeuner sur l’herbe by Manet (1863), there is neither lunch nor feast. The figures are petrified, and difficult to make out beneath the dense vegetation. The artist who is concealed in the background and appears to be keeping herself as far away as possible from the viewer, seems to be painting an imaginary canvas she dares not represent, her hand remains suspended in mid-air.

Jean Cooke, View of the exhibition Ungardening, Garden Museum, Toujours en fête, 1969, oil on canvas, Private collection & 2023, © Photo: MuséaLitté

Although it is not the main subject of her work, literature is never far away. In Through the Looking-Glass (1960), she plays, like Lewis Carroll, on the effects of scale to represent a miniature version of herself, hidden behind potted plants, through a complex mirror system, which extracts her from the domestic sphere.

Jean Cooke, Through the Looking-Glass, 1960, oil on Canvas, © Royal Academy, © Ungardening, Garden Museum, 2023 © Photo : MuséaLitté

She invokes another text, Charles Baudelaire’s poem “La Beauté” from Les Fleurs du mal (1857), which is quoted in French in the title of the painting : “Et jamais je ne pleure et jamais je ne ris” (1973)”, echoing her abusive relationship, but also her prescient self-awareness as a misunderstood artist in a male dominated landscape (“je traîne dans les airs comme un sphinx incompris”). In 1952, she was finally elected at the Royal Academy and had regular solo exhibitions at The Establishment Club (1963), Leicester Galleries (1964), Tate Gallery (1979), Royal Academy (1990) or The Usher Gallery (1996).

Jean Cooke, View of the exhibition Ungardening, Garden Museum, 2023, Et jamais je ne pleure et jamais je ne ris, 1972, oil on canvas © Royal Academy, London © Photo : MuséaLitté

The exhibition Ungarderning – a term Jean Cooke used in the Who’s Who to describe her favourite hobby, highlights the resilience of the artist whose work is built around the pioneering idea of rewilding. The garden, riddled with literary allusions, becomes a breeding ground for women’s visual and literary imagination; it thrives as a space of escape and empowerment.

Anne Chassagnol

Université Paris 8

Jean Cooke: Ungardening 21 June-10 September 2023 Garden Museum, London

Citer ce billet
achassagnol (2023, 10 août). Jean Cooke’s Entangled Art. . Consulté le 23 juin 2024, à l’adresse

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