Jean Cooke was born in London in 1927. There is a wry directness in the three letters from Cooke (writing under her then married name Jean Bratby; her husband was the painter John Bratby) to Ruth Borchard. In her second letter, having made a telling point about the overwhelming preponderance of male artists in Ruth’s collection, Cooke agreed to compromise on price: ‘I am not a feminist but to have only 3 women painters out of 91 make [sic] rather poor odds so 21 gns it is.’ Characteristically, she then went straight to the point: ‘Are you going to come and pick up the painting?’
Cooke has made some of the most fiercely original and moving self-portraits in modern British art. In a ‘personal word from the Artist’, for a 1967 exhibition, she wrote:
‘These paintings have been done over about 15 years… There are rather a lot of self portraits but I do not think it does any harm to know what the artist looks like. Anyway I do self portraits from time to time.’
Cooke was in her late twenties when she painted this self-portrait. What one critic has called John Bratby’s ‘bold images, thick paint and primary colours’ are in total contrast to what the playwright Nell Dunn (in an interview with the artist in R.A. Magazine) called ‘the quite spare and lyrical’ quality of Cooke’s portraits. Dunn went on to say, ‘Yet, like her, they have a sense of the unpredictable.’
‘Spare and lyrical’ is a term that keenly evokes this c.1955 self-portrait. Here, a disquietingly intense female figure is seen against a thinly-applied, greyish-yellow background. The work has obsessive notes of quite shocking freshness within a rather cool, abstract overall composition. The dark top or sweater, the long, brown hair, the huge, staring eyes, boldly outlined red cheeks and reddened nose, are all most urgently, even ominously, seen and felt.
The background seems to prefigure that in many pictures by Cooke: the delicate painting of the flowery curtains and the glimpse of neighbouring houses, anticipate her later rendering of what Nell Dunn called Cooke’s ‘large rambling house with enormous wild garden’. For Cooke, painting (to adapt her own words) was ‘truly dying and coming alive every day.’