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Jean Cooke: Ungardening

This summer the Garden Museum will present the first exhibition focusing on the magnificent garden paintings of Jean Esme Oregon Cooke RA (1927-2008).

Cooke was not a conventional gardener, once listing “ungardening” as her hobby in Who’s Who. But she was very reliant upon her gardens for the emotional support and creative inspiration they provided. Bringing together Cooke’s lyrical garden paintings and expressive portraiture, Ungardening will be an opportunity to discover rarely seen works by a historically underrated artist.

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Toujours en Fête (1969), Hortus Siccus (1967) © Estate of Jean Cooke, courtesy of Piano Nobile, London. Private collection

The exhibition will explore Cooke’s paintings of her gardens: a wild, overgrown city plot in Blackheath, London and a clifftop meadow at her coastal Sussex cottage. Works will include paintings of trees and flowers, a poppy-strewn meadow, wildflowers against a backdrop of the sea, an orchard in bloom, and Cooke’s beloved doves. Her gardens were predominantly uncultivated as Cooke left nature to its own devices.

Jean Cooke's son David Bratby views the exhibition and shares his memories of Jean as an artist, gardener and mother

'I have a very tactile approach to painting and need the feeling of space. I am very dependent on nature and the things around me.’- Jean Cooke, quoted in Contemporary British Artists (1979)

For decades Jean Cooke enjoyed a high reputation among fellow artists, becoming a member of the Royal Academy in 1972 and frequently exhibiting in the Summer Exhibition there. During her lifetime however she was little-known to the wider art-loving public, except as the wife of the more famous painter John Bratby (1928-92) who she married in 1953. Cooke would often sit for her husband but did not like the way he depicted her and so in response began to paint herself, reclaiming her own self-image.

Over 30 works will be on display, including newly discovered paintings from both public and private collections. The exhibition and its accompanying catalogue will provide the most comprehensive, in-depth exploration and analysis of Cooke’s life and art to date.

Garden Museum Curator Emma House takes a closer look at one of the highlights of Jean Cooke: Ungardening

Ungardening is guest curated by Andrew Lambirth.

Top image: Jean Cooke, Buttercups (1976) Oil on canvas © Estate of Jean Cooke, courtesy of Piano Nobile, London
Image: Jean Cooke, Through the Looking Glass (1960) Oil on canvas © Royal Academy of Arts, London, photographer John Hammond