InSight No. XC

Jean Cooke | Cave Painting I, 1965 c.

Sussex's chalk landscape has inspired painters and writers from Enid Bagnold and William Nicholson to the subject of this week's InSight, the painter Jean Cooke.

Jean Cooke

Cave Painting I, 1965 c.



For the last 425,000 years or so, the South Downs have been worn down by the lapping waters of the English Channel. Britain's gradual separation from the European mainland began with the partial flooding of terrain between present-day France and England, caused by the collapse of an ice dam that once stretched from Scotland to Scandinavia. The land bridge (known as Doggerland) finally disappeared around 7,000 years ago. Though the stretch of water between England and France has long-since acquired a placid familiarity, the geology of this terrain is fragile and transient. The landscape's friable chalk composition is nowhere more apparent than at the seafront's sheer white cliff edge.



The painter Jean Cooke (1927-2008) was familiar with the English Channel's quixotic frontier. As a young girl in 1939 her family moved to a place near the Sussex coast, and she subsequently took her own children on holiday to the chalk coast. She later rented a cottage at Birling Gap as a studio. Lying a short distance from Beachy Head and the Seven Sisters, Birling Gap is one of the places most severely affected by coastal erosion. Every seven years, the terrain recedes by an average of five metres. When her cottage was demolished in 1995 to prevent it dropping off the cliff, Cooke simply moved into the one next door. She died before the next demolition could take place.



In two large scale paintings of the chalk coast, both given the evocative title of Cave Painting, Cooke experimented with a new perspective on the landscape. One of her sons has described how the family would spend summer days inside caves on the chalk coast, lighting a small fire inside and looking out to sea. Some have read these paintings as womb-like images, loaded with a subtext of shelter and motherhood. The paintings envision the chalk landscape from within, the walls lit with brilliant reflections from the beach beyond and every surface pitted with the impression of water-raked pebbles, streaked seaweed and chalk. The sea registers as a narrow sliver of dazzling water at the distant horizon. In Cave Painting I, the apogee of the cave mouth appears as an ogee arch - an extraordinary observation implying the subject's architectural quality. The thinned, refined quality of paint and the pellucid effects of light in Cooke's work resemble those qualities as realised fifty years earlier by William Nicholson in his paintings of Rottingdean, some fifteen miles along the coast to the west.


Cooke's subjects typically gravitated towards the domestic sphere, reflecting her dual commitment as an artist and a mother - the site of a family holiday, the front room at her home in Blackheath, the children, the garden, her own likeness in the mirror. The appearance of these things was not ordinary, however. The fluid outlines, striking compositions and human resonance of her paintings invests them with a peculiar type of vigour. This is not realism. For Cooke, the subject was necessarily 'real' - she was an observant representational artist in the mould of her teacher Carel Weight - but what followed belonged to a world of her own making. Her peculiar personality and her peculiar outlook found expression in her art.


In her lifetime, Cooke achieved recognition as a Royal Academician, being elected in 1972 at the age of 45. She consistently exhibited at the Summer Exhibition until her death, her paintings increasing in compositional clarity and an awareness of painterly touch. Some of her latest works returned to the seascape and the beach beneath Sussex's chalk cliffs, all of them made at her Birling Gap studio. A series of 20-by-20-centimetre canvases explore the layered effects of water lapping over pebbles, seaweed and sand. Reviewing Piano Nobile's 2019 exhibition of Cooke's work, Eleanor Birne wrote in the London Review of Books that 'Cooke isn't nearly as well known as she should be.' Her paintings of Sussex's chalk coast show her to be one of the great British landscape artists of the post-war period.




1. Jean Cooke, Cave Painting Icirca 1965, oil on canvas, 152.5 x 149 cm | For Sale
2. The geography of Europe before the North Sea flooded into the Channel 425,000 years ago
3. Birling Gap © National Trust Images / John Miller

4. William Nicholson, Cliffs at Rottingdean, 1910, Southampton City Art Gallery

5. Jean Cooke, 1959, photographed by Ida Kar © National Portrait Gallery

6. Jean Cooke, Pebblescirca 2000s, oil on canvas, 20 x 20 cm | For Sale

November 17, 2021
of 235