Jean Cooke, who died on August 6 aged 81, was a painter of portraits, still lifes and landscapes; for more than 20 years she was married to the painter John Bratby and appeared in many of his pictures, as he did in hers.
Her landscapes and figure-drawing reveal her as a first-rate draughtsman, and her subtle, understated, individual sense of colour contrasts strongly with her husband's tendency to the brash and the garish. Her portrait commissions included Drs Egon Wellesz and Walter Oakshott for Lincoln College, Oxford; and, for St Hilda's College, Oxford, Mrs Mary Bennett, the Principal.
One of her portraits of John Bratby, painted in 1955 and depicting him seated by a table covered with checked tablecloth with a cat at his feet, is in the collection of the Royal Academy. Her self-portrait and another portrait of Bratby were purchased by the Chantrey Bequest in 1969 and 1972 respectively; and her work is represented in the Tate and National galleries.
Jean Esme Oregon Cooke was born in London on February 18 1927, the daughter of Arthur Oregon Cooke, who had a grocer's shop in Lewisham. She enjoyed drawing and painting from an early age and after Blackheath High School (she had been kept at home until she was nearly seven), in 1943 she went to study art at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, Camberwell. Her subjects included textile design and life drawing, under Bernard Meninsky.
Subsequently, from 1945 to 1949, she attended Goldsmiths College School of Art, concentrating on ceramics and sculpture; and then from 1950 to 1953 she ran her own pottery workshop in Sussex. It was during the latter period that she met John Bratby, whom she married in 1953. At first Bratby encouraged her to concentrate on painting and, as a postgraduate student at the Royal College of Art, Jean Cooke studied under Carel Weight and Ruskin Spear.
From 1956 her work was included in group exhibitions. Her first solo exhibition was held in London at the Establishment Club in 1963, her second at the less unexpected venue of the Leicester Galleries in 1964. Further solo shows followed at the Bear Lane Gallery in Oxford (1965); the Moyan Gallery, Manchester (1966); and the New Grafton Gallery, London (1971). There were to be many more.
She was elected to associate membership of the Royal Academy (ARA) in 1965, and for 10 years (1964-74) was a lecturer in painting at the Royal College of Art.
At that time she signed her paintings 'Jean Bratby', and many judged her work superior to that of her husband John. This led to trouble at home; her increasingly jealous and ambitious husband now discouraged her work, painted over her canvases if it suited him, demanded that she stop using his name and knocked her about. The marriage broke down and they divorced in 1977.
Jean Cooke lived and worked mostly in Blackheath, holding 'open studios' for the Greenwich Festival from 1977 until 1994. She held numerous exhibitions at the local Woodlands Art Gallery, Greenwich, one of them a joint show with Diana Cumming, in which she included Snow and Icons, a self-portrait in which she wears an overcoat and fur hat and holds a brush.
She was president of the Blackheath Art Society, and of the Friends of Woodlands Art Gallery; and she was a member of the academic board of Blackheath School of Art from 1986 to 1988. She was a governor of the Central School of Art and Design from 1984 to 1986.
She was elected a full Royal Academician in 1972, and for many years her work has appeared annually in the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition. Among later solo shows, she had one at the Norwich Gallery in 1980, and another at the Sir Hugh Casson Room for Friends at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1990. She was a member of the Council of the Royal Academy from 1983 to 1985.
Her work was to be seen in group exhibitions at Agnews (1974), at the Dulwich Picture Gallery (1976), in 'British Painting 1952 to 1977' at the Royal Academy (1977), and at the Tate Gallery (1979). In 1996, along with Maggi Hambling, she contributed to 'In The Looking Glass', an exhibition at the Usher Gallery, Lincoln, that brought together a group of contemporary self-portraits by women.
At her house in Blackheath, 7 Hardy Road, Jean Cooke kept white domestic pigeons, which interbred with wild birds, producing multi-coloured offspring. They would perch on her easel in the studio as she worked; and pigeons and blossom from the Hardy Road garden, where she liked to paint, feature in many of Jean Cooke's pictures. If she was unwell and unable to go out and feed her birds – each of them to her an individual – they would fly into the house to find her.
In 2003 the house and most of its contents were destroyed by fire. No one was hurt in the fire, and Jean Cooke was greatly relieved to be able to rescue her tins of paint and favourite brushes. She moved into a small flat in nearby Charlton Village and carried on with her painting.
For many years she also had a Victorian fisherman's cottage-cum-studio at Birling Gap, a coastal hamlet on the Seven Sisters in Sussex. She loved the place so much that after her first cottage, having almost slipped over the cliff into the sea, was demolished, she bought the next one in the row, which it was thought had perhaps another 10 years before it, too, would topple off the cliff. She painted the sea and the cliffs, and held an exhibition in aid of the Birling Gap Safety Boat.
It was at her cottage in Birling Gap that Jean Cooke died, looking out of a window to the sea that had featured in many of her paintings.
She is survived by three sons and a daughter, all of them artistic.
Image and text by Telegraph, UK