To celebrate the opening of the House of Illustration’s exhibition Jo Brocklehurst: Nobodies and Somebodies co-curator Olivia Ahmad writes for It’s Nice That about the influential illustrator and selects four seminal artworks that landmarked her career.
From the 1960s until 2006, Jo Brocklehurst’s work captured the cutting-edge of alternative culture in London, New York and Berlin. Jo wheeled a shopping trolley full of pastels, UV paint and rolls of paper into clubnights like London’s Blitz in the 1970s and the Skin Two Rubber Ball in the 90s. She would set up her drawing board in dim corners and create A1-size portraits of the most flamboyant club goers – always working at furious speed.
Jo is best known for her paintings of London punks and New Romantics in the early 1980s, but the rest of her prolific output has been little seen until now. Over the past few months I’ve been working with Isabelle Bricknall, Jo’s close friend, model and collaborator, on a retrospective exhibition, Nobodies and Somebodies. It shows that Jo’s work is a unique record of some of the most influential subcultures of the 20th century, but it is more than just a snapshot of a time – Jo was an incredible draughtsperson, had great empathy with ‘outsiders’ and an experimental approach that is as relevant today as it was during her lifetime (1935-2006).
Miss Jacky Worp (1978)
Jo went to Central Saint Martins School of Art in 1949 when she was just 14, where she was tutored in life drawing by the pioneering fashion illustrator Elizabeth Suter. Jo herself worked as a magazine and costume book illustrator when she left art school, but she kept going back to Suter’s classes into the 1970s. Suter employed unconventional models who were often performers from London nightclubs. Jo drew these characters at Central Saint Martins, but also went to the clubs herself, drawing quickly to capture people in motion.
We don’t know for sure if Miss Jacky was drawn in the studio or in a club, but she is typical of Jo’s drawings from the time, done in soft coloured pastel line but with sharp focus. Around the same time, Jo left commercial illustration to focus on her personal interests, and described her urge to capture people as “a compulsion”.
Portrait of Tony Drayton (1981)
Jo lived on Westbere Road in West Hampstead for most of her life in a purpose-built artist’s studio. In the early 1980s members of the anarcho-punk group Puppy Collective were squatting a building on the same street. Jo saw them passing by with wild hair and customised clothes, and thought they “looked wonderful” and “understood very well what was going on in the world”.
She invited several members of the collective to her studio to pose for her, including Tony Drayton, editor of Kill Your Pet Puppy. After several hours of drawing, Jo served an elaborate afternoon tea to her models in Victorian china. The pictures caused a sensation at the time, and have gone on to define Jo’s work.
Die Eingeborne (1999)
Jo travelled throughout her life, particularly in Germany where she became interested in avant-garde theatre. In 1999 she worked for Berliner Zeitung newspaper covering the Berliner Theatertreffen, an annual festival of new German theatre in Berlin.
Each night Jo attended the premieres of plays, sketching from her seat in the dark. She then worked all night on up to three illustrations in vibrant neons that were printed alongside reviews the following morning. This macabre image of the play Die Eingeborne (The Natives) – a surreal combination of live theatre and puppetry – was never published. In the exhibition we show this and other Berliner Zeitung images that never made it to print.
Fuck Feast (1994)
In the 1990s fetish clubs in London were a meeting point of experimental performers and fashion designers, as well as sexual exploration. For Jo, they were a source of fascination.
Isabelle Bricknall, seen here as the ‘Rubber Angel’, designed a series of steel body armour fabricated by Anthony Gregory that was intended as ‘protection’ for nights on the fetish scene. Jo created several series of drawings of Isabelle and other club-goers in the armour, using reflective neons and metallic inks. The women in these portraits are like classic comic superheroes. Jo said of her images of women: “I regard myself as a feminist and for this reason I have been very concerned to paint women to appear strong and confident.”
Jo Brocklehurst: Nobodies and Somebodies is on at the House of Illustration until 14 May 2017. The exhibition has been co-curated with Isabelle Bricknall.
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