Friday 10 February 2012

Look-See Cooksey

You know me, I like a challenge as much as I like a good painting.  A combination of these two marvellous things has arisen this week, just by chance.

Picture me, sat on my sofa at home, assisting Mr Walker with the research for a piece he is writing on the lovely TM Rooke.  I am idly flicking through the Public Catalogue Foundation catalogue for Dorset and I spy a very lovely picture indeed that is in the Russell-Cotes collection.  On enquiring, I discover that it sadly cannot be displayed at present as it urgently needs conservation work and is in a queue for raising funds.
‘What do we know of the artist?’ I asked, and Mr Walker gave a considered look and replied it wasn’t a familiar name.  ‘Aha!’ I cried, ‘I shall find out more!’

The artist in question is May Louise Greville Cooksey, and this is what I have found out.

This is the picture I spied in the PCF catalogue for Dorset

Maria Virgo (1914)

I was struck by it as it reminded me of the very well known image by Marianne Stokes, that graced our Christmas postage stamps a couple of years ago.

Madonna and Child (1907) Marianne Stokes
From searching Bridgeman and the Your Paintings website (PCF catalogue online via the BBC) I think this may be the only Cooksey in a public collection, although there may be others, possibly in Liverpool.  I’d love to know if anyone knows of any more of Cooksey pictures in galleries.  Anyway, on with the story…

May Louise Greville Cooksey was born in Birmingham on 7th November 1878, the eldest of five children.  Her parents were Harry Smith Cooksey and Catherine Ellen Williams Cooksey.  Harry had been an agent for Mansell Brewery, but set up his own removals and storage business, first of all in a pub, then in its own premises.  Harry came from Southampton originally, but his parents had moved to Tuffley in Gloucestershire when he and his siblings were young and there he met Catherine.  They moved up to Leamington Priors, where they remained almost to the end of their lives, before moving to Surrey.  May and her siblings all attended school, with May attending the Leamington and the Liverpool Schools of Art.  In 1899, at the age of 20, May converted to the Catholic faith, being baptised at St Francis Xaviers in Liverpool.  In 1901 she received a Liverpool City Travelling Scholarship which meant she could travel to Italy and paint.  She became a member of the Liverpool Academy of Arts, living out the rest of her life at 1 Bold Place, St Luke's Chambers, Liverpool, then moving to Crosby in Lancashire, where she died in 1943.

Her work is very attractive, what you can find of it, which is why I am eager to see more.  Take, for example, this rather beautiful portrait…

There is a rather soften-Pre-Raphaelite style to it, reminiscent of Gwen John and Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale (there are two names I didn’t expect to say in the same breath).  Also, I can recognise the style of Boyce in the patterned background and single, beautiful figure.  Her work also covered tempera-styled panels, referencing murals and aestheticism…

Young Woman Holding Honesty
Dolce Far Niente
There are obvious parallels to the work of Sandys or Rossetti, with lush Renaissance ladies displaying their beauty.  I’m intrigued by her colour palette, seemingly changing radically from one image to the next.  Although the two ladies above are quite similar in subject and mechanics, and may even be the same model, the difference of the powder-pastels of the Honesty picture is striking when compared to the rich colour of Dolce Far Niente.  Look at the orange and blue in that dress!  Stunning.

I’m not much good with cityscapes and landscapes, I do like my pictures to be about people, but her work done while travelling is attractive and interesting.

A Bruges Street Scene

She seems slightly impressionistic and used light well.  Venezia makes me long for summer and the glint of sunlight on a canal, although it is not that glamorous down the Kennet and Avon on the whole. 

I think where May Cooksey has suffered is that she never produced anything that was a blockbuster, she never had her one killer image that made her famous and got people collecting her art.  A possible reason for this was that she specialised in religious art during and after the First World War.  A bit like TM Rooke, that is not going to make you fashionable, however lovely your work is.  May produced a series of oils on The Stations of the Cross for Our Lady of Mount Carmel Roman Catholic Church and Presbytery in Liverpool in 1928, which are on display and mentioned in their listing.   

Despite exhibiting at the Royal Academy (possibly where Merton Russell-Cotes saw Maria Virgo) and extensively at The Walker Gallery in Liverpool (great name for a gallery.  I will be up there to claim it one day), May Cooksey is one of the forgotten gems of Edwardian art, which is a shame as I want to know more and see more.


  1. This is what I found for her on a quick check so far.

    1891 census Cooksey family;
    Harry S Cooksey age 38 Manager of Removing & Storing Business & Public room
    has Bad Sight born Shirley Hampshire
    Catherine E. wife ahe 32 born Blakeney Gloucester
    May L.G. dau age 12 Scholar born Birmingham
    Edith M.R. dau age 11 Bad Sight scholar born Leamington Warwick
    Oteline E. dau. age 9 scholar ------------------Max W. son age 6 scholar------------------------Alice P.dau. age 6 months-----------------------
    Harriett Drinkwater servant Asthmaticalage 20 born Birmingham
    Address 13 Lansdowne Circus, Leamington priors Leamington Warwick

    Was in the 1891 census for the town.

  2. I have to admit that when all else fails I turn to census, and so much of what I wrote above comes from tracing the family history of the Cookseys. I was amused to see that Harry was from Southampton, near where I live now! I am currently combining someone else's family history with some art history and will tell you more later! Thanks Nancy :)

  3. I happened to acquire a small portfolio containing Cooksey's sketchbooks which she used while on her Italian sojourn. Along with her many architectural studies, I found what I take to be the original pencil study for the spray of lilies that appear in Maria Virgo. I would be happy to share images of these drawings.

  4. Yes please! Thank you so much for getting in touch, what a marvellous portfolio it must be.

  5. My Parish Church in Liverpool; Our Lady, Star of the Sea, in Seaforth has 5 giant paintings my May Cooksey above our high altar depicting The Life of Christ (the Annunciation, The Visit of the Magi, The Flight into Egypt, Finding Jesus in the Temple and, I believe, the Wedding Feast at Cana - although this last one I cannot be sure about).

  6. My parish in Liverpool 8 ,our Lady of mount Carmel has the stations of the Cross painted by her they are massive .I always wondered who painted them recently asked our priest and he told me it was May Cooksy .very intrigued to find out more.


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx