When looking at any of Jonathan Delafield Cook’s charcoal drawings the eye at first seizes and consumes the image purely as a kind of specimen, not yet seduced by its surface textures. Whether he is presenting inanimate forms (such as nests or shells), or living creatures (like birds, cattle, or marine mammals), each item is shown as an isolated type against a white background, in a way that simultaneously evokes both the exacting empiricism of the laboratory, while also suggesting the artificial neutrality of the photographic studio.
Darwin’s studies with natural history have provoked a lingering response in the imagination of Jonathan Delafield Cook. During a series of visits to the Natural History Museum at Tring and the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, he studied many of the specimens that Darwin brought back with him from the Beagle voyage of 1831–6. This includes important unique varieties of bird nests, which have become a rich source for Delafield Cook’s ongoing investigation of visually arresting forms.
While Darwin insisted that his artists produce a kind of absolute, or photographic truth, Delafield Cook’s work involves a much more individual response. In preparing an image, he does make use of photographs. But these are reference points only, resembling the preliminary studies a portraitist might make from a model, or the plein air sketches a landscape artist formerly painted on the spot in order to produce a masterwork back in the studio. In his studio, Delafield Cook sifts and unites his photographic sources to create a composite that is rooted in direct observation, but which evolves through a process of imaginative discovery. The use of charcoal as his medium is central to this revelation. Rather than working in a linear fashion, building up a body of marks on his sheet, Delafield Cook’s method has more in common with that of a mezzotint engraver, introducing light, tone and texture to a dark ground. This permits the flexibility to improvise and to revise an image as it develops. Areas that dissatisfy the artist can be reworked in charcoal, and recast as new forms. As he works from dark to light, there is almost a sense of him plucking his images from the blackness. The process also evokes a kind of archaeological excavation of pre-existing images, although this appealing metaphor fails to take into account the artist’s hand in shaping his creations.
You need to get close to the drawings to see the miraculous subtleties Delafield Cook achieves. His sheets are speckled and grainy, blurred and rubbed. Like mezzotints, they often have a velvety depth that draws the eye deeper into the image – something that works especially well in the studies he has made of bird’s nests (based on examples in the Hunterian collection at Glasgow University and the Natural History Museum, Tring). By enlarging the scale of these delicate structures, he forces the viewer to think of them not just as boyhood curiosities, but as incredibly varied dwelling spaces, created with skill and individuality following some preordained patterns of practicality and endurance.
Drawn to subjects for their graphic, abstract or tonal potential, Delafield Cook plays both with scale and the sense of familiarity/strangeness of his chosen subjects, as well as the properties of his preferred medium - charcoal. The sensual quality of the charcoal – the material that Delafield Cook has worked with almost exclusively - is at odds with the precise and finely-detailed results that he achieves. Although there is a close relationship between the realism of the works and the medium of photography, Delafield Cook writes ‘the artist is more patient than the camera’.
Each form is recreated with such meticulous attention to detail that we understand implicitly that these images sit on the threshold of scientific enquiry. And yet ultimately every one of them is based on subjective impressions, resulting from repeated observation and acquired knowledge, rather than being a transcription of a single photographic moment.
Jonathan Delafield Cook (born, London 1965) trained as an architectural draughtsman in Japan, winning many awards for his detailed drawings. After completing his training he returned to England to study at the Royal College of Art (1994 - 1995) receiving the Darwin Scholarship. Cook's exquisite charcoal drawings of a variety of subjects - cows, flowers, nests, fish, barnacles - have a photographic quality and are made with a remarkable attention to detail. Much of his time is spent in research collections of museums, and he has a strong interest in the areas where art and science overlap. Direct references to a long tradition of rigour and close observation in classification and taxonomic illustration are made, but in the end Cook is engaged in creating works of art for their graphic, abstract or tonal potential. Cook’s work has been included in many international exhibitions, including Flower Myths at the Fondation Beyeler Basel, and Flower Power at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek.