jo brocklehurst, the mysterious outsider who illustrated punk

She sometimes wore three pairs of glasses at once, was exceptionally beautiful, and drew New Romantics and anarchist squatters in colors so vivid they glow under UV light.

by Alice Newell-Hanson
07 February 2017, 7:20pm

Jo Brocklehurst enrolled at Central Saint Martins, London's most prestigious art school, when she was just 14 years old and fresh out of an all-girls English boarding school. "This was in 1949, and I think she was part of an experimental program," explains Olivia Ahmad, a curator at London's House of Illustration, "She was clearly precociously talented."

Brocklehurst studied life drawing under legendary fashion illustrator Elizabeth Suter, who would often bring eccentrically dressed performers into the studio to pose. "Clearly, that resonated with [Brocklehurst]," says Ahmad. After graduating, the artist went on to create illustrations for fashion magazines (and later taught at Saint Martins herself, as a guest lecturer), but her drawings of London's countercultural kids in the 1970s through to the 1990s are what cemented her legacy.

The new exhibition Jo Brocklehurst: Nobodies and Somebodies collects just a fraction of Brocklehurst's prolific output, and is the first solo exhibition of her work since she passed away in 2006. Co-curated by Ahmad along with Brocklehurst's longtime friend and muse Isabelle Bricknall, the show focuses on the artist's personal work: her brilliantly colorful drawings of mohawked punks in late-70s London squats, wildly costumed New Romantics, and the latex-clad habitués of 80s New York fetish clubs.

Jo was not a punk herself. She lived in London's residential West Hampstead neighborhood for most of her life, cycled everywhere, and would invite members of the infamous anarchist Puppy Collective over for tea (and portraits) after they moved into a mansion down the road. It was seeing these new neighbors walking down Westbere Road that first drew her into London's whirl of emerging subcultures in the late 70s.

Drawing from life, in club corners or in her own sitting room, Jo filled sketchbooks with luminous crayon impressions of wild nightlife figures. She had an eye for detail, capturing the pins and studs on a punk's leather vest or the flaming red eyeshadow of a drag performer. But her interests were deeper than aesthetic. "She said it wasn't just the clothes," Ahmad explains, "It was more than anthropological. She had an empathy with outsiders. It was a feeling out of humanity."

In interviews, Brocklehurst's friends have speculated that she identified with figures who lived outside of cultural norms because she felt like an outsider herself. "She was born in the 1930s, half-English and half-Sri Lankan, and she likely encountered prejudice because of that," says Ahmad. Despite being unnervingly beautiful and stylish (something else her friends highlight in interviews), Brocklehurst maintained a degree of mysterious remove. She sometimes wore multiple pairs of sunglasses and spectacles on her head at a time, and in the 70s, 80s, and 90s she nearly always wore a blonde wig over her naturally dark hair, like part of a costume.

In 1980, four of Jo's pieces — drawings of punks, goths, and New Romantics — were included in the boundary-breaking exhibition Women's Images of Men at the ICA in London. "That really raised her profile," says Ahmad, "Spare Rib said she cut through macho stereotypes and filled her work with humor." On the back of that success, Brocklehurst had her first solo show in 1983 at Francis Kyle gallery in London, and later that year showed with Leo Castelli in New York. "But she could be quite uncompromising," says Ahmad. She didn't want to keep producing the same punk portraits people expected; she traveled, experimented, and developed her style. She went to New York and Berlin. And in the 1990s, in London, Brocklehurst went to fetish clubs like Torture Garden, documenting leather and latex lovers and all the Central Saint Martins kids who would flock there on weekends to show off their own extreme creations.

Since her passing, Jo's work hasn't been widely shown. Just one of her pieces is in a public collection, at the V&A in London, and she sold few pieces during her lifetime. The bulk of her images remains with her family. "She was incredibly prolific," says Ahmad, "But a portion of her work is thought to be missing. It's quite mysterious. The work in this show is just the tip of the iceberg." But even this small sampling is "a unique record in drawing," Ahmad adds: a vivid, personal, and female perspective on punk.

"Jo Brocklehurst: Nobodies and Somebodies" is on show at the House of Illustration in London through May 14.


Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Images courtesy the Estate of Jo Bocklehurst

Jo Brocklehurst
house of illustration