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In this week's blog, artist Jo Kori responds to one of her favourite works in the Jerwood Collection, Daphne Spencer with a Green Scarf, 1953.

From a very young age, drawing has been an intensely contemplative activity for me. It continues to be a way of connecting and working out ideas and concepts, usually as a schema to make 3-dimensional spatial constellations. My artwork involves creating an evocative experience, exploring themes of loss and memory, as well as legacies triggered by associations with objects I encounter. I use unconventional materials for constructing these 3D environments, like foil and gum strip paper.

I have visited Stanley Spencer’s portrait of Daphne, his niece, many times in the last 2 years. I’ve enjoyed this opportunity to reflect on why it’s one of my favourite pieces in the Jerwood Collection. It’s a fact that I’ve always had a soft spot for Spencer. I came from a very religious family on both sides, and I find what Spencer got up to both amusing and familiar. He could so easily be an embarrassing relative of mine, driven by his own peculiar (to the rest of the world) religious logic to behave in the most extraordinary way – both epic and disastrous in parallel.

Spencer’s portrait of Daphne is more conservative in its composition compared to his better-known Cookham Resurrection mural which brings together the sacred and the profane. But it does have its own kind of intensity. My response, Portrait in Absentia, is a result of my desire to understand my own connections to his painting and its relationship to my grandmother, still in her later youth during that immediate post-war era, when Spencer painted Daphne’s portrait.

The brooch Daphne wears reminds me of a brooch my grandmother JoJo (short for Josephine) gave me some years ago, which she used to wear pinned to her many black tops and dresses. JoJo’s brooch came from India, her birthplace, and is made from fine silver work. She is now 92 and has Alzheimer’s, which she is managing well, but our family is acutely aware of how important it is to help her hold on to the parts of her identity that haven’t yet slipped away.

In 1953, the date this portrait was painted, JoJo was 31 and had had her fourth child. Soon after she made her own arrangements to get herself sterilized – not an easy decision at a time when married women had very few birth control options, particularly if you were a Roman Catholic. Daphne’s pensive, internalised expression has an echo of how I imagine JoJo may have felt when arriving at her decision. She has also recently been telling everyone about her early lesbian relationships - something she never previously revealed, but she now has a large group of grandchildren and great grandchildren who are accepting and relaxed about discovering this new aspect of her. JoJo’s independent spirit and sense of humour are key aspects of her identity and vitality that we would be disturbed at losing. The sadness of this prospect informs our bittersweet relationship with her at the moment – as someone we have with us and yet not with us, on far too many occasions.

My drawing focuses on an abstracted, fragmented portrait of someone who is both present and absent. The pair of brooches, JoJo’s and another from my own brooch collection, is a postscript reference to my taking them with me on visits, to help jog her memory towards happy places of memory. I look at this drawing and wonder how much of JoJo will live on in her grandchildren (she has 20) and great-grandchildren (currently stands at 12). Certainly there’s more than one female in our family that looks like her.

Jo Kori will be leading a series of workshops as part of the Jerwood Drawing Festival this summer, click here to find out more.

Images: (top) Jo Kori, Portrait in Absentia, 2014; (bottom) Sir Stanley Spencer, Daphne Spencer with a Green Scarf, 1953 © Estate of Sir Stanley Spencer/Bridgeman Images.

15 July, 2014
Written by Jo Kori