Vivid Histories

Vivid Histories

Bringing a new lease of life to found objects, Julie Cockburn’s delicate embellishment of photographs has attracted significant attention over the last few years. In September, it is the focus of a new exhibition at London’s Flowers Gallery. All Work and No Play explores two key tenets of the artist’s practice: graft and leisure. Her stitched pieces take hours of close attention and manual labour, which, she says, has encouraged her to “play” with materials and methods when she finishes her working day in the studio. She has experimented with novel ways of using quotidian things (sketching with plasticine being a particularly notable example), and during this “leisure” time also builds freeform, expressive sculptures such as Work Life Balance (2017), a set of tactile Perspex game parts.

By adding embroidery or splicing and reassembling the images she finds, Cockburn remakes things, offering them an afterlife – or resonance beyond their intended material form. In so doing she gives voice to these objects, rescuing them from obscurity in the process. This clearly engages with ideas of femininity: many of her images come from the 1940s and 1950s, and by acquiring a story, her subjects – often women – are, in an idiosyncratic way, written back into history. Her chosen medium of also subverts a stereotypically feminine and domestic pastime: these works are made to be seen and engaged with, taking needlework firmly from the private to the public sphere.

Likewise, the tension between labour and recreation provides a clear link between the period her found items come from and the present day. Midcentury Britain saw ongoing debates about the efficacy of a shortened working week, and the promotion of suitably moral (and reliably gendered) hobbies. The cultivation of such gentile pastimes as sewing was viewed as wholly appropriate for ladies — but Cockburn’s striking geometric patterns and vivid visual language certainly would not have been. In creating a disconnect between gentle sepia tones and sharp, bright colours, she fluently brings the past firmly into a present-day focus.

Anna Feintuck

Julie Cockburn: All Work and No Play opens 6 September at Flowers Gallery, London. For more information:

1. Julie Cockburn, First Flush (2017). Courtesy of the artist and Flowers Gallery.