NDAI: In praise of Rosemarie Cockayne

by Anna-Maria Hajba, Archivist

Rosemarie Cockayne (1943–2015) was a woman of extraordinary talent. After a successful career as a ballerina, she turned to art and enjoyed international success with her paintings. In the 1980s, she combined both skills to produce costume and set designs for three of Dublin City Ballet’s dance productions. Her appreciation of art extended to its therapeutic qualities, which Rosemarie harnessed in her work with several London-based charities. Her vivacious paintings and costume designs form one of the most charming collections in the National Dance Archive of Ireland.

Early years

Rosemarie Cockayne was born Rosemarie Edwina Biggers in 1943 in Montreal, Canada. Her parents were Harold Edwin Biggers (19001979), a barrister and political journalist from Australia, and Evelyn Linda née Cockayne (1906–1980), an English-born commercial artist who emigrated to Australia with her mother and sister at the age of eight. The couple married in England and later moved to Canada, where Rosemarie was born. In 1944, the Biggers family returned to England and settled in London.

Cockayne the dancer

Rosemarie was educated at Miss Ironside’s School for Girls in Kensington. Her interest in the performing arts emerged at an early age. When she was seven years old, she took mime lessons with the legendary Russian prima ballerina Tamara Karsavina (1885–1978), who quickly spotted Rosemarie’s aptitude for dance. She recommended her to the Polish ballet master Stanislas Idzikowski (1894–1977), and it was under his tutelage that Rosemarie took the first steps towards her future career. While continuing to study at her day school, she furthered her dance training at the Royal Ballet School.

She appeared in ballet and opera productions at Covent Garden and, in 1958, was given a role as Miriam in the film Drawn from the Nile. Having left the Royal Ballet School, Rosemarie became a ballet soloist and later a ballerina at the Basle State Ballet in Switzerland under the direction of Waslaw Orlikowsky. It was at around this time that she assumed her mother’s maiden name as her stage name. Its allusion to the imaginary land of plenty in medieval myth appealed to Rosemarie’s esoteric nature and gave her a certain sine qua non as an artist.

Cockayne the artist

Rosemarie Cockayne photographed painting, c1980

While living and working in Switzerland, Rosemarie developed an interest in painting. She particularly admired expressionism and its vibrant use of strong colours and later adopted it as her own dominant style. She returned to England to study painting at Saint Martin’s School of Art and at Morley College in London. To fund her studies, Rosemarie continued dancing and took up fashion modelling aided by her mother, who drew fashion illustrations for the stores in Kensington and Knightsbridge. Rosemarie held her first exhibition at Clarges Gallery, London in February 1972. For the next thirty years, she exhibited her work widely in England and internationally in Sweden, Canada, and Brazil.

Set and costume design

In 1982, Rosemarie Cockayne began her collaboration with Dublin City Ballet by creating set and costume designs for the company’s production of The Nutcracker. This was followed in 1983 by set and costume designs for the productions of Coppelia and It’s All Jazz & Hot Gossip. Rosemarie also produced company logos, record sleeves, and, in 1981, a series of dance and theatre-themed stamps for Royal Mail.

Volunteer work

Later in her artistic career, Rosemarie Cockayne combined her love of art with a deep compassion for vulnerable people. She began to do voluntary work with children, the homeless, and the disabled as Artist in Residence for several community groups, running art workshops and sitting at committees concerned with art and education. Among the charities she collaborated with were Field Lane, which provides support for vulnerable families and individuals, the mental health service Pembroke Centre, and the homeless charity Providence Row. Rosemarie’s work with these and other London-based charities was honoured in 2000, when she was awarded the Freedom of the City of London.

Death and legacy

Rosemarie Cockayne died after a long illness on 3 February 2015. Her funeral was held at the church of St John the Baptist in Kensington, and her ashes interred at the church of St John the Baptist in the parish of Cockayne Hatley in Bedfordshire alongside her parents. Her delightful costume designs and some of her vibrant paintings were donated to the National Dance Archive of Ireland, where they have been recently catalogued.

Read more about the NDAI here. The full Rosemarie Cockayne archival catalogue is available online.