Flows of Light and Form: The Life and Work of Emmanuel Cooper
Emmanuel Cooper OBE, 1938–2012, A Retrospective Exhibition
Ruthin Craft Centre
December 7, 2013 to February 2, 2014
Park Road (at Lon Parcwr)
Ruthin Denbighshire, LL15 1BB, +44 (0)1824 704774
University of Derby
February 21 to March 28, 2014
Derby, DE22 3AW, +44 (0)1332 593216
Contemporary Applied Arts
April 10 to May 31, 2014
89 Southwark Street (between Great Suffolk and Lavington Streets)
London, LE1 0HZ, +44 20 7436 2344
Born in Derbyshire in 1938, Emmanuel Cooper was one of Britain’s foremost studio potters, whose expansive interests also led him to prominent roles as an art critic, broadcaster, author, political activist and teacher — most recently as visiting professor of ceramics and glass at the Royal College of Art. Cooper moved to London in the early 1960s to study with Gwyn Hanssen, setting up his own Westbourne Grove workshop in 1965. The decision to remain within the concrete vistas and glittering lights of the metropolis, eschewing the rurality of traditional pottery, was in large part a response to his social and political needs as a gay man, which in turn informed his professional pursuits and his potting. In doing so Cooper set the tone for a life dedicated to individual and creative investigation, rather than convention.
“Emmanuel Cooper OBE, 1938-2012, A Retrospective Exhibition,” a traveling show recently at the Ruthin Craft Center in Wales and Contemporary Applied Arts, London,brings together examples from throughout his 50-year career, beginning in the 1960s during his time as a production potter, through his final years when he experimented freely with hand-built forms. At the heart of the exhibition are the porcelain and stoneware vessels for which Cooper is perhaps best known, and that convey architecturally his environmental interests and even the characteristics that defined him.
Superlative pieces include stoneware bowls from the 1990s and 2000s, in volcanic glazes of blue, turquoise and cerulean that look like ancient ceramic calderas. Handling them, if one is fortunate enough to do so, is an immense pleasure because it confirms the potency of their physicality and object-ness. They evoke both the astronomical and the quotidian — vast cosmological star fields, but also the pitted detail of coarseurban surfaces. A bowl from 2005 in white-blue plutonic glaze rises from a modest circular base, its sides opening out at a steep angle to a graceful, wide rim, lending a sense of volume that far outweighs the actual dimensions. These bowls inhabit space so confidently that, like celestial bodies, they seem to possess their own enigmatic atmospheres.
Other works, such as a lean, high-spouted jug of elliptical design, containing in its front edge all the nobility of a ship’s prow, are glazed in cascading rivulets of light grays or whites upon darker ground, sometimes tinted with eddies of reds, yellows or blues that appear fluid. They are reminiscent of those tantalizing geological remnants on distant planets that could indicate where water once flowed. Closer to home they echo one of Cooper’s consistent motives taken from city life: lights reflected in the tarmac of rain-soaked London streets. This was an experience of color in fluent motion encountered by him many times on his motorbike during nighttime rides home from a bar, an opening or a lecture. The nature and effects of water are a theme throughout Cooper’s oeuvre. A quiet yet pivotal aspect of these works is the subtly handled relationship between structure and texture, where the simplicity of elegant, balanced lines permits the eye to move unhindered across rugged, prismatic crusts.
Elsewhere, smoother porcelain bowls — stem and traditional — range from bold daffodil yellows to softer oranges, pale blues, and whites, often with flecks of varying color floating upon glassy surfaces. The rims are sometimes distinguished by a thin line, as can be seen on a stem bowl of delicate pink with gold-yellow perimeter (made in the 1990s), or a liquescent bowl of light blue, circled in red brim (from the 2000s). While the stem bowls in particular are redolent of organic forms and although their clay is from the earth, the intention of the work itself is not of the earth, but drawn from an urban existence.
Hand-built porcelain tea bowls from 2010, constructed with strips of clay, the joins visible beneath the glaze and the form less concerned with the wheel’s precision, evince a strong sense of investigative play, showing that Cooper’s industrious nature remained undiminished toward the end of his life.
During the early- to mid-2000s I lived with Emmanuel Cooper and his partner David Horbury, at their Chalcot Road home, behind the cluttered cornucopia of their Fonthill Pottery shop on the ground floor, which was rarely, if ever open, and operated more as display and storage space, which disappointed passersby. Emmanuel’s studio was in the basement, a sacrosanct part of the house that I became familiar with. We used Emmanuel’s pots and plates daily, washed them, stacked them, and once or twice accidentally broke them. Eating from them greatly enhanced the sense of occasion, whether a pedestrian meal or one of his famous Sunday night supper parties, while also raising a strange dichotomy — using works of art that were collected by museums, sold at auction and published in exhibition catalogs, in the functional, unfussy realm of our daily rituals. Drinking from the deep, translucent layers of a Cooper mug, the base lost under dark tea, I often thought that there were not storms contained within those cups, but entire galaxies.