Emmanuel Cooper: Influential potter whose impact was also felt in his writing and teaching
Tuesday 31 January 2012
Emmanuel Cooper made pots with volcanic, cratered surfaces and bright, singing colours that came as a surprise from someone schooled in the tradition of domestic, brown earthenware. I first met him early in his career, in 1969. He was living in a basement flat in London's Westbourne Grove, as yet ungentrified. He was a kind of urban simple-lifer, floating around clad in an exotic North African djellabah, cradling a cat and serving scented tea in one of his own oatmeal-coloured teapots. But the hippy appearance was deceptive. Adjoining the flat was a small pottery studio, where, with the aid of an assistant, he made hand-thrown tableware in quantities large enough to supply London restaurants: the Hard Rock Café was one of his customers. By the end of his life, through a formidable capacity for hard work, he had transformed his own practice, and had also become much more than a potter: a writer, educator and a tireless advocate for ceramic art.
Emmanuel Cooper was born in 1938 in Pilsley, Derbyshire. The Coopers were originally miners but with the decline of the coal industry his father went into the butchery trade. Emmanuel, one of five children, inherited his work ethic from his mother. He was educated at grammar school followed by National Service as an RAF telephonist. As a child he had experimented with pots baked in the oven but he trained to be a teacher of art and drama at Dudley Training College. He studied at Bournemouth College of Art, taught art for two years in a London secondary school and attended evening classes at Hornsey.
By now, Bernard Leach had become his guru, but more important was his immersion in the physical world of clay as a studio assistant, first to Gwynn Hanssen and then to Bryan Newman. This experience, and his tendency to question received ideas, opened his eyes to alternatives. When he set up his own pottery it was as if two streams converged: the Arts and Crafts tradition and the 1960s' radical counter-culture.
The making of Cooper was Ceramic Review. In 1969 he suggested to Eileen Lewenstein, a founder-member of the Craftsmen Potters Association, that it was time for the CPA to publish something more than a newsletter. The first edition, co-edited by them, appeared in 1970. Its motto was "written by potters for potters" but its scope enlarged to include historical and critical articles and a wide spectrum of contemporary work – a commitment that led them to illustrate a phallic teapot that caused the loss of several subscriptions.
Lewenstein retired in 1996 and Emmanuel continued to develop the magazine, covering the widest possible range of ceramic practice, including the most outré conceptual work; he played a major role in moving ceramics from a craft into its present position as a vital aspect of contemporary art. Yet he made sure the magazine never lost its connection with its origins: the articles by potters, the pieces on clay, glazes and making continued. Ceramic Review remains the leading periodical of its kind.
Through his work for the magazine he gained an encyclopaedic knowledge, which led to a career as a writer: his book on glaze recipes became the potter's Bible and he wrote surveys of current practice, the wide-ranging Ten Thousand Years of Pottery and biographies such as his highly praised life of Bernard Leach. This was as well as articles, reviews, broadcasts and catalogue essays. He also wrote art criticism for The Morning Star and Tribune and he had an interest in the art of working-class people, resulting in a PhD, a book and an exhibition, People's Art: Working Class Art from 1750 to the Present Day (1994). He was correcting the proofs of his latest book, a biography of Lucie Rie, within days of his death.
Cooper was involved with left-wing, alternative politics. He was open about his homosexuality and in the early 1970s he was part of the Gay Liberation movement, joining Gay Left Collective and writing for its journal, as well as contributing editorial skills gained from his experience at Ceramic Review. These interests also informed his writing: he was early in the field of gay art and photography, writing art reviews for Gay News and Gay Times, books on the photographer Von Gloeden (1982) and the painter Henry Scott Tuke (1987) as well as the surveys The Sexual Perspective: Homosexuality and art in the last 100 Years and Fully Exposed: the Male Nude in Photography.
He was also in demand as a teacher, lecturing at the principal London art schools, and from 2000 as Visiting Professor at the Royal College of Art, where students recall his inspirational seminars. He also served on the Crafts Council, the Arts Council and other bodies. In 2002 he was awarded the OBE. But it is as a maker that he would wish to be remembered. Moving his pottery to Finsbury Park, and in 1976 to Primrose Hill, he re-invented his practice, turning to non-functional pieces, mainly traditional shapes such as jugs and bowls. With their subtly varied curves they can be seen as paying homage to Rie, but Cooper was innovative in his use of glazes, experimenting with multiple layers of slip and glaze and repeated firings, producing pitted and bubbled surfaces, and strong colours, blue, green, pale pink and warm yellow, working with porcelain as well as stoneware.
He was a city animal, as was reflected in his work. He wrote of being influenced "by such things as hard, textured surfaces, by street lighting, architecture, endless movement and sense of urgency. Colours are those of roads, pavements and building, textures those we encounter in the metropolis." His glazes were designed for the compact electric kiln, dispensing with the wood-firing of country potters.
He loved London and formes a wide circle of friends from all sides of the political and artistic spectrum: he was a delightful companion with an impish sense of fun. He is survived by his partner of over 30 years, the television producer David Horbury.
Emmanuel Cooper, potter, writer and educator: born Pilsley 12 December 1938; OBE 2002; civil partnership 2006 David Horbury; died London 21 January 2012.
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