Waistel Cooper

Artist potter who followed his own ideas

Monday 17 February 2003 01:00

Waistel Cooper, potter: born Ayr 19 April 1921; married 1957 Joan D'Arcy Jeancon (died 1982), 1983 Gillian Tedder; died Penzance, Cornwall 15 January 2003.

As a painter turned potter, Waistel Cooper's approach to the craft was that of the artist rather than the craftsman. His monumental vessel and sculptural forms, with their dry, textured, creamy-white surfaces, owe as much to the rocks and austere landscape of Iceland (where he first started working with clay) as they do to the history of the craft; and from the start of his career as a potter over 50 years ago his primary concern was with form and texture rather than function.

Working steadily, and with great respect rather than wide public acclaim, Cooper followed his own ideas, honing and defining his forms rather than making any attempt to pursue fashion or react to the changing whims of galleries or buyers. Stylistically, he responded to continental modernism rather than an aesthetic of the Far East as espoused by Bernard Leach.

Born in Ayr in 1921, he was encouraged to study art, attending Hospitalfield College of Art in Arbroath before winning a scholarship to Edinburgh College of Art, but the outbreak of war interrupted his studies and he was drafted into the Army. When invalided out in 1943 he returned to Edinburgh, where he studied fine art, numbering among his friends leading innovatory artists such as the two Roberts – Colquhoun and MacBryde – though he was also aware and admiring of the sculptures of Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. Commissioned to paint portraits, Cooper travelled to Reykjavik, where he held his first exhibition, embracing stylised and abstract work as well as representational images.

A dramatic change of direction came when he became friendly with the sculptor Gestur Thorgrimsson, who encouraged him to take up pottery. Together they collaborated on making platters – thrown by Thorgrimsson – which Cooper decorated with painted underglaze in brightly coloured clay slips. The designs included abstracted motives such as faces that, in their easy, fluid forms, recall the work of Matisse, and make full use of the qualities obtainable with the medium. But with no tradition of pottery making in Iceland, and frustrated by having to work in earthenware rather than the tougher stoneware, in 1950 Cooper returned to England, where he set up a small pottery in the village of Porlock in Somerset, firing his pots in a modest-sized electric kiln.

Although the pots and ideology of Leach and his followers were very much the orthodoxy of the day, Cooper was more drawn to the more minimal and European-centred work of Lucie Rie and Hans Coper, liking the simplicity and directness of their approach. For two years he experimented with clays and bodies, particularly concerned with the relationship between dark, silky matt glazes and unglazed clay surface, a concern that informed his pots throughout his life. At the same time he tried out various glazes made from wood ash, which not only provided a particular sort of effect, but also had a conceptual relationship with the landscape.

Because of his concern with form and his use of areas of unglazed surfaces, Cooper did much research into devising a clay body that provided a colour and texture suited to his forms without being too intrusive. The rough-looking stoneware body he came up with included Dorset ball clay with up to 40 per cent grog – fired and ground-up clay – with a high iron content which either produced small dark nodules in the clay body or broke through the glaze to create spots linking body, glaze and surface.

Seven years later, after marrying an American psychologist and spiritual healer, Joan D'Arcy Jeancon, Cooper established a studio on the Culbone estate outside Porlock, in Keeper's Lodge, where he started using a kick-wheel and installed an oil-fired kiln. His potting blossomed, his pots getting simpler and more focused, and his reputation grew.

Following a holiday to Mykonos and the Cyclades in the 1970s Cooper was taken with the directness and archetypal quality of the historical work, and started to produce pure white forms and to try out new shapes. Exhibition success followed, with work shown abroad, and important shows in England, in London and St Ives.

Following his wife's death in 1982, Cooper moved to Penzance, setting up the Barbican Art Gallery and Pottery on the harbourside, living next door with his second wife, Gillian. New forms included narrow-necked bottles, while he also sensitively made use of bright, deep turquoise glazes, and multi-layered coating of slips to yield rich, unglazed surfaces. Ambitiously, he also produced abstract sculptures with figurative references, either by carving or assembling thrown and cut components, which, though still having stark, uncluttered surfaces, have a romantic suggestion of peace and resolution.

A major retrospective at Manchester City Art Gallery and Museum in 1994 consolidated his considerable achievements, introducing his early decorative pieces to many for the first time.

Emmanuel Cooper

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