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date: 21 January 2022

Cooper, Emmanuelfree

(1938–2012)

Cooper, Emmanuelfree

(1938–2012)
  • J. Weeks

Cooper, Emmanuel (1938–2012), potter, writer on craft and the arts, and advocate of gay rights, was born on 12 December 1938 at 10 Market Place, Pilsley, a coalmining village in Derbyshire, the fourth of five children (three boys and two girls) of Fred Cooper (1904–1960), butcher, and his wife, Kate Elizabeth, née Cooke (1902–1983). He was known by his family and schoolfriends as Manly, but in adult life he used his given name. Although he remained loyal throughout his life to the sense of community, puritan work ethic, and labour politics he learned as a child, he remembered his schooldays as lonely and isolated, his artistic interests and developing homosexuality distancing him from his peers. Education offered a route away. His period at Tupton Hall Grammar School introduced him to the pleasures of clay, and the creativity and new possibilities that this opened up. He trained as a teacher at Dudley Teacher Training College (1958–60), and subsequently at Bournemouth College of Art (1960–61) and Hornsey College of Art, London (1961–2). He taught at Downs View Central School from 1961 to 1963, Harrow School from 1963 to 1965, and the Central Foundation Girls' School in Spitalfields from 1965 to 1970, and he continued to teach on a part-time basis throughout his life. But London offered other opportunities that he seized eagerly. The metropolis was where he could meet other creative people, engage with the cultural and political tumult of the time, express his sexuality to the full, and begin to work as an independent potter. It set the path for the rest of his life.

Cooper saw in clay 'magical possibilities' that he never tired of, and it remained his central passion. After training with two leading potters, Gwyn Hanssen and Bryan Newman, he set up his own pottery in 1965, in Westbourne Grove, west London, at the epicentre of the counter-culture, making tableware and commissioned items for London restaurants. In 1973 he established the Fonthill Pottery in the more working-class Finsbury Park, and moved it to 38 Chalcot Road, Primrose Hill, in 1976, where it remained, providing his home, workplace, and shop front.

Utility remained a key aspect of Cooper's philosophy, which he saw as being true to the William Morris and Bernard Leach tradition of making work creative and useful. But although deeply committed to the traditions of his craft, he was highly sensitive to the fact that he was working in an urban environment quite different from the ideal of the rural potter that Leach embodied, and the city inspired him in new ways. The whites and pale blues of his cylindrical tableware looked to northern European designs rather than the Leach tradition. He experimented with electric kiln firing, culminating in the publication of his popular Electric Kiln Pottery in 1982, and explored glazes suitable for an urban style of making. His books on glazes were the best-selling of some thirty books he wrote.

As the market for tableware weakened in the 1980s the tension between utility and individual creation became acute, and there was a significant faltering in Cooper's confidence and sense of direction. He concentrated increasingly on individual vessels as works in their own right, and at first the response was unenthusiastic, with critics sometimes complaining that his work was derivative. In retrospect this looks increasingly unfair. He was always technically highly proficient, producing distinctive forms in vibrant colours of considerable beauty and individuality, and from the mid-1990s these gained increasing recognition. His work continued to develop, and after his diagnosis with a terminal illness there was an Indian summer of creativity, hand-building rather than using the wheel, producing conical forms inspired by dramatic new buildings, such as the Gherkin skyscraper in London, evoking the postmodern enthusiasms of a younger generation of potters. From 1967 he regularly held one-man shows, and also showed at a number of mixed exhibitions. His pots are represented in various national and international collections including the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

There was for Cooper no sharp divide between making pots and the broader task of communicating the value of ceramics to a wider world. Though he never established an obvious ‘school’, he was a very influential and supportive teacher at various colleges, including Hornsey School of Art, Camberwell School of Art, Goldsmiths' College, and Middlesex University, and from 1999 he was visiting professor of ceramics and glass at the Royal College of Art. He took an active role in what became the Craft Potters' Association, and served for many years as a council member, chair, and eventually a fellow. His most critical initiative was the founding, with Eileen Lewenstein, of Ceramic Review in 1970. He was co-editor until 1997, and sole editor thereafter until 2010. He helped build this up into a wide-ranging ceramics journal, with a growing circulation and international reputation. He proved an exceptionally enabling if firm editor, encouraging generations of craftspeople to put pen to paper.

Besides his editorial work, Cooper began writing on the subject himself. His many books on pottery, from Handbook of Pottery (1970) and A History of Pottery (1972) to Ten Thousand Years of Pottery (2000), provided invaluable compendia for practitioners and students alike. He published a number of short studies of fellow potters including David Leach and Janet Leach, and wrote two major biographies of key influences on his own work, Bernard Leach (2003) and Lucie Rie (2012). He had his hands in all the clay of the ceramics world, and became a key chronicler and defender of the craft tradition.

Cooper had long puzzled over the relationship between his craft and his sexuality, and increasingly reflected this in his writing. He became involved in the then new gay liberation movement in the early 1970s, and helped found Gay Left, an influential journal of sexual politics, which published ten issues and a book between 1975 and 1980. Through its intense discussions and in its pages he began to explore a wide range of cultural and personal issues. After the collective dissolved in 1980, he set up a gay artists' group and a gay history group, and contributed increasingly to the gay and left-wing press. He was art critic of the Morning Star (1977–82), Gay News (1980–90), and Tribune (1992–2011), and contributed regularly to a wide range of other journals. He also became a frequent broadcaster. He received minimum payments for these efforts, but seized the opportunities to communicate to a wide, non-specialist audience.

From the early 1980s Cooper began seriously researching and writing on gay art, producing several widely read studies: The Sexual Perspective (1986), a pioneering study of homosexuality and art, Fully Exposed: the Male Nude in Photography (1990), and Male Bodies (2007), as well as shorter studies of, among others, Baron von Gloeden and Henry Scott Tuke. He also spent a considerable part of the late 1980s working on a labour of love, an exploration of working-class art from the 1760s to the present. The research was funded by the Gulbenkian Foundation, and was published as People's Art in 1994. This also provided the basis for his PhD from Middlesex University, awarded in 1996. These books had a mixed critical response, some critics feeling that what he was recovering so passionately was not quite art, but for Cooper, with a profoundly democratic commitment, these varied manifestations of cultural practice were what the arts were all about. As he said in People's Art, his aim was to recover 'the diversity of creative energy, which can take many forms' (p. 9).

Cooper juggled his own multifarious creative commitments with quiet efficiency, always meeting deadlines however much they collided. Despite his commitment to collective work, he was, like his father, a highly entrepreneurial small businessman at heart, seizing every opportunity for a new venture. He never seemed to turn down an invitation to review an exhibition or a book, write a foreword to a catalogue, sit on a panel, curate an exhibition, or meet and encourage a promising new potter, painter, or writer. He worked closely with the Crafts Council for many years, and sat on the Arts Council of England in 2000–2002. His achievements were increasingly recognized and honoured. He became a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 1998. In 2002 he was appointed OBE for service to art. He received honorary degrees from the Surrey Institute of Art and Design (2003) and the University of Derby (2012).

Despite the vast range of his public activities, Cooper was an intensely private person, and was often surprisingly diffident at social gatherings. But he also had more than a touch of flamboyance, turning up at private views in his black biker's leathers. He had an extraordinarily wide range of friends, and was a gregarious and generous host at home, above the pottery. He was a strikingly handsome person, and had little difficulty in forming sexual partnerships, long- and short-term. From 1982 he was in a long-term partnership with the television producer David Horbury (b. 1959), which provided the core of his emotional stability for the rest of his life. They celebrated their civil partnership on 19 May 2006.

The last few years of Cooper's life were marred by ill health, but until the end it barely affected his relentless work patterns. He was full of ideas for future books, including a memoir, to be based on his extensive diaries and correspondence. After a brain operation in mid-2011, he returned as quickly as he could to the picture research for his biography of Lucie Rie. The final proofs of the book were on his desk when he died of prostate cancer on 21 January 2012 at St John's Hospice, Westminster. He was cremated at Golders Green crematorium on 6 February 2012, and his ashes were interred in the grave of his parents, in the burial ground of Pilsley church. A plaque in the chancel by letter carver John Nielson commemorates his life. A celebration of his life and work was held at the Royal College of Art, London, on 30 June 2012. He was survived by his civil partner, David Horbury.

Sources

  • Emmanuel Cooper (1996) [exhibition catalogue, Ruthin Craft Centre]
  • E. Cooper, ‘Subject and object: a potter and his life’, Ideas in the making: practice in theory, ed. P. Johnson (1998)
  • Emmanuel Cooper: abundance: form, texture, colour (2008)
  • ‘Maker of the month: Emmanuel Cooper’, Ideas in the Making website, Nov 2008, www.themaking.org.uk/Content/makers/2008/11/emmanuel_cooper.html, 1 Sept 2015
  • D. Reay, Significant figures in art and craft today (2011)
  • The Guardian (31 Jan 2012)
  • The Independent (31 Jan 2012)
  • Derby Evening Telegraph (2 Feb 2012)
  • Daily Telegraph (6 Feb 2012)
  • Ceramic Review, 254 (March–April 2012), 13–14
  • Emmanuel Cooper OBE, 1938–2012: a retrospective exhibition (2013) [exhibition catalogue, Ruthin Craft Centre]
  • M. Tyas, ed., Emmanuel Cooper: connections and contrasts (2015)
  • WW (2012)
  • personal knowledge (2016)
  • private information (2016)

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