Thursday, 26 January 2012

Emmanuel Cooper, 1938-2012


Emmanuel Cooper, potter, writer, historian, teacher, friend and mentor, died on the 21st of January, 2012.  He was, and will remain, one of the central figures in British twentieth century ceramics. He was the alchemist who transformed studio pottery from its marginal position with of a handful posh English blokes making wholemeal brown stoneware and a sprinkling of precious pottery ladies pursuing a wholesome hobby in the garden shed, to the fully fledged, vibrant, professional craft that it now is, thriving in the art world and imposing itself on the reluctant consciousnesses of the literati and media-ristocracy.

In 1970, with Eileen Lewenstein, he founded Ceramic Review, which evolved into one of the most respected art magazines on the market with an international readership and profile. As a historian and glaze technician he was second to none. Go into the studio of any working potter and you will find at least one of his books, if not the dictionary of glaze recipes, then one of the histories. He did not restrict his research and writing to ceramics. His publications include: ‘Fully Exposed: Male Nude in Photography,’ (1995), ‘People’s Art: Working Class Art from 1750 to the Present Day,’ (1991), and, ‘The Sexual Perspective: Homosexuality and Art in the Last 100 Years in the West,’ (1994).  He brought this extensive knowledge to his writing and teaching. Under his influence ceramics became a discipline able to flourish in a contemporary art context. Without Emmanuel Cooper, we probably would not have either Grayson Perry or Edmund de Waal, at least not as we know them. Both, doubtless would be successful artists and de Waal, in particular, would still be a potter and writer but their work would have so much less meaning and resonance. Perry would not have his adversarial opposite which would deny his work much of it’s ‘charge,’ (his word), and de Waal, too would lack an opposing context – his would be a much lonelier body of work.

Cooper was born in 1938 and during his early years, during the post-war era, studio pottery, under the auspices of Bernard Leach, grew steadily. It become fashionable in the1960s when the quasi-rustic, back to nature aesthetic was part of an anti-establishment life-style. Numerous potters associations sprung up, sharing information and resources, each with its own newsletter, annual conference and exhibition. There was a corresponding growth in availability and quality of materials as the industry reached out to the burgeoning market of hobbyists. Classes mushroomed and potters acquired an increasingly professional training. In the midst of this maelstrom of activity, was Emmanuel Cooper who had that rare and extraordinary gift of being able to connect across the full range of makers and designers that emerged during this period. From the most conservative makers of garden and tableware, toiling in barns in the rural shires, to the most outrĂ© and rarefied of post modern academicians, producing dusty ‘installations,’ and museum ‘interventions,’ he inspired equal respect and affection in us all.

Cooper the potter was tenaciously 'urban.' He developed a range of glazes tailored to the needs of urban surroundings, in particular the use of a compact electric kiln. Not for him the roar, smoke and melodramatics of the wood-fired beasts beloved by rural potters. I will always think of Emmanuel Cooper pots as either bowls or jugs, but primarily as shapes which could show off his latest glaze like some kind of grand new apparel, a volcanic swathe of blistering, bubbling colour - usually a monochrome but rarely the same thing twice.  Delicate and elegant, they were and are instantly recognisable as his.

Emmanuel Cooper was true democrat, a unifier among the cliques and factions which so often proliferate in marginal subcultures. He diversified the discipline in all senses of the word, bringing together industry and studio, academics and makers, and above all, consistent with his egalitarian activist politics, he brought in people from all backgrounds ensuring that it could grow beyond the effete circle of posh blokes in sheds which characterised the early years, and become the highly respected art form it now is, one in which we can all be proud to participate. In a word, he is irreplaceable. In his case, the cliches are right: it is the end of an era and we  probably will not see his like again, but that does not need to be a reason to mourn. Rather we can celebrate his colossal legacy and build on it. There could be no better way to honour his extraordinary life and work.

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