Emmanuel Cooper (1938 – 2012) was a distinguished craftsman, writer, teacher, editor and LGBTQ activist. A potter of international standing, his work is represented in many public and private collections, both in the UK and overseas. The author of nearly thirty books he was also the founder and editor of Ceramic Review, one of the world’s leading craft magazines. For over a decade Cooper was visiting Professor on the Ceramics and Glass programme at London’s Royal College of Art. He was awarded an OBE for ‘services to art’ in the 2002 New Year Honours.
Emmanuel Cooper was born in Pilsley, a small coalmining village in north-east Derbyshire, on the 12th December 1938, the fourth of five children of a butcher. An intelligent and creative child, he passed the 11+ and attended Tupton Hall Grammar School.
Cooper was first introduced to clay at school and although immediately responding to the material he did not believe he could make a living as a potter and subsequently decided to train as a schoolteacher. After completing his national service in the RAF, Cooper attended Dudley Teacher Training College (1958–60) specialising in art and drama and followed that up with an additional year at Bournemouth College of Art (1960–61) where he studied ceramics under David Ballantyne and Peter Stoodley.
Cooper was then appointed art teacher at Downs Lane Central School in Tottenham (1961-63) the only full-time teaching job of his career although he subsequently went on to teach ceramics part-time at Harrow School (1963-65) and at the Central Foundation School for Girls, Spitalfields (1965-70).
During his time at Downs Lane Central School he attended evening pottery classes at Hornsey College of Art.
In 1963, after much soul searching he made the decision to give up full-time teaching and try to find work as a potter. He was taken on as an assistant by Gwyn Hanssen, and later worked for Bryan Newman before setting up his own pottery at 226 Westbourne Grove in 1965.
Cooper was always driven by a strong imperative to make tableware ‘accepting the Leachian/Morris idea that it carried a sort of virtue’ and for many years it was his chief form of production.
However the design of his tableware was inspired by northern European design models - with all the forms based on the cylinder and he developed a series of glazes – white, pale blues and a pale yellow - that were both sophisticated and contemporary.
It was hugely successful and he was subsequently asked to design and make tableware for a number of London restaurants, most notably the Hard Rock Café, Maxwells and Drakes.
As a city potter with only a small basement workshop Cooper was unable to fire to reduction and spent almost two decades researching into electric kiln firing in an attempt to create what he later referred to as an 'electric kiln aesthectic'.
The research also resulted in four best selling books, which, as one commentator noted, have given Cooper ‘legendary status’ as a glaze technician. It was a mark of his importance in this field that he was later invited by the V&A to produce the glaze tests that formed part of their permanent displays devoted to ceramic process.
Cooper stopped making tableware in the mid 1980s when tastes and fashion changed. Given that functional pottery made sense of his life experience – his working class background and his socialist views - it was a difficult decision.
Many years later and by then able to acknowledge that stopping had a been necessary thing, he wrote:-
….I was abandoning my deepest, most profoundly held principles about the value of function as a legitimating structure for the potter in preference to the egotism of the artist, …. Ghosts of William Morris haunted me but there seemed no other way. Why this move brought such profound insecurity and heart searching is now hard to imagine but customers still ask for the tablewares I made for over twenty years and look reproachful when I confess that I don’t make them anymore. Part of me shares that reproach.
However, the resonance of function was apparent in the stoneware and porcelain bowl and jug forms which made up the majority of his gallery pots and for which is he now best know. Thrown with sensitivity and supreme confidence these relatively simple forms were transformed through multi fired glaze and surface decoration into objects of quite extraordinary power and beauty.
These pots were informed and influenced by the built environment. Cooper was fascinated by the textures and tempos of the metropolis, the volcanic surfaces of his stoneware bowls and jugs inspired by the concrete and grit of the pavements while his porcelain bowls with their vivid venetian reds, emerald green or glorious yellow pay homage to the neon lights and traffic of the night time city.
From the mid 1990s both critical and commercial interest in Cooper’s pots began to gain momentum. A major exhibition organised by Ruthin Craft Centre in 1996 was followed by a tour that lasted for seven years, famously described by someone at Arts Council Wales ‘as crafts equivalent to the Mouse Trap.’ This was followed by important solo exhibitions at Beaux Arts Bath, the Fine Art Society, Bourne Fine Art and the Craft Studies Centre.
In 2007 there was a significant development in Cooper’s ceramic practise when he began to experiment with hand building and went on to produce an extraordinary collection of tea bowls, jugs and chalices. When he exhibited these new forms, some commentators and Cooper devotees were confused and unsure about work that seemed comparatively crude and unskilled, but others were excited and intrigued. Sebastian Blackie summed up the feelings of the latter when he wrote:
‘they are made without the intervention of tools, just hands and clay. There is no overt display of skill; nevertheless they show a confidence that comes from years of working with materials. …There is something quirky and joyous about them. They combine a distillation of a lifetimes knowledge with the fresh discovery, invention and excitement of a child. Wonderful.’
While making pots was always at the heart of Cooper’s creative life he sought other outlets for his talents and interests. A member of the Craft Potters Association from early in his career, he served for many years as a council member, chair, and eventually a fellow. In 1969 he suggested to the CPA that they should publish a magazine and the following year Ceramic Review was launched.
Initially, co- edited with Eileen Lewenstein, but later as sole editor, Cooper guided the magazine from humble beginnings to become one of the worlds leading craft journals.
From 1988 to 2000 Cooper was an advisor for the Crafts Councils Grants and Loans committees; a member of the Arts Council of England; served on the advisory board of the British Library’s Craft Lives project and was a trustee of The Making.
In 1986 he founded the London Potters group. He curated a series of exhibitions, mostly notably On the Edge; (Un)Limited and Table Manners.
He was an inspirational teacher and mentor joining Middlesex University as an associate lecturer in 1974 and also was a guest lecturer at Camberwell College of Art; St Martin’s School of Art and
at Goldsmiths College before being invited to become Visiting Professor on the ceramics and glass programme at the Royal College of Art.
He was an academic assessor at, among others, Glasgow School of Art, Bath College of Higher Education and Brunel University.
Emmanuel Cooper’s books on ceramics ranged from his early how-to-do-it manuals to histories of ceramics and glaze recipes through to biographical studies of leading potters. His full-length biographies of Bernard Leach and Lucie Rie - this last completed only weeks before his death - are now considered definitive texts.
Alongside all this artistic activity Emmanuel Cooper was politically active, especially in the struggle for LGBTQ rights. Sexual and gender politics were always among his dominant concerns and he was a founder members of the Gay Left collective and of the Gay History group.
He was for many years art critic of the Morning Star, Gay News and Tribune and wrote thousands of pieces of art journalism. He wrote a series of monographs for the Gay Men’s Press (GMP) and later published two books on the male nude, Fully Exposed: The Male Nude in Photography and Male Bodies.
His groundbreaking book on homosexuality and art, The Sexual Perspective was published in 1986.
From his childhood, Emmanuel Cooper had a fascination with folk art and in his book and supporting exhibition The People’s Art (1994) he celebrated creativity that was untrained, unknown, and very largely unacknowledged.
Emmanuel Cooper was the recipient of many awards including the Gulbenkian Research Award 1993, the Writers Guild Award 1997, the Craft Council Award 1997 and the Silver Medal of the Society of Designer Craftsmen in 2002.
He was given the Lifetime Achievement Award at the International Ceramics Festival in 2011. He was awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in 1996; an honorary degree by the Surrey Institute of Art and Design in 2003, and an Honorary Doctorate (Fine Arts) by the University of Derby in 2012.
In the years since his death in January 2012, interest in Cooper and in particular in his ceramics has increased significantly, with the V&A, the Fitzwilliam, Cambridge; the York Centre for Ceramic Art; and the Hepworth acquiring pots by Cooper for their permanent collections.
In 2013/14 there was a major retrospective of Cooper’s ceramics, initiated by Ruthin Craft Centre, which subsequently toured to Derby and London. Other major solo shows followed at the Leach Pottery, St Ives; and at Contemporary Ceramics in London.
The Emmanuel Cooper Annual Memorial Lecture, organised by 318 Ceramics and the Crafts Studies Centre, was launched in 2013; an annual Emmanuel Cooper Prize was initiated by the Craft Potters Charitable Trust in 2015; and in 2016, Contemporary Ceramics decided to re-name their exhibition space ‘The Emmanuel Cooper Gallery’.
In 2019 Making Emmanuel Cooper – an account of his life and work, edited by his long time partner, David Horbury, and based on Cooper’s unpublished writings, diaries, correspondence and interviews was published by Unicorn Publishing.
The celebration of Emmanuel Cooper’s life and work came full circle in 2017 when a memorial plaque, designed by letter carver, John Neilson, was placed in the chancel of Pilsley Church.