I think I have more books by Emmanuel Cooper in my ceramic book collection than by any other writer on pottery. I have read and re-read the various editions of his book on ceramic history, culminating with the magnificently illustrated tour de force, 10,000 Years of Pottery. I pored over his books on glaze making. I have his very early Handbook on Pottery Making and of course his biography on Bernard Leach. And then, his last book, his opus, the thoughtful biography, Lucie Rie: Modernist Potter.
In Making Emmanuel Cooper: Life and Work from his Memoirs, Letters, Diaries and Interviews, edited by his longtime partner David Horbury, we learn that in his last days – he died in 2012 of prostate cancer at the age of 74 – Cooper was thinking of such projects as a biography of Hans Coper, this memoir, and was “fired” about writing a book on Josiah Wedgewood “from a maker’s perspective.” Oh, how I would love to read the Wedgewood book. The Coper too. What we do have, thanks to Horbury, is this fascinating memoir.
Cooper was first a potter. There were challenges. Gwyn Hanssen gave him an early position in her studio, then “let him go.” When he applied to become a member of the Craftsmen Potters Association (CPA), he was rejected because his work did not form a “coherent group” Fortunately, six months later he reapplied and was accepted. His studios were always in urban spaces, necessitating electric kilns which he decided to embrace. He became a skilled production potter, making tableware for London restaurants, including relish dishes for the Hard Rock Café. The trays were eight and a half inches across with a rim to keep the five individual relish pots from slipping and a central thrown handle for carrying. “The staff – or the customers – broke them all the time so they regularly reordered and it was a very good earner,” he tells us. In his later years, after the recession when the restaurant business dried up, he reinvented his work and focused on one of a kind bowls and mugs in series of nine at most. Towards the end of his life, he made coiled goblets.
In 1969, Cooper proposed that the CPA publish a magazine on ceramics. He tells us, “it seemed to me that the craft pottery world was expanding and changing at an extraordinary rate…and nothing was being written down or recorded.” Despite the CPA’s skepticism, Cooper founded Ceramic Review with fellow member Eileen Lowenstein, publishing the first edition in 1970. He served as editor until 2010. He writes, ” …we nurtured relatively new writers such as makers Claudia Clare and Emma Clegg and managed to persuade more established voices such as Edmund de Waal, Alison Britton, Martina Margetts and Tanya Harrod.” From the beginning, Cooper and Lowenstein were committed to including “strong practical content” and “developed the idea of using a sequence of photographs to demonstrate a particular process or technique,” a feature which continues to this day.
The book chronicles Cooper’s life as a gay man. Though at first closeted (homosexuality was illegal), he came to be a leading voice for Gay Liberation, and with a group of friends launched the journal Gay Left. He wrote The Sexual Perspective: Homosexuality and Art in the Last 100 Years in the West and Male Bodies: A Photographic History of the Nude, both groundbreaking at the time, and highly acclaimed.
Cooper was a potter, a writer, an editor, and an activist. He taught throughout his life, and served as visiting Professor at the Royal College of Art. He championed and curated exhibits such as People’s Art: Working Class from 1750 to the Present Day. A scholar, thinker and maker, his contributions to ceramics were enormous and long lasting.
Making Emmanuel Cooper is intensely personal, describing Cooper’s mining family roots, the butcher shop his parents ran, and his years in the RAF and in theater. It is also a social and cultural history. Cooper deserves a biography such as the one he wrote of Rie or Tonya Harrod’s biography of Michael Cardew. Meanwhile, read this book. It is a treasure.
150 color plates