Suzanne Cooper: the hidden artist
PUBLISHED: 13:10 02 October 2018
Paintings stashed under a bed, an unassuming relative, and a chance visit to a gallery on the other side of the world began a detective story to uncover and celebrate the brilliant and complex vision of Suzanne Cooper
Public recognition doesn’t always coincide with an artist’s lifetime. In Suzanne Cooper’s case, exhibitions, publicity and acknowledgement of her talent has only recently gathered pace, nearly a quarter of a century after her death. The interest is down to serendipity and also family resolve – kick-started by Lucy Hughes-Hallett after she was astonished to see a painting by her mother-in-law hanging in a gallery on the other side of the world.
‘While in New Zealand a few years ago I went into Auckland Art Gallery and there, in a collection of British art, saw a painting whose distinctive style I immediately recognised. I rushed over, and sure enough, it was signed by Suzanne.’
During a conversation with the curator the following day, Lucy learned that Royal Albion, an animated oil painting depicting an English seafront, came into the gallery’s ownership via a London gallery. Like most of her works that survive, this was probably painted while Suzanne was studying at London’s Grosvenor School of Modern Art. It is believed some of her images are now scattered around the world, but the challenge of tracking these down has not blunted Lucy’s determination. In fact, she has unravelled some of the mystery surrounding this intriguing and sometimes unsettling artist.
‘Grosvenor was one of the most cutting edge art schools of its kind,’ explains the historian and biographer. ‘So Suzanne must have had quite a portfolio, though she doesn’t really seem to have ever thought of herself as an artist. None of us had any idea that she had sold any paintings.’
The outbreak of the Second World War heralded the art school’s closure and was a turning point for Suzanne. In 1940 she married Michael, a company secretary at his family’s medical equipment company. The two had met aged seven and, as teenagers, had been members of the same tennis club. They raised a family in Much Hadham in east Herts. And it was here that Suzanne took up a teaching post.
‘It was a proper village with a greengrocer, butcher and lots of pubs,’ remembers Suzanne and Michael’s daughter, Harriett. ‘I went to a tiny village school. Mum taught at a preschool, which she loved. “I’m off to the babies,” she’d say. I went to one of her lessons when I was off sick and it was absolute chaos, paint everywhere.
‘She arranged flowers for the church, was a member of the WI and a great cook, but didn’t talk about her art very much and I didn’t understand her work. Once or twice I asked why she hadn’t carried on with her career. Her response was, “None of you would ever get any dinner”.’
The memories of Suzanne’s eldest son, Charlie, who still lives in Much Hadham in a house once occupied by one of his schoolteachers, centre on an idyllic childhood and quirky mum. ‘She rather ambled through life. Mum was heavily involved in village affairs. She had a driving licence but didn’t drive – she was very short-sighted and though she wore glasses there was a likelihood she wouldn’t have seen where she was going. She used to do cross stitch, that sort of thing, but I don’t think I ever actually saw her paint.
‘After the war mum only did a number of quite small pictures, mainly in watercolours or pastels. Often the subjects were things she’d seen while out for a walk, such as sheep. We had paintings in various places around the house which we knew my mother had done but even up until she died they didn’t mean all that much to us.’
Charlie’s opinion of his mother’s oil paintings chimes with those discovering them for the first time: ‘They aren’t dated. Even the maritime themes are pretty timeless.’
The canvasses are certainly memorable, surreal even, which perhaps explains why their creator believed people wouldn’t understand them.
‘There’s something quite disconcerting about Cat Girl,’ Lucy reflects. ‘Although her images seem cosy and domestic, there’s something sinister. Yet they have terrific energy and vitality with so much going on.’
Suzanne’s reticence to discuss her art didn’t prevent her from keeping many of her paintings, although not necessarily on show.
‘A lot of her work was stashed away under a bed in a spare room,’ continues Lucy. ‘I once started to say to her, “These are amazing, you must do more, they shouldn’t just sit there like this”.’
The artist’s response? ‘Let’s not make a fuss.’
After her death in 1992 aged 74, following a long battle with cancer, Suzanne’s wood engravings came to light, her husband having retained the original blocks, from which new prints were created. They include beautifully observed, almost abstract, street and domestic scenes with a hint of something unsettling about to happen.
And while the search continues to unearth more lost works, plans are underway for an exhibition at London’s Morley Gallery next spring (from April 1). Given their mother’s reticence, does the family believe she would appreciate the tribute?
‘I wouldn’t be surprised if she was appalled,’ laughs Charlie. ‘Though secretly she might be quite chuffed.’
For more on the work of the artist, visit suzannecooper.org