HID­DEN ARTIST

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

Hertfordshire Life - - CONTENTS - WORDS: San­dra Smith

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

‘I went to one of her lessons, it was ab­so­lute chaos, paint ev­ery­where’

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

‘Although her images seem cosy and do­mes­tic, there’s sin­is­ter’ some­thing

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.’

ABOVE LEFT: Cat GirlABOVE:Royal Al­bion – the paint­ing owned by Auck­land Art Gallery be­gan a search for lost works and a new ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the artist

LEFT: Street SceneRIGHT: Brix­ham Har­bour

ABOVE: Still Life

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