Many art experts now believe that British Modernist painter and engraver Suzanne Cooper (1916–1992) has not had the credit she deserves. Not that she was entirely unheralded in her lifetime: in the 1930s while studying at the innovative Grosvenor School of Modern Art in Pimlico, she began showing oil paintings and wood engravings in prestigious West End galleries, and reviewers singled out her work for praise.
Cooper became the protégée of one of her tutors, the renowned printmaker Iain Macnab, and the influential dealer and collector, Lucy Carrington Wertheim. Wertheim not only exhibited Cooper’s work, but also bought at least two of her paintings. That’s why the artist features in the exhibitions currently at Towner: A Life in Art: Lucy Wertheim, Patron, Collector, Gallerist and Reuniting the Twenties: From Barbara Hepworth to Victor Pasmore.
Cooper was no great self-promoter, and her personal life was highly conventional: unlike some of her better-known contemporaries, there was no tragedy, and she never had any succès de scandale. She volunteered as a nurse in the Second World War, then got married and had children; after the conflict she more or less abandoned her own artistic ambitions and taught art in a local primary school. While it’s seldom easy for anyone to find recognition as a painter, there’s no doubt it was particularly hard to make it as a female artist in the first half of the 20th century. Perhaps as a consequence she later discouraged her daughter from following in her footsteps, telling her flatly: ‘You can’t make a living out of art’.
Today it looks as if Suzanne Cooper’s largely unremarkable life story may have hindered her posthumous reputation. That’s particularly unfortunate because her work is anything but cosy and lacking in ambition: on the contrary, it’s unfailingly challenging, with Surrealist edges to her portraits and landscapes. She raises many questions that are left deliberately unanswered for the viewer to ponder. Take for example the maid outside the front door in Bloomfield Terrace (1936): what is the letter in her right hand? Why is she holding her other hand to her head in apparent consternation? Has she missed the post? Does the letter contain disturbing news? And then on the left of the canvas: what has grabbed the attention of the workman looking over the railings into the basement area of the house?