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Clay pride of potter Emmanuel Cooper

More than a record of craftsmanship, Emmanuel Cooper’s biography examines class and sexuality, says Dan Carrier

24 October, 2019 — By Dan Carrier

Emmanuel Cooper. Photos: Emmanuel Cooper Estate/Michael Harvey

IN a world of mass production, Emmanuel Cooper was a craftsman – and his talent extended beyond his place at his potter’s wheel.

Writer, teacher, editor, historian, activist and potter, his life is described as “endemic of a particular time and place and of Britain’s complex class culture”.

Making Emmanuel Cooper is a new biography using unfinished memoirs, diaries and letters.

Emmanuel ran the Fonthill Pottery in Chalcot Crescent from 1976 up to his death in 2012 and the book’s editor David Horbury, who met Emmanuel in 1982 and was his partner for 30 years, says the work is “one of celebration rather than a critical assessment,” though “it does provide valuable insights into Emmanuel’s work and career, as well as revealing some of his great personal qualities. He was a shining man, intelligent, sensitive and courageous.”

Emmanuel was born into a working-class family in a Derbyshire mining village. His father was a butcher, while at their shop, his mother baked pies and loaves to sell.

He describes a childhood where he was made to feel that he didn’t quite “fit into local ideas of masculinity” – underlined by his early interest in art and pottery.

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Examples of Mr Cooper’s work

But, as the book explains, this drove him on – and gave him the impetus to head to London, where he could be himself – a gay man and an artist.

We follow his journey as a lad whose natural intelligence won him a place at grammar school, then into the 1960s when he turned into a true craftsman. The 70s saw him become involved in the fight for equal rights for gay people, as well as honing his talents as a potter and an art writer.

Through the 80s and 90s his reputation was cemented: his work as a critic and writer was respected, writing for the Morning Star, Tribune, Time Out and broadcast on BBC radio. He founded the Ceramic Review and became a commercially viable art historian with a series of books on the history of pottery.

By the 2000s, he was a member of the cultural establishment, being awarded an OBE for his services to art.

The book reveals a man of incredible talent and intelligence – coupled with a work ethos drilled into him by his background.

“His mother believed there was a morality in hard work,” says David. “He was disciplined and had a very structured work ethic.”

The pottery at 138 Fonthill Road. Photo: Edward Lucie Smith

He also saw, at an early age, the destructive nature of a class system through the microcosm of being a working-class boy sent to a grammar school. On top of that, he was all too often made to feel an outsider, simply because of his sexuality: it led, as the book explains, to him compartmentalising areas of his life.

“Although his politics drew him to collective activity he remained at heart, like his father, a highly energetic individualistic entrepreneur,” writes Jeffrey Weeks in the introduction.

Emmanuel lived through a climactic time for civil rights, and the book describes the direct effect entrenched homophobia had.

“Gay liberation was extraordinarily thrilling and exciting yet at the same time threatening. It fundamentally challenged the structures on which he had built his life,” says David.

Emmanuel adds: “I met men and we had sex – which was fine – but then they went away and I didn’t allow it to impinge on the other areas of my life. Now I began to under­stand that it was simply reinforcing an oppressive existence, denying who I was and any idea of living honestly and fully.”

He joined the Gay Left Collective. Its brief was to be a socialist journal edited by gay men, which they hoped would foster a Marxist analysis of homosexual oppression – and encourage the gay movement to understand the links between the struggle against oppression and the struggle for socialism.

The idea for an autobiography came about in 2007 when Emmanuel was diagnosed with a terminal illness.

He died before it was finished – so David completed the work.

“He had left a substantial archive – diaries, correspondence, interviews. It meant he could tell his story in his own words. He wanted to write how he had been an isolated little boy who wanted to be involved in art. He wanted to write about his experience of liberation politics.

“There was then the combination of gay liberation and Marxism. It was a heady mix. It heralded a way forward out of the oppressive life he had lived before. The book was another way of being out about his life and showing pride in what he had achieved.”

Today, his pieces fetch prices in the thousands.

“His work is very beautiful,” adds David.

“He was an urban potter who was influenced by the city.”

• Making Emmanuel Cooper: Life and Work from his Memoirs, Letters, Diaries and Interviews. Edited by David Horbury, Unicorn, £25

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