This, as the title implies, is a story of rediscovery. Glance through the excellent and varied selection of illustrations here and the first thing that strikes you is naivety, perhaps a hint of Alfred Wallis, although maybe a bit of Edward Bawden too. Comparisons are dangerous things, of course, because they imply derivation, maybe a lack of true innovation. After all, Suzanne Cooper was – until this book appeared – pretty much forgotten. Not entirely, though, as her work turns out to have been held in galleries as far apart as Manchester and New Zealand.
Suzanne was born in that non-hotbed of art, Frinton-on-Sea and, although she later moved to Much Hadham and would say hello to Henry Moore if she met him, was never a part of his circle. That implies a somewhat hermit-like artistic existence and bolsters the idea of a natural savant working apart from any mainstream. That’s quite far from the truth, as Suzanne learnt her craft at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art and was tutored by its founder, the Scottish wood engraver Iain Macnab. Her work was quite highly regarded. That naivety is actually a deliberate point of view and, suddenly, it is possible to see experiments in perspective that pre-date the work of David Hockney.
Lucy Hughes-Hallett is a writer who brings vivacity to subjects as varied as the Egyptian ruler Cleopatra and the Italian Fascist Gabriele d’Annunzio. She is also Suzanne Cooper’s daughter-in-law, so this is a personal quest. In her introductory essay, Suzanne springs immediately to life and the reader is hooked. We can’t not want to know more about this enigmatic footnote to art history.
So, what happened? Well, the Second World War. The Grosvenor School closed, Suzanne became a volunteer nurse and then a mother. She continued to draw, but the main thread had been broken and was never really re-connected.
As well as paintings, there are also plenty of wood engravings (the Macnab influence) that show both a sense of style and a confidence in the medium and considerable originality – there’s a distinct sense of their being not quite typical of the usual aesthetics, as exemplified in Carol Singers 1 & 2, where something enigmatic and maybe disturbing is going on – the wryness of the quiet observer is present in a lot of Suzanne’s work.
As well as Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s biographical reminiscence (small sidebar: I was at university with her), Jenny Uglow contributes an account of the Grosvenor School and what developed from it. Andrew Stewart adds a commentary on the artworks.
This is a thorough, personal and entertaining account of the life of a largely forgotten artist who is worthy of resurrection (not all are) that is enhanced to no small degree by the extent and quality of the production and illustrations.
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