Published  22/06/2015

Eileen Cooper: ‘Artists are real sponges. We take things and absorb them and eventually use them in our work’

Eileen Cooper: ‘Artists are real sponges. We take things and absorb them and eventually use them in our work’

The artist talks about having a retrospective at the Royal Academy at the same time as showing in its Summer Exhibition, critics’ sometimes overzealous interpretation of her works and her love of materials and process


Eileen Cooper (b1953) is a powerful presence at the Royal Academy this summer. An Academician since 2000, she was elected the first female Keeper in 2010. She has six works – in various media – in the annual Summer Exhibition and a retrospective of her drawings running simultaneously in the John Madejski Fine Rooms. A full-colour monograph of her life and works has also just been published.

Born in Glossop, Derbyshire, Cooper drew from an early age. At 17, she undertook a foundation course in art at the nearby Ashton-under-Lyne College of Further Education and, from there, she progressed to Goldsmiths and later to the Royal College of Art. At a time when conceptual art and performance were de rigueur, Cooper remained true to figuration, soon discovering that drawing from her imagination, instead of from life, gave her a freedom to express and explore ideas and themes that became important to her. Her often large-scale, brightly coloured, primal and primitive compositions followed Cooper on her journey through womanhood and motherhood, with their motifs and content invariably overshadowing discussion of their formal properties.

Anna McNay: Do you feel your art inevitably reveals your life and you as a person, exposing you to your audience, or are you very aware of what you choose to present and what you choose to hold back or, maybe, modify?

Eileen Cooper: If I really felt I was exposing myself, my deepest desires and experiences, I wouldn’t be able to work. I think there’s an indication there in my work of what I’m about, but people are so complex and we often don’t even really know ourselves. I don’t want to hold back, and I don’t think I do hold back, but, at the same time, I don’t feel I’m being overly confessional or exposing myself.

AMc: Critics are wont to assume the figures in your works are all “Eileen”. Is this not the case?

EC: I think they’re both personal and universal. So as much as they’re Eileen, they’re Anna.

AMc: So everyone can take something from them, in some way?

EC: I would think so.

AMc: Men as well?

EC: Yes, most definitely. You’ll always get people who are not interested in your work, who don’t want to take anything from it and who don’t want to meet it half way, but once you engage with anybody’s work, then you do need to listen to what it’s saying, look at what it’s saying, and, in my case at least, it’s emotional work, so hopefully it will strike a chord.

AMc: Is there an element of what, in Gestalt psychology, is termed confluence? An attempt to draw the viewer in and have her experience the feelings of the character in the painting or drawing as if they were her own; to have her complete the work?

EC: Absolutely. I love that. I think that many artists have said that the viewer brings the final piece of the puzzle. I’m often intrigued by what critics write about my work, or what people say. Often they finally do grasp it by bringing in a bit of themselves.

AMc: Your work deals a lot with identity and your figures’ search to find themselves, as mothers, as women, as children, as artists. Does making these works help you answer questions about your own identity?

EC: I think, in a way, it stops me asking the questions. It’s an outlet. When my mother died, I didn’t see the impact it would have on my work at all, and, equally, when I had children, I didn’t anticipate that would be any kind of subject matter for me. If something comes at you, you deal with it through the making. I’m a very practical person, I’m very absorbed by, and involved in, materials and processes – not so much in intellectual thought – and I don’t always bother to interpret my works afterwards. I did so more as a younger artist, but now I just roll with it.

AMc: Do you think, then, that there’s an outlet for the subconscious in your work? For example, I was reading Martin Gayford’s essay in your new monograph and he mentions the tortoise that appeared in some of the paintings you did after your mother died.

EC: That tortoise was also rooted in fact because my uncle – my mother’s brother – had had this tortoise since we were children. It was a lovely summer when my mother was dying and, strangely enough, this tortoise had come out of his hibernation. It was just implanted in me. We are sponges: artists are real sponges. We take things and absorb them and eventually we will use them in our work, if it’s appropriate.

AMc: Do you ever feel that your work is overanalysed by critics, who assume certain motifs mean certain things?

EC: Occasionally I think they’ve got it wrong. Especially in the conversations about the tiger, which was seen as a male sexuality. I always disagreed with that. It was definitely part of the woman: her passions or her creativity.

AMc: Can you talk a bit about some of your other repeated motifs – such as the ladder, the swing, the trapeze, the boat, the bird – which appear in your compositions?

EC: As a younger woman, I was very interested in Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s painting The Swing (1767) and Gustave Courbet’s The Hammock (1844) and, on some level, I wanted to do a version of them, but reclaim them. I’ve found this time and time again: the images and the work I gravitate towards are somehow already there. I’m already half way to using that image and then I find things that trigger me. Of course, there are also the memories of being on a swing as a child – and the fear of that – and the drama of going over the top. As you grow from a young girl into a woman, that’s a great metaphor.

AMc: I suppose the trapeze and the ladder and some of your other motifs are about balance.

EC: Yes. And also showing the figure in a very odd state, which, once I started to work from imagination, I really wanted to do. I realised in life drawing it would be impossible to get figures standing on one hand for any length of time, so often there were props, and that linked with a feeling of balance that’s been present in my work for a long time, yes. Balancing things, as you do as an artist and as a woman.

AMc: And as a mother. You said that you didn’t plan on working with motherhood as a subject but it’s become quite a significant part of your work.

EC: Well, that’s because it dominates your life. No matter how much you think you’re going to be able to keep going on your route, it really affects you. At least, it did me. But I’m certain that that’s the impact it has on most women, unless they’re incredibly able to compartmentalise, or they have staff. Having a child also has an amazing impact on your body so then creativity and fertility really seem to become intertwined. And nurture. Nurturing kids, nurturing your creativity, finding time for yourself to express the things that are going on. All of that really fed into my work, really in a very positive way. That’s something people don’t talk about very often about motherhood: how much it really nourishes you, even though it really knackers you.

AMc: Do you feel now that you have a lexicon of images and motifs that you draw on?

EC: Yes, they’re there. But I’m very deliberately not using tigers again for a while. I’m not saying never, but actually, it’s not like I’m desperate to use a tiger and I’m subliminating it. I don’t want my symbols to become a dictionary of symbols, so a ladder means this, a swing means that. I’ve started to make some works about the garden, so I’m using a lot of spades and shovels and plants.

AMc: A lot has been made of the nudity of your figures, particularly in your earlier works, with one critic dubbing you “Britain’s new young nudist superstar”, but you’ve said that you don’t see your figures in this way, rather, more simply put, without clothes they are timeless and more universal.

EC: Yes, it’s a very strange thing that. I knew very clearly, early on, when I was still a student, that if I put clothes on them – bearing in mind this was the age of platform shoes and wide trousers – then they would soon look very dated. So I suppose I saw that as a problem and the alternative was to get rid of the clothes. But the idea that they were nude was always really shocking to me. In fact, I think that they were clothed in colour. I don’t really see that the naked red figures have much sexuality to them. To me, they’re just like strong, working women, either nurturing children or climbing trees, in tree houses or with spades. As the colour drained away, as it did over the years, the figures began to look naked. It’s a different kind of colour now, much more skin-coloured and life-like. So now they have a very on-off relationship with clothes. But, of course, if you’re adding clothes, and you have figures who are scantily clad or who have a certain transparency of clothing, that can shed a whole new light on the subject, and I quite like that.

AMc: The background of your works has also changed. In your early works, the figures were quite crammed into the space, pushed up against the edge. Now it’s as if they’re able to inhabit their space more easily, a little more comfortably.

EC: Yes, I think they were truly – and this word was used to describe them – monumental. No matter how big the canvas, the figures would fit into it. Often now, in more recent work, the figures still touch the edges, but there’s a more rhythmic inhabiting of the space around them, whereas before they were absolutely filling that space. There’s a sense of claustrophobia that comes with motherhood – your world shrinks and you are so focused on your children. That is such a primitive and primal thing. I think that generally my work has got a little cooler. Not that it’s intellectual – it’s definitely not that.

AMc: What about the scale of your work? You did some very large pieces, such as Tree House (1989-90) and Tree House II (1990). You often collage sheets of paper together to make things bigger.

EC: Yes, I did some very large paintings and some very large drawings. The pieces you mention are nearly three metres. They were made on joined up sheets of paper, four sheets of paper, quite large sheets. The way I drew them was by separating them up on my studio floor so that I could get in between them. I never really saw them fully joined up until they were framed. I don’t rule out doing big pieces again, but I haven’t really found very large work necessary and, of course, as I’ve got older, I’m probably not as agile and not as strong as I was to lift those bloody large things.

AMc: What was it that drew you to work on such a large scale?

EC: I suppose I was testing things. I’ve always been keen to have new experiences. When I was 40, I took the canvases from being up against the wall and put them on the floor to paint with sponges and rags, spilling and spreading paint. I’d never been that kind of painter and it is very different from being upright. I wanted to put myself through the paces as an artist and I still think I’m learning and I still hope that my work will get more interesting and improve. I’m always looking forward.

AMc: You’re working with bronze now too, which is a new avenue for you.

EC: Yes, it’s very exciting. As I said before, I’ve always been very engaged with materials and process. I’ve worked in clay and I’ve always been lucky enough to get people to work with me. With the bronzes, I started working with wax sheets, drawing on to them, cutting the images out with a knife, and then standing them up and making them work, in a way, as 3D collages. Cathie Pilkington helped me negotiate the relationship with the foundry and then, at the end, make decisions about the patina. It’s a new journey for me and I’ve done about nine pieces so far; two are in the Summer Exhibition.

AMc: Are there any other materials that you haven’t worked with that you would like to try out?

EC: Well, actually, very early on I worked with a rug-maker and made a tufted rug, which was a bit of a disaster because, as a one off, you’re not going to master it in any way. It was an interesting experience. I also worked with silver and made a set of brooches with a jeweller friend. I’d like to do that again. And I think I will do some more ceramics. It’s a matter of finding the right people to work with because I’m not interested in throwing, that’s not something I want to learn to do, and when you get to my age you have a mature vision and a mature ambition, but are pretty raw in terms of some handling, so you need handholding and it becomes a bit of a collaboration. I’ve been lucky enough to find some great people to work with.

AMc: You mentioned that you have two bronzes in the Summer Exhibition. What else are you showing there?

EC: I’ve got a largish new oil, made especially for the exhibition; I’ve got a drawing, which actually relates quite closely to the bronzes; and I’ve got a couple of prints. All Royal Academicians are automatically included in the show and, of course, part of the deal is that you make your work available for sale and the Academy takes a cut and that funds its activities. That’s a very good relationship, I think. Not everybody always has work to sell and sometimes Academicians don’t put in, but I think most of us want to support the Academy – and also what a great audience! The Summer Exhibition is a really viable showing space for artists. People take it very seriously.

AMc: Your retrospective, Hide and Seek: Drawings by Eileen Cooper RA, is on in the John Madejski Fine Rooms at the same time as the Summer Exhibition.

EC: Yes, and that’s very different indeed. It’s just drawings. Some of them have colour and some of them are in different materials, such as pencil, ink, charcoal, gouache, pastel and conté. There’s a little bit of collage in there, too.

AMc: The exhibition came about because of a gift of 10 works to the Academy.

EC: Yes. It’s good karma really to get offered a wonderful showing opportunity because of giving something away! It’s quite a good story, I think. I was getting a new plan chest because mine was basically dropping to bits and so I needed to go through it and sort out lots of old work, and I found this group of 10 drawings, which I can clearly remember doing, and I can remember being a bit perplexed by them because they’re very heavily worked but they’re on quite a thin, but obviously very strong, Japanese paper. I wasn’t sure how that worked and they’d been in the plan chest since 2001. I got them out and decided I really liked them and would really like them to stay together. I wondered if the Academy collections would like them. I invited Nick Savage, director of library and collections, over, and he was thrilled and loved them and said we should have a show to celebrate, putting them in the context of my work.

AMc: How significant a part of your practice is drawing?

EC: I think it’s the most significant part. If somebody took everything else away from me, I’d say: “Leave me drawing!” It’s immediate, you can do it anywhere, you can challenge yourself with materials and papers, you can tear it and reassemble it, it’s so flexible. I think it’s very revealing of an artist’s practice. I think a lot of artists’ drawings are as interesting as anything they ever produce.

AMc: You draw completely from the imagination as well.

EC: I do now, yes. I might need a prop. If there was a vase of flowers, I might look at a vase, or if there was a shoe, I might look at a shoe. If I needed a profile, I might get someone to come in as a reference. But really I do have the confidence to make quite ambitious work from my head. And it works for me. There’s some process that just rolls for me.

AMc: You have had a lot of life drawing experience, I expect.

EC: Yes. I learned to draw very well. Partly I drew like my tutor told me to. It’s opening a door, teaching somebody to draw. You’re teaching them to look and you’re advising them on handling materials, so you’re equipping them, and then they have to do something with it. I think you can see with a lot of people who make beautiful drawings from life that either that will become their thing and they’ll always make beautiful drawings from life or they’ll make a transition to do other things with all that skill and facility. It wasn’t until I turned my back on objective drawing that this other thing happened for me, which I found much more exciting.

AMc: It seems to me to relate to what Picasso said about every child being an artist and the problem being how to remain that when they grow up.

EC: Yes, and I think he really understood that. My teacher in those early days, Bill Clark, at my college in Ashton-under-Lyne where I did foundation, understood that element of play: the need to play, to experiment, and not to be precious. You can always tear it up, turn it over, turn it upside down, rub it out, add to it, start working with ink on top of pencil. Drawing is so wonderfully flexible.

AMc: Finally, in one of your most metaphorical works, The Sad Tree (1983), you represent the woman as a tree, budding, growing, reaching beyond the frame for the sky. Why is she sad? What is it she cannot attain?

EC: Well, I’ve always loved the myth of Daphne being turned into a tree. I really love mythology and fables and Bible stories. There’s a tiny painting in the National Gallery, Apollo and Daphne by Antonio del Pollaiuolo (1470), of a woman reaching up, with both arms becoming trees. She’s pleading with the gods to make her a tree because she’s escaping from the unwanted attentions of a man who is chasing her. So it’s a story of transformation. I also remember reading that a tree is like a figure rooted in the ground and reaching up, like we do, for better things. The tree has really been an amazing and constant thing for me. It sounds so corny when I say it that way! I did a series of works of a woman turning into a tree in that way. The others must have been sold – or there may be one or two in the plan chest.

AMc: So you’ve not completely finished going through it yet?

EC: No, I’ve still got a bit of work to do there.

AMc: So there might be more gifts coming up?

EC: There might be, yes.

• Hide and Seek: Drawings by Eileen Cooper RA will be showing in the John Madejski Fine Rooms of the Royal Academy of Arts, London, until 23 August 2015.

The Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition will be the showing at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, until 16 August 2015.

Eileen Cooper: Between the Lines by Martin Gayford and Sara Lee, published by the Royal Academy of Arts, is available online at and from the RA shop in hardcover, price £30.


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