Stories from Hospitalfield: Waistel Cooper

Waistel Cooper (1921-2003) studied at Hospitalfield during an exceptional period for the new Allan Fraser Art School when he arrived as a teenager in 1938, sharing the Studios with several artists who would go on to become prominent figures of British modernist painting. In 1938 the cohort of students from Glasgow School of Art included star pupils Robert Colquhoun, Robert MacBryde and Robert Henderson Blyth. In 1939 a new cohort from Dundee College of Art included Alexander Allan and Patrick Hennessy.

James Cowie had (1886-1956) succeeded George Harcourt (1868-1947) in the role of Warden at Hospitalfield in 1936, moving from Aberdeen where he had been Head of Painting at Gray’s School of Art. The college had moved on from undergraduate study to become a post graduate school.  The nature of the role at Hospitalfield would enable Cowie to impress elements of his style and character of painting upon the students who would work and study under his guidance.

Portrait of an unknown subject painted by Waistel Cooper at Hospitalfield in 1939

Waistel Cooper was born in Ayr, inheriting his unusual first name from his father, a bookseller and stationer who would move from Ayr to Somerset in the 1940s. He won a scholarship to Hospitalfield at the age of seventeen and established formative and enduring friendships with the young artists he met at this time. He studied drawing and painting and showed striking ability in portraiture, but this was not to be his chosen way of working. In 1946 he travelled to Reykjavik where he took to ceramics. On his return to the UK he settled in Somerset and then moved to Cornwall to be at the centre of the artist’s community at that time. He set up his studio and became an outstanding potter influenced by the world renowned ceramicists, Lucie Rie and Hans Coper.

An Outdoor School of Painting, by James Cowie, Tate © The estate of James Cowie

At Hospitalfield, Cooper was part of the very special year of study and a year when Cowie started to work on An Outdoor School of Painting (1938-1941), a work that included studies of several of his students including Cooper and MacBryde. In the painting a series of figures are placed within an imagined, dreamlike rural landscape. The seated figure at the centre is Cowie’s daughter Ruth, and her sister Barbara is the central standing figure. The male figure on the left of the painting is Robert MacBryde and two of the other male figures are of the young Waistel Cooper. The central male figure not identified, however it could be a study of Robert Colquhoun. The painting was completed by Cowie at Hospitalfield over several years and is now held in the Tate’s collection.

In 2015 Tate loaned the painting to Hospitalfield for an exhibition entitled Continuum. The premise of the show focussed on the influence of Scottish artists across generations and the impact Hospitalfield has had in producing influencing the teaching of art in the UK. The show including new commissions by Alistair Maclennan, Victoria Morton and Michael Fullerton and works by Joyce Cairns, Joan Eardley, Ian Fleming, Lil Neilson and Anda Paterson.

Waistel Cooper, seated with Robert MacBryde in An Outdoor School of Painting by James Cowie

Cooper’s studies at Hospitalfield were interrupted by the war and in 1940 he was drafted to fight serving with the Artist’s Rifles. Invalided out in 1943, he returned to Scotland and gained a scholarship at Edinburgh College of Art to continue painting. Cooper was working on commissions for painted portraits when he received an invitation to exhibit his work in Reykjavik, travelling to Iceland in 1946 in what would prove to be a defining move and a dramatic change in artistic direction.

In Reykjavik Cooper struck up a friendship with the lively sculptor and ceramic pioneer Gestur Thorgrimsson (1920-2003) who encouraged him to take up pottery. Thorgrimsson had established a small pottery in Reykjavik at a time when the medium was burgeoning in a country in which there was no significant history of ceramics. The first and only ceramic factory in Iceland, Glit, had been set up around the same time by the sculptor Ragnar Kjartansson (1923-1988) and was dedicated to making ceramics using Icelandic clay and minerals including hardened lava. The collaboration between Cooper and Thorgrimsson began with Cooper painting large earthenware clay platters that were thrown by his friend, painting the underglaze with colourful clay slips. The fluid medium encouraged Cooper to make designs that were abstract in form. The collaboration changed the course of Cooper’s artistic life and he would stay on in Iceland until 1950 when he returned to Britain, moving to the small village of Porlock in Somerset to live with his parents.

Cooper wasted little time before establishing his own small pottery at the nearby Culbone Lodge, where he lived and worked with his wife Joan D’Arcy Jeancon who would assist with mixing glazes for the pottery. It was at Culbone that Cooper developed his signature distinctive style characterised by stoneware of balanced simple shapes and textured surfaces in colour tones that were the product of careful firing experiments with different types of wood ash. Cooper was influenced by the work of European modernist potters Lucie Rie and Hans Coper who had revolutionised British pottery after emigrating from Austria and Germany respectively in 1938, advancing the medium from the forms produced in St Ives by the Leach Pottery which were dominant at the time.

Culbone Lodge in Somerset where Waistel Cooper established a pottery from 1957 to 1982, note the pots in the foreground of the image

Cooper moved from Culbone following the death of his wife Jean and moved to Penzance in Cornwall with his second wife Gillian Tedder in 1982. He continued to produce pottery in forms that evolved to include abstract figurative sculptures and works showing new shapes in pure white clay confirming his reputation as one the most important potters of his generation.

Examples of the work of Waistel Cooper are held in public collections around the work, local examples can be seen at the McManus Galleries in Dundee and Glasgow Museums.

Image Credit

1.An Outdoor School of Painting, by James Cowie, Tate © The estate of James Cowie

2.Portrait by Waistel Cooper made at Hospitalfield in 1939, private collection, image courtesy of Lyon & Turnbull

4. Image courtesy of Adam Partridge Auctioneers