RA Magazine Autumn 2011
Issue Number: 112
Out to Lunch: Eileen Cooper
Eileen Cooper RA, the first woman Keeper of the RA Schools, shares a Mediterranean feast at La Petite Maison with Sarah Greenberg. Photograph by Julian Anderson
When I meet Eileen Cooper at the RA Schools to take her to lunch, it feels like we are off on holiday. Perhaps it is the summery weather, which makes our meal in the airy Niçoise restaurant La Petite Maison seem like a trip to the South of France, as does the flavourful, sun-filled food. But more than anything, it is the open, sunny personality of the artist herself, a painter and printmaker known for pictures filled with celebratory nudes, who is as passionate about her art as she is about her new role as Keeper of the RA Schools.
Eileen Cooper RA at La Petite Maison Photo © Julian Anderson We chose this elegant bistro in a Mayfair mews, a short walk from the RA, because Eileen loves Mediterranean food and because she knows the chef, Raphael Duntoye. ‘I am on the Advisory Board of the Dover Street Arts Club and Raphael has been chosen to run the new restaurant there for its relaunch this autumn.’ This should breathe new life into the venerable institution, a local haven for generations of RAs and art lovers, which has languished somewhat in recent years. ‘The idea is to make it appeal to younger generations of artists and a broader spectrum of people,’ says Eileen, ‘We want to make it more fun, informal and convivial.’
Those words could describe La Petite Maison. Despite its well-heeled Mayfair clientele and location, an air of informality pervades the restaurant and its cooking, with Mediterranean produce adorning the tables and a menu of simply prepared, seasonal ingredients. We are both tempted by practically all of the ‘sharing plate’ starters and soon a parade of dishes arrives at our table. Of course we are here to talk about art but we are mightily distracted by the food. Our favourite dish is the simplest: fresh peas marinated in herbs and olive oil with a mixture of fresh and oven-baked diced tomatoes. But it faces stiff competition from the mosaic-like disc of octopus carpaccio drizzled with a garlicky lemon olive oil, which Eileen compares to a textile design. A crisp rosé at the moderate end of the list makes a
Somehow the summery atmosphere and bustle of dishes coming and going reminds me of Eileen’s paintings, which have a primal quality, as well as a playful one. Scantily-clad muses and artists, children and animals wander into her pictures – everyone seems to be playing, except the female painter who observes the proceedings. ‘A lot of my work is about the act of creativity, about the artist in the studio,’ she says.
Many viewers wonder if her work is autobiographical but Eileen rejects the notion that her art is based on real life. ‘My pictures are about letting life into your studio – I think it is a luxury to lock yourself away in the studio. I was never able to do it when I was bringing up my children. Family life was a good grounding for having to multi-task while maintaining an artistic practice – I am used to being available. So even when I am working in the Keeper’s Studio at the RA, I expect to be on call if the Schools need me.’
Eileen Cooper's napkin sketch inspired by lunch Eileen’s down-to-earth, accessible personality has made her an effective teacher at the RA Schools, first as Head of Printmaking and now as the first female officer of the RA since it was founded in 1768. What is special about the RA Schools? ‘Besides being the oldest art school in the country, we are the only one that remains free of charge.
We are small, so we can respond to the needs of individual students.’ She also enjoys connecting to the Academy’s artistic history: ‘I like the fact that I am part of a timeline of British artists. One of the biggest differences since I became an RA in 2000 is that we’ve elected many more women Academicians – that will make a big difference over time.’
Eileen is the first to acknowledge that the artist’s journey can be a difficult one. ‘It is still a surprise to me that I have been able to make my life as an artist. Given my background in the North of England, people had other routes planned out for me.’ The daughter of shopkeepers, she grew up on the edge of the Peak District. ‘I never knew any artists, my family were not interested in art. But I was always good at it – somehow I could always draw and had an innate sense of line – so from an early age, my art teachers encouraged me. But everybody was expected to get a proper job. Since I was artistic, my careers’ teacher at school suggested I become a hairdresser! There was no way I wanted that. So I escaped to art school in 1970 and in 1971 I went to Goldsmiths. My teachers – Bert Irvin and Basil Beattie (who are both now RAs) were in thrall to abstraction but I couldn’t paint an abstract picture to save my life.’ Linearity and figuration have always characterised Cooper’s art. ‘Drawing was my first skill. Everything else I had to learn – colour, composition, paint. But I have an innate sense of line. Even when I try to subvert it, it returns.’
Over dessert, as we share a warm dark chocolate mousse with vanilla ice-cream, we discuss her new role as Keeper of the RA Schools. What difference will it make, being the first female officer at the RA? ‘Just the way I conduct myself will be different, as well as the fact that I come from a modest background, not a privileged one. And now that I am older, I have a stronger sense of my own identity and worth.’
Does that mean that making art has become any easier? ‘You always feel vulnerable as an artist and that’s what keeps you going. Is what I’ve done worth anything? Is it saying anything new? Is it any good?’ Does she ever feel she has succeeded? ‘For a short time, perhaps, you’re happy and then you think, hmmm… there’s the potential to develop that. I think you have to be a restless spirit to create art. ’
Eileen Cooper RA: Showing Off Art First, London, 020 7734 0386, www.artfirst.co.uk
, 8 Sep–8 Oct
La Petite Maison London, 020 7495 4774, www.lpmlondon.co.uk.
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