Arts Muse

In Conversation with Eileen Cooper

Matilda Seddon interviews Eileen Cooper about her illustrations for the reprint of Angela Carter's acclaimed novel Nights at the Circus.

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Image Credit: Malcolm Southward

Prolific figurative artist and Royal Academician, Eileen Cooper, recently wrapped up a series of striking illustrations for a reprint of Angela Carter’s 80s novel Nights at the Circus. Cooper’s work perfectly complements Carter’s in its ability to toe the line between reality and fantasy. I recently spoke with her about her distinctive work and practice.

How did you find the process of working on the illustrations for Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus?

It was very different from my normal practice because it involved working very closely to the text, which I really loved. I’ve often made print-based collages and it’s really labor intensive even when I’m using pre-existing blocks for the collages. I use a studio in France and I got to use it in the September when I was completing the work. It allowed me to get out of my head and to really focus. I think when you get to my age, the thing that you’ve really mastered is how to orchestrate your time. I think that’s quite hard as a young artist; the idea that you should wait for inspiration. You absolutely can't. You’ve got to have strategies to make it come.


I was interested to learn how many different mediums and techniques you use in creating your work. Little Dancer 1, for instance, where it's a collage with linocut, etching, screen-print, monoprint, and hand-coloring. How do you navigate completing works using so many different techniques?

I feel most autonomous when I’m block printing and working with woodcut, linocut, and monoprinting. I’ve got these techniques at my fingertips and in the back of my head. As a printmaker you achieve a lot of prints that are just working proofs and I began to recycle them, in a way. I’d cut them up and make another set of prints. And then I began to think I’d like to use the images but on flat backgrounds. Like the way Matisse painted collage. I had some screen printed flats left over from a previous project and I also had some new flats, so then you have your block prints. You begin to accumulate processes. I think part of what makes a collage so rich is the fact that all of these materials are available.

What's your relationship with spontaneity in your practice?

That’s a very good question. I don't know if I’m as spontaneous as I used to be. I’d often just start painting and I’d just have some drawings like of a crouching female figure, and it was absolutely spontaneous. But as you get more knowledgeable about your subject and your materials, it's harder to be truly spontaneous. But then, if the work is going wrong or becoming boring, you just launch into it and that’s spontaneous as well. ‘I don't know what’s going to happen but I’m going to pick up this colour and I’m going to change it’. It was something that used to be very intuitive, but now I think I can use it a bit more as a tool. It’s a bit like inspiration.


Your work has been described as ‘magical realism’, which is a really interesting term. What does it mean to you in your work?

I think originally it’s a term for literature, but maybe there’s an aspect of surrealism in my work as well. Calling it surreal would make it particular to an art movement, whereas magic realism makes it almost hyper, and I think there’s almost a poetry in my work. So it’s not like a long essay where everything is mulled over and analysed. It’s more selected. I haven’t really thought about this before, but it’s a bit like props. Some of the things are just props, as in theatre, because you’re telling a bigger story. The focus of a few lines of poetry rather than the whole novel.

I think that captures it perfectly. I love the idea of art transcending in the way that yours does into the realm of theatrics and performance.

I think there’s a strong sense of that in my work. Even when I paint landscape, it’s never really landscape, it’s more of a set. That’s what I love about a lot of classical paintings.


Are there any artists or writers who particularly inspire you?

The portraits of Alice Neil have become hugely important to me. And then there’s Paula Rego and Frida Kahlo. As a young female artist in the 70s, I really had to seek out the success stories of other female artists, because they were absent. I’m grateful for various people’s books and research that have brought them to view. In terms of writers, I enjoyed reading Angela Carter because her work resonated a lot. I’m reading Isabel Allende at the moment, and she’s a Chilean writer who is classically a magic realist. I’ve discovered a fantastic Japanese author, Junichiro Tanizaki, who wrote about the Makioka sisters. I’m always searching for good books.

Are you working on any projects at the moment?

I’ve been working on some portraiture over lockdown that I think will be shown at Huxley-Parlour around this time next year. Also next year I’ve got a big show at the Leicester Museum & Art Gallery which I’ve been working on with the curator. I’m very excited about that because it’s going to be my work responding to the collection, which has incredible Picasso ceramics and very good German expressionist prints. I also have a top secret project which involves working with a writer on another book. I’ve always got projects on the go and I’ve always got prints on the go. I don't feel safe unless I’ve got a lot of work in progress. Having the energy and the strength to make ambitious work is something I analyse quite a lot. I want to use my time well.

Image Credits: Little Dancer 1, 2020, Eileen Cooper. Night Sky, 2019, Eileen Cooper. Blue Moon, 2020, Eileen Cooper.

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