Susan [Susie] Vera Cooper was born in Staffordshire on 29th October 1902. She attended a private school in Hanley, which she left in 1917 to help with the family farm and retail business, but she carried on her drawing education by enrolling for evening classes at Burslem School of Art. Two years later she won a scholarship for full-time training at the school and came under the influence of Gordon Forsyth, former art director of leading pottery firms and, from 1920, superintendent of art education in the district. She then started work with Gray’s Pottery and helped to decorate Forsyth’s range of ‘Gloria Lustre’ wares, which were exhibited at the 1923 British Industries Fair. Cooper was promoted to resident designer and given her own back stamp. Her work for Gray’s was also shown at the British Empire Exhibition (1924) and the Paris Expo (1925).
On her twenty-seventh birthday in 1929, with support from her family, Cooper set up on her own. She employed ten women 'paintresses' and continued to exhibit, with great success, at the British Industries Fairs. It was the duty of local artists, she said, to work alongside local industry in order to rejuvenate it. She set out to ‘create something for people who don’t have a lot of money but who like nice things’. Her most familiar backstamp, a leaping deer, together with ‘Kestrel’ shaped wares were introduced in 1932. Queen Mary bought a breakfast-in-bed set and the Princess Royal a triangular lamp decorated with clowns from her display stand. Her long and happy relationship with John Lewis started when their London store placed a large order, and they commissioned a service for the restaurant at their Peter Jones store in Chelsea. Cooper also designed a service for the experimental Peckham Health Centre, and was exporting her wares to Norway and South Africa. Nikolaus Pevsner, in his Enquiry into the Industrial Arts in England, highlighted the work of Susie Cooper as evidence of modernist design practice in the country.
Cooper exhibited parts of two dinner sets at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) and Royal Academy (RA) 1935 exhibition of ‘British Art in Industry’. As well as showing her own work at ‘Britain Can Make it’ (1946) she also sat on the Pottery Selection Panel. Malcolm Logan, in his review for the RSA Journal, said of her exhibits at the Design at Work exhibition (1948) that she was ‘a designer who has succeeded both artistically and materially, because her creative sense is linked with a sound practical knowledge of production techniques and market requirements’. For the Festival of Britain (1951) she designed a ‘Quail’ bone china service, decorated with the lion and the unicorn, for use in the Royal Pavilion.
Appointed a Royal Designer for Industry (RDI) in 1940 Cooper designed a special tea service for the RSA for their ‘Exhibition of Exhibitions’ opened by HRH Princess Elizabeth in 1951. Unique to the RSA this ‘Astral’ service, in one of her favourite colours, Sevres blue, saw many years of service and featured on the cover of the RSA Journal issued on Cooper’s 90th birthday. The Faculty commissioned Cooper to design a commemorative plaque as a gift to the RSA to mark their bicentenary in 1954.
Susie Cooper Ltd became part of the Wedgwood Group in 1966 and to mark the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 Cooper designed a limited edition bone china round box and cover. The following year she was awarded an OBE and Wedgwood held a retrospective exhibition entitled ‘Elegance and Utility’. The Stoke-on-Trent Museum and Art Gallery held a celebratory show to mark Cooper’s 80th birthday and for her 90th Wedgwood staged a show of her work at their visitor’s centre at Barlaston. Cooper designed a limited edition of ninety porcelain models of a leaping deer to mark the occasion. The V&A organized a travelling exhibition and the Royal College of Art (RCA) awarded her an Honorary Fellowship in 1987. She also featured in the BBC4 series Pottery Ladies, alongside Clarice Cliff and Charlotte Rhead (1985).
Over a long career Cooper experimented with many new techniques and styles resulting in the design of 4,500 patterns and 500 new shapes. In 1986 she retired to the Isle of Man where she started making seed pictures, designing textiles and helping her son with the restoration of several houses. She said ‘its not how old you are, its what you do that counts, and I’ve never stopped doing’.
Susie Cooper died on 28th July 1995, at the age of 92.
Cooper is featured in the Britain Can Make it Exhibition catalogue as follows:
Photo ©Wedgwood Museum/ WWRD