Susie Vera Cooper (1902-1995) was an English ceramic artist and designer. She worked in the Stoke on Trent pottery industries from the 1920s right up until the 1980s. Susie Cooper was the first potter to be made a Royal Designer for Industry. The title Royal Designer for Industry (RDI) was introduced in 1936 to honour and reward designers of excellence, including Cooper. Only 200 designers may hold the title at any time.
Susie Cooper grew up in a rural farming community surrounded by her six older brother and sisters. Having displayed an interest in pottery at an early age, Cooper became one of Staffordshire’s most significant and successful ceramic designers.
Cooper studied, and then taught at the Burslem School of Art until she was encouraged to seek work in the potteries industry. In her first industry role at A E Gray and Co, Cooper earned piece rates as a painter. Her talent was immediately noticed and Cooper rose swiftly to the position of resident designer, a role that gave her the confidence to leave A E Gray and Co and go it alone.
Financed by her brother and sister-in-law, Cooper established the Susie Cooper Pottery, initially in Chelsea. Copper bought in ready-made white wares and hand-painted them with her own distinctive patterns.
A year later the Susie Cooper Pottery moved to the Crown works in Burlsem as part of a deal with Wood & Sons. Wood & Sons were contracted in to supply Cooper’s pottery with the required plain earthenware forms. Duly, Cooper was able to control both the form and the decoration of her ceramics.
Susie Cooper Pottery expanded as demand for its wares increased. The pottery’s ranks swelled as painters and lithographers were employed to satisfy demand. Union rules decreed all patterns be redrawn by the lithographer’s own designer, however, this ran contrary to Cooper’s hands-on approach. To solve this dilemma, Cooper came to a secret agreement with her designers, whereby their designs would be quietly discarded and her originals used.
At the 1932 British Industries Fair, Cooper’s wares garnered royal patronage. Queen Mary purchased a Susie Cooper breakfast in bed set and Edward VIII is rumoured to have purchased a Dresden Spray set for Wallis Simpson. Quick to capitalise on this marketing opportunity, Cooper’s brother made up signs for the pottery, which read: “As supplied to Her Majesty the Queen”.
Susie worked for many other pottery firms over the following decades, including Wedgwood. In 1940 she was awarded the Royal Designer for Industry by the Royal Society of Arts, and in 1979 she received an OBE.
At the age of 80 she retired to live on the Isle of Man, where she died in 1995. Like other Potteries based ceramic designers such as Clarice Cliff and Charlotte Rhead, her work has become highly sought after and valued by pottery collectors.
In comparison to high-value wares created by her contemporaries such as Clarice Cliff, Susie Cooper ware is generally considered undervalued.
Even forms considered Susie Cooper “classics” can be picked up for under £300, making Susie Cooper pottery an appealing and affordable prospect for those collectors on a more modest income.
Exceptional items, and in particular, one off items, sell for more than “classics”, but any good sale of twentieth century decorative arts is likely to feature a variety of Susie Cooper ware, classic and one-off pieces among them. As a designer she, and her pottery staff, were prolific.
Having produced pottery for over 70 years, there is an abundance of Susie Cooper ware ripe for collecting. During the 1920s and 1930s, Cooper focussed on producing fashionable art deco designs. A little later, the clean lined “Kestrel-era” shapes and patterns came to the fore, with pastel-coloured floral patterns applied using lithograph techniques increasing in popularity.
With the arrival of the internet collecting has changed considerably, the market place is now open globally to everyone who has access to a computer and websites like eBay have made collectors items more widely available. Although this is not seen by some as a good thing, it has helped collectors discover which items of Susie Cooper are more common than others and has also brought some real rarities into the market place. If you are thinking of starting a collection, then eBay is a good place to start, just read the descriptions carefully and check with the seller before bidding if something is unclear about an item (usually the photos!)
Since Cooper only worked for Grays from 1922 until 1929, only a handful of marks are asscoaited with her work. The most important of these marks is known as the “liner mark” and includes words designed by Cooper herself.
Two liner marks relate to the pottery of Susie Cooper:
- The standard ocean liner mark, which reads, “HAND-PAINTED GRAY’S POTTERY HANLEY — ENGLAND — DESIGNED BY SUSIE COOPER”. It features a small picture of a black ocean liner against a red background floating on a green sea.
*The second ocean liner mark is a variation on the standard ocean liner mark. The words “SUSIE COOPER WARE” replace the words “HAND PAINTED”.
- The clipper mark: “STOKE ON TRENT” replaces the words “HANLEY”. Pieces bearing this mark are very unlikely to have been produced by Susie Cooper.
Susie Cooper forms
The Curlew form was first introduced during the thirties. At the time of release, its exaggerated, bold lines were considered radical. It is now thought to be very much of its time.
More traditional than the Curlew, the falcon was introduced after the Curlew. It is a pared down version of its predecessor: long lines have been shortened slightly and dramatic angles, smoothed.
The Kestrel design is arguably the best known and most collectible Susie Cooper form. Introduced in 1932, its sweeping finial and strong, jutting spout demonstrate Cooper’s art deco influences. The shape was retired in the mid-sixties.
The Rex spout is high and the handle at a right-angle to the filial.
Spiral sets were produced in limited numbers from 1938.
A very distinct shape by Wood & Sons, most often bearing the Cromer pattern.
A Susie Cooper Studio art pottery vase sold for $150 at Skinner in April 2005.
A Susie Cooper incised, 1929 flared bowl sold for £130 at Bonhams London in January 2004.
A Grays pottery Paris jug by Susie Cooper sold for £220 at Bonhams Ipswich in January 2004.
Two Susie Cooper chargers sold for $20 at Treadway Gallery in January 2008.
A Susie Cooper kestrel coffeepot, cream jug, sugar bowl, cup and saucer sold for £50 at Eastbourne Auction Rooms in October 2005.
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